High Hopes, and Higher Home Prices, in Anacostia
Development Is Part Of Plan to Diversify, Mend Worn D.C. Area

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

The newest government-supported housing in the District is a landscaped development of four-bedroom homes with Palladian windows, cathedral ceilings, hardwood floors and prices that reach $584,000.

The District gave the builders of the Homes at Woodmont about $1 million toward the $14 million project on Good Hope Road SE because it wants to attract professionals and their money to the most economically distressed section of the city.

The project inverts the traditional notion of housing subsidies because it isn't aimed at low-income buyers.

"We're trying to create diversity in the southeast quadrant of the city, to break up pockets of poverty," said Leo Clarke, special projects coordinator at the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which gave the developers a grant toward the cost of preparing the land for construction. "We're trying to encourage investment in an otherwise blighted area."

The city is trying to use tax dollars, housing policy and, in one instance, legal power to inject middle-class elements into the long-distressed area, which is east of the Anacostia River at the northern tip of Ward 8 and has the city's largest concentration of public housing and the lowest median income.

Earlier this year, in a controversial move, the city used eminent domain to seize a worn shopping center less than a mile from the Homes at Woodmont. Over the protests of storekeepers, District officials are trying to replace the liquor stores and dollar stores in the Skyland shopping center with higher-end shops and restaurants.

City officials hope the Homes at Woodmont will help the neighborhood by raising property values, encouraging landowners to rehabilitate shabby buildings and adding residents with money to spend at higher-end shops.

"We already have an overabundance of low-income and affordable housing," said Albert R. Hopkins, executive director of the Anacostia Community Development Corp. "What we need is market rate."

Attracting higher incomes to the neighborhood is key to more shops and better services, Hopkins said. "Local and national retailers, they look at demographics and income levels," he said.

Along the streets surrounding the Homes at Woodmont, 42 percent of families live below the poverty line; the median income was $19,950 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the homes are modest brick rowhouses or apartment buildings with bars on the windows. Many date to the 1960s and look worn.

"Southeast Washington needs a whole lifestyle change," said L. Yvonne Moore, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives across Good Hope Road from the new houses. "It's time that people see Southeast is not just a dumping ground for social services and apartments with Section 8" public housing subsidies, said Moore, a retired teacher. "We have to have more choices. My kids are educated professionals. Where does my son live? In Arlington, Va. And my daughter lives in Southwest, in a condo."

Moore lives in Marbury Plaza, an apartment complex built in the 1970s for upscale black professionals. Much like the Homes at Woodmont, Marbury Plaza was intended to attract people with disposable income. But the complex began to deteriorate in the 1980s, and now residents in the soot-stained building complain of repair and security problems.

The Woodmont development lies between two projects that have received heavy public investment: Good Hope Marketplace, a shopping center that opened in 1997, and Anacostia Gateway, an office and retail complex under construction in the heart of Historic Anacostia.

"Once that Anacostia Gateway opens, this whole area is going to take off," said A. Gene Edgecombe of VMS LLC, one of the builders of the Homes at Woodmont. He pointed to the location -- less than 10 minutes by car to L'Enfant Plaza, downtown or Capitol Hill -- as a major selling point.

The new houses sprang from negotiations between the community and a developer, which used $10.4 million in city funds to build a 176-unit apartment building for low-income renters in 2002. Neighbors initially objected, saying the area was saturated with apartments. "The neighbors wanted stable, long-term homeowners," said Sarah Davidson, vice president of KSI, which built the apartments.

To appease the community, KSI pledged to build single-family homes on several adjacent wooded acres. Then it sold the land to IDS/VMS to build the houses.

Without the city's financial help, IDS President Andy Botticello said, the single-family houses wouldn't have been feasible because the land needed expensive correction of soil problems. The soil issues delayed construction, increasing costs, he said.

The Woodmont project is under construction; the first five homes should be ready for occupancy next month, Botticello said.

But the development's contours and feel are already apparent. It has a distinctly suburban look, more Annandale than Anacostia. The homes are on smaller lots than in the suburbs, but that's the main difference.

The houses have brick fronts, peaked roofs and many amenities -- including whirlpool soaking tubs and attached garages. The development backs onto federal parkland, so the houses face woods instead of city streets. "Our construction guys keep running into deer," Edgecombe said.

As a condition of the city's grant, the developers agreed to discount the first 13 of the 35 houses by about $100,000 under market value. But there were no income restrictions on buyers. Anybody could purchase the discounted housing; they just had to be fast.

With no advertising and not even a "For Sale" sign on the property, the developers got more than 1,000 e-mails from would-be buyers through their Web site and sold the houses in waves starting in 2002. That reassured Riggs Bank, the original lender, that a market exists for half-million-dollar homes in Anacostia, Botticello said.

The developers expect to put the remaining 17 lots on the market next month, with house prices ranging from $489,000 to $584,000. There are no income restriction on these, either.

Most buyers are moving up from townhouses, condominiums or rental apartments. Many have a connection to Southeast. "I had a townhouse in Prince George's County, and I wanted to come home to D.C.," said Karen Beddoe, a 35-year-old Washington native whose parents live in Ward 8. "You never realize how much a place has to offer until you leave it."

Beddoe, an accountant with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stumbled across the Homes at Woodmont on the Internet. "I couldn't let that go by," said Beddoe, a single mother of two. "I jumped at the opportunity. I was just so lucky."

She signed a $360,000 contract for a four-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath house. The same money would buy a one-bedroom condominium about one-third the size of that 3,300-square-foot home in one of the city's affluent neighborhoods.

"I pass my new house every day on the way to work," said Beddoe, who has waited for the home through years of construction. "Some days, I slow down and say, 'That's mine! That's mine!' "

One recent day, Beddoe toured her unfinished house with Edgecombe and Botticello. The hardwood floors, carpeting and appliances had yet to be installed, and the electricity wasn't connected. But to Beddoe, it resembled a page from Better Homes and Gardens. "I love it!" she cooed, surveying the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. "This is Karen's closet! I've got plans!"

Gome Legesse, another buyer, said her family tried to sway her against buying a house in Anacostia. "They didn't want me to go there. They said it wasn't secure," said Legesse, a 40-year-old computer technician for the District government who rents an apartment at Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street NW. "I told them not to worry about it, that a lot was developing around the area."

Legesse has agreed to pay about $302,000. "I couldn't beat the price," she said. "It is my dream to live in a single-family house."

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