With rent strike settled, raft of changes in store for Marbury Plaza in Anacostia

A two-year rent strike led by young professionals ended in August 2010 with an agreement by the apartment complex's owners to pay $5 million for repairs.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010

The garden-style apartments, and a pair of red-brick high-rises towering over the Anacostia River, had once been a symbol of black middle-class progress east of the river.

But Lee Edwards was fed up almost as soon as he moved into Marbury Plaza in 2001. His car, parked in the garage, was burglarized. Then, he noticed mold in his bedroom. The air conditioner leaked and sputtered. Work tickets to get problems fixed were lost.

When a new dishwasher flooded the same day it was installed in 2005, creating a shallow pool in his living room, he knew it was time to take action.

"I had had it, " Edwards said. "It was so basic: Install the dishwasher right. . . . When I was growing up, I heard nothing but great stories about Marbury Plaza -- how it was the place to be. All of that really opened my eyes."

Residents considered a plan to buy the 672-unit complex, researching city law, talking to developers and even holding cookouts and fish fries to raise money. The effort stalled.

But two years ago, led by about a dozen young professionals, a group of residents started a rent strike that ended last month with an agreement by the complex's owners to pay $5 million for repairs. For the first time in 15 years, a raft of changes is in store for the once-grand complex.

The air-conditioning and heating units will be fixed. Security cameras and a building-entry system will be installed, and management will ensure that the complex complies with federal disability requirements.

"We decided that we had to do something about this," said Clarissa T. Edwards, who used to visit Marbury when she was a child in the 1970s. Like her husband, she was stunned that the complex had fallen on such hard times. "Even though the bottom fell out of the housing market and the funders backed out, it got us started."

What's happening at Marbury is representative of the way newer residents are demanding change east of the Anacostia, in communities including Congress Heights, Hillcrest and Fairfax Village.

River East Emerging Leaders, a social leadership group of people mostly in their 30s and 40s, has encouraged its members to run for advisory neighborhood commission posts, which many of its members have done. A handful of community bloggers regularly chide city leaders about quality-of-life issues. One of the area's more outspoken new voices, Nikki Peele, began an initiative this month called "Eat Shop Live Anacostia," that touts Anacostia's emerging businesses and established art galleries, with an eye toward re-branding the image of the sometimes-troubled neighborhood.

Peele, 33, writes the Congress Heights on the Rise blog, which highlights civic issues and takes local leaders to task.

"There is a lot of new energy out here, there's no question," she said.

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