Pollin's generosity lives on in housing

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Abe Pollin was days away from breaking ground on an affordable-housing development in Northeast Washington, and the forecast was shaping up perfectly: Rain was on the way -- which meant there would probably be a gloppy carpet of mud at the ceremony. "And one thing he always talked about as a builder was how much he loved to be in the mud," said Pollin's son, Robert.

Didn't matter that the Washington Wizards owner who'd made a mint in real estate was using a wheelchair, his 85-year-old body ravaged by a rare neurological disease. Bring a ramp, put down some planks, do whatever it takes; he had to be in the muck at the site of the mixed-income, nonprofit apartment and townhouse community he was building with a familiar philanthropic flourish.

But Pollin died Nov. 24 of corticobasal degeneration, before ground could be broken on the Linda Joy and Kenneth Jay Pollin Memorial Community Development, on which he was spending millions while expecting no financial reward.

The timing was heartbreaking, Robert Pollin said, given how giddy his father was about building the development several miles north of his first big push into residential philanthropy, a 1960s apartment complex that was also named for his daughter, Linda Pollin.

"The night before my father died, it was the main thing we talked about," Robert Pollin said of the new development, a partnership with Enterprise Homes of Columbia. The project is named for two of Abe and Irene Pollin's children who died too young -- Kenneth as an infant, Linda as a teenager, both of congenital heart disease. "He talked about how excited he was about the groundbreaking and how fantastic it was going to be. It's one of the tragedies of him having to go when he did, that he won't be there for it."

The ceremony -- speeches, shovels and perhaps some tears -- will take place Tuesday morning at Hayes Street and Anacostia Avenue NE, hard by Anacostia Park and across from the Cesar Chavez charter school. Initially planned for last week, the groundbreaking was rescheduled to coincide with Tuesday night's public memorial for Pollin at his best-known building, Verizon Center.

Direct connection

The connection between those two Pollin projects turns out to be direct: Building the arena with his own money sparked a revival of a decaying swath of downtown Washington, but the arena also drove property values in the neighborhood to dizzying heights, and Pollin then felt obliged to provide affordable housing somewhere in the area for ordinary people who were suddenly priced out.

That devotion to engineering social change was nothing new for Pollin. When it was built in Southeast 45 years ago, the original Linda Pollin Memorial Housing complex "gave black people a new way to live," said Cardell Shelton, a longtime Ward 8 activist who worked as a brick mason on what many people still call "the Linda." Shelton lived near the maze of apartments and recalls the complex as "high-end living for people at the lower end. The people who had that address at that time -- oh, man, you were about somebody! Living there was a big step up from the other apartments and projects in the black community."

In 1964, Pollin, despondent over the death of his daughter a year earlier, sought catharsis through beneficence. Backed by a HUD mortgage guarantee, he constructed 332 units spread over 20 buildings in the 800 block of Bellevue Street SE, principally for working-class black families.

Apartments at the Linda were roomy, some larger than 1,000 square feet and most with three or four bedrooms. Rents were cheap -- about $60 per month, which turned out to be too low to sustain maintenance of the complex. (Rent increases led to tenant complaints, prompting the U.S. comptroller general to investigate in 1971.) There was no shortage of amenities, either, including day care and a swimming pool.

"There was very little nice, affordable rental housing available for blacks in D.C.," said Clarence Edwards, who moved into the Linda in 1966. "When Linda Pollin became available, I immediately seized the opportunity to move there."

Edwards was 26, an officer for the U.S. Park Police with a young family that had been living in a small apartment in Southeast. Pollin's new complex, he said, "was a place where I could have enough space for my children and where I'd feel safe." (Didn't hurt that there were three other members of the Park Police living there.) The residents, Edwards said, were "basically people with middle-class values who were accumulating savings so that they could buy homes."

Once a month, Edwards said, "we had a dance in the rec center with the other people who lived there. The kids knew each other and clung together. And it was sort of self-contained; there was babysitting right in the development."

Edwards moved out of the Linda in 1970 when he purchased a home in Prince George's County. Twenty years later, he was sworn in as Montgomery County's first black police chief.

Trouble at the Linda

As noble as Abe Pollin's intentions might have been for the Linda, tenant turnover and unending management problems stripped the project of its luster. The area around the apartments deteriorated when people who could leave moved to other neighborhoods as Washington's housing market opened to African Americans.

Then came crack cocaine and chaos: The Linda Pollin apartments turned into a hub of drug activity, with the attendant violence. A 1991 Washington Post story called the block where the Linda sat "the most lethal block in the city," with six homicides during a five-month period. That year, the development's name was changed to Ridgecrest Heights.

Pollin had sold the project long before. The new owner, A. Bruce Rozet, was denounced as a slumlord by HUD, which foreclosed on the property. The Linda, which had fallen into disrepair, was razed in 1997 to make way for the Walter E. Washington Estates, a townhouse community.

"What happened to the Linda Pollin was no fault of Abe's," said H.R. Crawford, the former D.C. Council member who developed Washington Estates with a $24.5 million federal grant. "He went the distance and expected no income from the Linda Pollin. He did it just to give back. And it was a hell of a nice place; people were in line to move in. But the neighborhood changed and the tenancy changed, and it fell into disrepair."

Said Robert Pollin: "The project faced a lot of difficulties, but it was a great source of pride for my father. If it failed over time, it doesn't mean that the notion of providing affordable housing is condemned for all times. It just means you have to try to do better."

And so, all these years later, here comes the sequel. The Linda Joy and Kenneth Jay Pollin complex, for which Pollin put up about $3 million of the $35 million cost, will include 83 three-bedroom townhouses for sale and 42 public housing rental apartments and townhouses. "Most people will own their own homes, which will be a stabilizer," Robert Pollin said.

And there will be more attention to management this time. "Maybe my father needed to oversee the management more," Robert Pollin said of the first Linda Pollin project. "Maybe he had a too naively positive view of how things go if you just give people an opportunity. He needed to correct some mistakes. But obviously, he wasn't shying away from doing it again. This was something he desperately wanted to do."

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