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Alley Homes Fight for Respect -- and Trash Pickup

Envisioning high-beamed ceilings and polished pine floors, David Bernhardt turned a brick building used by heroin addicts into a cozy home for his family. He still has to sometimes shoo transients out of the alley.
Envisioning high-beamed ceilings and polished pine floors, David Bernhardt turned a brick building used by heroin addicts into a cozy home for his family. He still has to sometimes shoo transients out of the alley. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

They were once Washington's slums -- crude buildings tucked into alleys across the city where the poor lived in such squalor that Eleanor Roosevelt railed against them and Congress made them illegal.

Generations later, those tenements have central air conditioning, stainless steel appliances, assessed values as high as $500,000 and owners who say alley living is a creative solution to the housing crunch in the nation's capital.

"We're trying to create a safe, healthy, nurturing environment," said David Bernhardt, 34, a carpenter-turned-developer who transformed a derelict brick building in an alley behind H Street NE into a two-story home for himself and his two children.

The 3,000-square-foot building between Seventh and Eighth streets was a shooting gallery for heroin addicts before Bernhardt bought it in June for $243,000 and spent $75,000 to revamp it into a funky three-bedroom space with a wood-burning stove, polished pine floors with radiant heat and an aviary.

He still has to shoo away the people who want to urinate in his alley, but that is happening with less frequency. "There was a woman who was in the alley, and she asked me which way I was going," said Bernhardt, who hoses down the alley each day. "I said: 'I'm not going. I'm here.' And she said she was just looking for a little privacy. I said, 'Well, not here. This is my home.' "

In a transforming city, one of the more ironic changes has been the elevation of the humble alleyway abode. As the real estate market has heated up in Washington over the past several years, scores of new owners have bought the vacant or derelict eyesores and rehabilitated them.

"The alleys are the place to go," said Steven Cummings, who is moving his photography studio to an alley building next to Bernhardt's. "Everything is so high now. You can really create a nice place in an alley. All it takes is vision -- and nerve."

It is unclear how many people live in alley structures, said Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Most of those left after the city demolished thousands of them are in neighborhoods around Logan and Dupont circles, Capitol Hill and Georgetown.

Critics say the laws have not kept pace with the changes. Zoning laws prohibit anyone from living in an alley that is less than 30 feet wide, although there are exceptions, Robinson said.

Kyle Kreutzberg, a 47-year-old filmmaker, took an abandoned carriage house in an alley in LeDroit Park and turned it from blight to delight.

He cleared out a lot overflowing with garbage and created a patio lush with greenery, restored the brick and installed iron scrollwork, new gutters and lamps, and flower boxes. He created living space inside, but the city will permit it to be used only as artists' studios. He has been waiting five months for a certificate of occupancy, he said.

"People have been living here forever, using it for drugs and prostitution, and the city had nothing to say," Kreutzberg said. "But as soon as a taxpayer wants to put some money into it, to make an investment, there are all sorts of problems and hurdles. The bureaucracy is blind to the very obvious -- that this is about restoring humanity to the back alleys. It's about magic in the heart of the community."


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