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Line Forms And Sleeps Here to Live Near Stadium

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Earlier this month, Sharon Vasquez's fiance drove by the development near the new Washington Nationals ballpark where they want to buy a house, and he saw a little red tent. He called Vasquez, and she said, "Okay, I'll get your stuff."

For the past week and a half, they've been camped out in Southeast Washington, on a strip of grass surrounded by parking lots and rubble, with four other families in line for townhouses. Sometime in July, they've been told, five more homes from the yet-to-be-built development will become available.

Sometime in July.

So in the meantime, a surreal little neighborhood has sprung up in the unlikeliest of places, part month-long camp-out, part block party. They play dominoes, talk, listen to music. And they all believe in what this neighborhood is about to become.

Even when people walking by tell them they're crazy. The real estate market is soft, right? And these houses aren't going to be given away; they start in the high $500,000s, and some will cost upward of $700,000. Why can't they just sign a piece of paper to get on a list? Is it some kind of marketing ploy? Aren't they worried about crime, sleeping out in the open like that? Rats?

They don't have to camp out, said Brian Jackson, vice president of EYA, which is developing the property. But the deal is, it's first-come, first-served. The company doesn't want to sell too many too far ahead of construction. So the campers are in line to make a deposit and lock in a place, expecting prices at the development, Capitol Quarter, to continue to go up.

Jackson said the campers are on public land, meaning EYA can't shoo them away.

This is where Vasquez and Walter Winston want to live after they're married: near the Metro, not far from the Capitol, in a new three-story home with a garage in an area about to be transformed.

So they put an air mattress in a big green tent, snaked an electric line to the EYA sales office trailer and plugged in a fan.

At first it was weird, Vasquez said. Really weird. They were camping out in the middle of the city.

Not long ago this land, just south of the Southeast Freeway overpass, a few blocks north of the Anacostia River, was public housing. Anthony Seabrooks grew up in Southeast and remembers this as a place you didn't come to if you didn't know people here.

Now it's a patchwork of desolate lots and busy, rumbling construction sites. To the west, cranes swing pieces of metal over the vertebrae of stands rising at the baseball stadium. Across Fourth Street to the east, the view is a stretch of tall weeds rimmed by a wire fence. Here and there are bright banners: Coming soon. Parks, office buildings, shops.

And more than 300 houses, the development divided roughly in thirds, with some low-income housing, some middle-tier units and about 120 market-rate houses.

Vasquez, 28, works for the Environmental Protection Agency; Winston is an air-traffic controller. Several other campers, including a military officer, asked not to be named.

Friends and family hold places in line for the campers who have to go to work. Some have even hired people such as Seabrooks to hold their spots in line, for $16 an hour.

Vasquez admits to some creepy moments late at night. No one likes the walk to the portable bathroom. One woman sleeps in her locked Escalade.

But the police keep a close watch on the area, several campers said.

Vasquez missed the last episode of the Sopranos. They spent her birthday in a parking lot. "With strangers," she said.

But now they feel more like neighbors. They order pizzas together. They play tick-tack-toe. Someone put up a volleyball net. During the NBA finals, they crowded around a tiny TV.

Campers from past months stop by, friends visit. Yesterday, a professional jazz harmonica player from France and a publicist sat in lawn chairs talking with Vasquez and Seabrooks, a former tow-truck driver.

He likes the scene. "It's great," he said, eating grapes in the shade. "Any place can be good if you make it. If you get good people, you're going to have a good time."

Some said it's getting worse as the days go by and they feel more trapped and sweaty and sick of the whole thing.

They've got weeks to go.

But it was Saturday, and that's always cookout night down at Fourth and L SE. "When we're married," Vasquez said, "we'll look back and say, 'That was fun that we did that!' "

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