Nelda Perkins wants her house back.
District housing officials decided six years ago that they wanted to demolish the S Street NW rowhouse to make way for a park, so they bought it and sold Perkins a new house.
But now they have changed their mind about the park and want to sell the house to someone else. But Nelda Perkins wants it back.
"The house is special to me," said Perkins, of the house at 1316 S St. NW where she continues to live. "I feel very sentimental toward the house."
The S Street rowhouse has become the focal point of a battle being waged in D.C. Superior Court between Perkins and the city housing department. Both sides contend the other is trying to rip them off.
The Perkins case illustrates what can happen when city residents become unhappy with the course of urban renewal and try to strike out at the bureaucracy that set that course.
The house -- with rich walnut paneling, 14-foot-high ceilings and crown molding -- sits next to several vacant homes owned by the city. The houses, which are just off the 14th Street NW corridor, are slated to be restored by the city.
Perkins argued that the city never should have taken her house in the first place through its powers of eminent domain because it wouldn't follow through with its plans. The city bought it from her for $31,000 in 1976 and she now says that it ought to give her the first right to buy it back at a reasonable price.
But the city contends she has no right to repurchase the house since the city sold her another house at 1316 Place Street, NW at a discount price. Housing officials sent Perkins a letter in October saying they would work with her if she wanted to buy the S Street house again -- but only if she followed certain conditions.
She must pay the city an estimated $60,000 for the S Street house, cancel the sale of the second house she was sold on Riggs Place, and pay about $7,000 the city says she owes for living rent-free in the S Street home for several years after the city bought it, the letter said.
That has led to charges by Shaw area community activists and Perkins' lawyer, former D.C. Superior Court Judge Harry Toussaint Alexander, that the city is playing the role of speculator.
"They (the city) have made no improvement but they're offering it back at twice the price," said Charles Richardson, chairman of the Shaw Project Area Committee, an advisory body to the city housing department on urban renewal matters.
Ironically, ShawPac is part of a housing coalition tentatively selected by the city to buy the Perkins house as part of a new program that is allowing community groups to buy and rehabilitate city-owned houses. The coalition has tentatively been chosen to fix up 1318, 1320, 1322, and 1324 S Streets, NW, 1316 S Street included if it is available.
City officials, however, contend that Perkins is the villain. "She has been provided with another house at a lower price than market value," said assistant corporation counsel Jeffry Kappstatter. "She wants it all."
Deputy housing director James Clay is scheduled to testify next week as the final witness in the case at D.C. Superior Court. He declined to comment on the case while it is before the courts, telling a reporter, "Talk to me (after testifying) and you'll see who's ripping off whom."
Perkins bought 1316 S St. NW for $13,500 in 1971, according to a real estate directory of sales information. In January 1974, the Redevelopment Land agency, a city agency that acquires land for redevelopment, notified her that it planned to acquire her home and others in the block, demolish them and use the area as a park.
Unlike her neighbors, Perkins opposed the acquisition of her house through the courts. Instead of the $19,000 the city wanted to pay her for her home, she ended up with $31,000. She used part of that money to buy 1316 Riggs Pl. NW, just behind her S Street home, from a local nonprofit development corporation for $37,000.
But the plans for Perkins' S Street home got caught between shifts in public policy. Years ago, local and federal governments pursued community improvement by acquiring property, tearing down the dilapidated buildings sitting on it, and replacing them with new structures.
But critics charged that such urban renewal programs were often designed for "people removal," and needlessly uprooted families from familiar neighborhoods without giving them a chance to return.
In recent years, rehabilitation and stabilization of neighborhoods has become the government's goal, with displacement to be avoided whenever possible.
Earlier this year, the S Street home and others on the block became part of a rehabilitation program. Alexander, Perkins' lawyer, contends her current court fight is "unprecedented" and that she shouldn't have to give up her Riggs Place house nor pay the city $60,000 for her S Street home.
Through its programs, the city sells houses -- more elaborate houses -- at low prices to people who often, unlike Perkins, are not even community residents, he pointed out.
His client never lived in her Riggs Place house because it is "unhabitable," Alexander said. The president of the D.C. Development Corp., which sold Perkins the home, could not be reached for comment. A city housing official declined to comment on the Riggs Place house.