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Surge of New-Home Building Across Anacostia River

_____ Editor's Note _____

Early Look offers a sneak peek at a story in tomorrow’s Post. Real Estate reports that hundreds of new houses are under construction in the long-neglected neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in the District, and hundreds more are planned. Buyers are snapping up stylish, suburban-style and affordable houses, raising hopes for a brighter future in the oft-forgotten part of the city. Also, a look at three Arlington neighborhoods that were sliced down the middle by I-66 but are still trying to remain cohesive civic units.

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By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2000; 12:00 PM

A whole new world is going up east of the Anacostia River, and Jacci Wright and her husband, Kevin, have made sure they're part of it.

Last summer, the Wrights were mulling over moving out of their 70-year-old house in Southeast Washington. But Jacci Wright really got motivated when she saw the attractive, suburban-style town house developments popping up along Mississippi Avenue, Wheeler Road and Barnaby Street SE.

"We had been thinking about moving, but we weren't really doing anything till we saw Oxon Creek," said Wright, 33, anadministrative assistant at a consulting firm in the District. "Once we saw it, we knew that's where we wanted to be."

The Townhomes at Oxon Creek, which will eventually include 210 houses, represent about half of the new for-sale units available or under construction east of the river, most of it in three large new developments in Ward 8. With another 2,000 estimated housing units in the pipeline, District officials believe that the part of the city that has been most neglected is on its way back.

The city and housing experts have been forecasting a burst of development in the area for two years, but the simultaneous offering of three sizable communities is giving substance to the predictions. Until now, the only new for-sale single-family housing for five decades has been scattered building by community groups and a development called Knox Hill Village, which started out several years ago.

Also turning the talk of turnaround into fact are the 2,500 apartment units east of the river that city consultants estimate are under renovation or proposed for upgrades. That's in addition to 7,000 apartments renovated since 1990.

Most encouraging, said officials and developers, is that the greatest percentage of current or projected new construction is in Ward 8, which had the largest share of publicly subsidized housing in the city and has paid the biggest price for the crime and drugs that followed. While violent crime and drug activity in Ward 8 still is staggering, it's down markedly, D.C. officials said.

A lot of people have left Southeast over the past 10 years, making it possible to clear the big pieces of land being redeveloped. But housing experts believe the deteriorated public and private housing spurred out-migration and that redevelopment is the only way to win people back. According to data compiled for the District, most of the buyers at the new communities are moving from rentals in the area, but a small percentage are moving in from Maryland.

Oxon Creek, where the Wrights bought a three-bedroom, 2˝-bath unit, sits on part of what was once a crime-ridden subsidized complex, the Villages of Parklands. William C. Smith & Co. in 1991 paid $8 million for the property at Mississippi Avenue and 21st Street SE and has invested about $60 million. The company demolished 400 apartments to make way for the town houses; it also refurbished 800 apartments, still operating under the old name.

The Wrights secured a 6.6 percent mortgage for the $145,000 town house through a lender working with the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which offers special rates for buyers in targeted areas of the city. They also got a $5,000 federal tax credit because Kevin Wright is a first-time D.C. home buyer, and a five-year city waiver of property taxes for lower-income families. (Jacci Wright had owned their previous house.) Those are just part of a long list of federal and local inducements to attract buyers to the District.

The family, including 10-year-old twins Kalvin and Kevin, moved into the house in November. "It's what we always wanted," Jacci Wright said. Though far Southeast "in the past was someplace you wouldn't want to go," the new housing could be the key to its revival, she said. Wright remembers growing up in a house on Stanton Road "when crime was nothing and kids were kids. And that's what I wish it would be again."

Air Force Sgt. Arman Jabbar and private security officer Kevin Whited both recently bought town houses in another stylish development that looks as if it could be in Gaithersburg or Rosslyn – Walter E. Washington Estates.

The development, named for the District's first mayor, replaced Ridgecrest, a garden apartment complex notorious for drugs and crime.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development gave former Ward 7 council member and federal housing official H.R. Crawford $24 million in 1996 to demolish the complex and develop the land in a joint private-public venture. Crawford built a gated community with 141 town houses and plans a swimming pool, tot lot, day-care center and office space.

"Town houses this size in Gaithersburg are $180,000," said Whited, who moved to the city from a rental unit in Hyattsville. "You can't find something this spacious anywhere for this price," which ranges from $105,000 to $135,000. Whited, 29 and single, has filled his 2,000-square-foot unit with a big-screen television, compact discs and other bachelor furnishings.

Jabbar said: "I had looked in Upper Marlboro, Largo and Mitchellville, but the deal and the price here sold me."

The Atlanta native said he knew about the area's bad reputation, but, "I was pretty impressed with the security here and with the future of the neighborhood."

Whited said the community is attracting "very positive people" – his neighbors include a D.C. police officer and a Justice Department employee. "We watch each other's back. And with the kind of positive effect we can have on the community, as mentors or examples, we can make a big difference."

That optimism is just what D.C. officials and developers want. To foster it, the city and federal governments are investing millions of dollars in tax abatements, first-time-buyer tax credits, below-market financing and special loans for District employees and teachers.

Those incentives are paying off, said Stuart Patz of RER Economic Consultants, who is helping local architect Sorg and Associates prepare a D.C. plan for redevelopment of the area.

"The biggest thing that has happened [to boost sales] is that the city has financing programs to help fairly moderate-income families buy a house," Patz said. "You can buy a new town house with a $30,000 income."

Because of the subsidies, "the houses are priced $20,000 to $30,000 cheaper than in [Prince George's County], and they're being sold to people who couldn't afford to buy in P.G.," Patz said.

Suman Sorg, the redevelopment plan project director, said Prince George's neighborhoods closest to the District also have declined and aren't offering the inducements the District does.

Sorg and others offer more reasons for the building spurt: reduced crime, nearby subway development, the strongest housing market in years and pent-up demand.

Sorg said the area's big attraction is its proximity to downtown Washington, by car or Metro. "The fact of the matter, for developers, is that there's no place else to go" in the city, Sorg said.

Vaughn Jones, 25, is among those who jumped when Oxon Creek came on the market. "It was in the ideal location," said the District youth counselor, who likes the proximity to the Southern Avenue Metro stop and to Green Elementary School. The family, including his wife, Jeanette, 4-year-old Osaze and 8-month-old Vaughn Jones II – moved into their house in November. Jones qualified for a $10,000 deferred grant toward closing costs for D.C. employees.

David Gilmore, court-appointed receiver for public housing in the District, said much of the credit should go to his agency's commitment since 1997 to close crime-plagued, barren public housing developments. The promise to relocate 1,000 families in public housing using vouchers and to shut down 1,400 units by the end of this year spurred private investment, he said.

Gilmore is particularly proud of Wheeler Creek, the third new development. The 22-acre town house and rental community is rising from the grave of the Valley Green-Skytower public housing development at Wheeler Road and Mississippi Avenue.

The housing authority secured a $25 million federal grant to demolish the property and attract private investment. It is building 134 town houses, 80 apartments and 100-unit senior citizen apartment complex, with partners Enterprise Social Investment Corp., A & R Development and the Wheeler Creek Community Development Corp. The project will mix subsidized and market-rate housing.

Town house models open at Wheeler Creek next Friday; 87 people already have put down $1,000 deposits. Among them is Pam Allen, 33, a single mother who got a burst of publicity a couple years ago when she wrote President Clinton and asked for a job so she could get off welfare.

Allen got that job, in the White House gifts office. She now works in the White House mail room and has saved enough for a down payment at Wheeler Creek. "I wanted my own house because paying rent doesn't get you anything," she said.

Gilmore counts Wheeler Creek as a linchpin in his plan to transform the far Southeast from a jumping-off place to Prince George's County into a gateway back to the city.

"Think of what we're doing as an archway to the city, with three pillars," he said. "The first pillar is Wheeler Creek. The middle pillar is Stanton/Frederick Douglass," a public housing complex at Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue, where 302 units will be demolished and as many as 650 units redeveloped. "And the third pillar is East Capitol Dwellings," another massive public housing development that Gilmore wants to turn into a mixed-income community.

When all three pieces are done, he said, "we will have a gateway that on the city side says to residents, 'You don't have to go' and on the other side says, 'Welcome home' to the people who left over the years."

According to many housing experts, the loss of population east of the Anacostia – about 10,000 people since 1980 – had to happen to open the door to the new development. And developer Crawford, for one, believes that the out-migration has had very positive results. "I always felt that the city had more than taken its share of welfare recipients and the homeless," Crawford said.

Sorg said her firm's research shows how much home buyers want to get away from anything resembling public housing. "The hottest market is single-family town houses, that's what everyone wants," Sorg said. "They equate apartment living with high density, and they equate that with low-income housing, or public housing."

While things look so promising that people might have to pinch themselves, at least one community developer offers a caution.

"The key to everyone's success is not to overbuild," said Michael Crescenzo, senior vice president of housing and economic development for the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, a builder of new housing for 10 years. "In the absence of the city being an attractive place for middle-income families with children, you're really relying heavily on the market of potential buyers who already live in the city."

These buyers, Crescenzo said, "have already discounted all of the problems, they're comfortable here, but when you're talking about building 2,000 units you need to be able to attract people from a broader market."

Those buyers, he said, "have to feel they're going to have access to decent schools, clean streets, safe streets and amenities."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company