Carolyn Atcherson worked 16-hour shifts so she could afford one. Alfrie Kelley and his wife looked and saved for more than a year before they found one tailored to both their bank account and their taste. Marlene Hines knew she could barely afford it, but was determined to own one.
What all these people were determined to have was a house of their own -- even though most experts say have been priced out of the Washington real estate market. They are among a small number of District residents who recently exchanged their rent receipts for mortgage notes on homes priced under $50,000 at a time when the average sale price of a city home hovers at $100,000.
"Owning a home is becoming a myth because the prices are ridiculous," says Kelley, a 26-year-old warehouse foreman for the Smithsonian Institution, who with his wife, Monica, a 22-year-old cleaning woman for Blake Construction, moved out of their one-bedroom apartment last month and into their first home, a $49,000 two-bedroom brick row house at 4249 Gault Pl. NE. " We were just fortunate to be one of the few in D.C. to find something uder $50,000."
Fortunate indeed. Last year, 46,000 properties changed hands in the District, but of these only 500 sold for less than $50,000 -- about one percent. Yet that is the price of houses more than three fourths of the city households can afford, since they earn less than $30,000 a year, the income generally considered necessary for a $50,000 home. With conventional mortage financing and 20 percent down, that home would cost $577 a month.
The Kelleys and people like them are the other side of Washington -- a city with a real estate market inflated by the incomes of GS4s and the salaries of highly paid professionals. But in a world no longer conducive to first-time home buyers, some people are still struggling, as Alfire Kelley says, to take their family's first step toward the American dream.
About 90 percent of those in Washington households earning less than $25,000 a year simply rent, unable to take advantage of the considerable tax breaks given to those who can afford to buy a home. But some -- for the same mix of reasons that people with greater incomes buy $200,000 two-bedroom homes in Georgetown or $100,000 two-bedroom condominiums in Adams-Morgan -- manage to buy.
"It's the American dream to own your house," szys Alfrie Kelley. This has been one of my biggest dreams -- to own my own house."
Dreams aside, the Kelleys also knew that the tax deductions from their new mortgage payments would cut their federal income taxes. They were tired of a landlord who took three months to replace a kitchen ceiling that had fallen to the floor and fearful that the march of condiminium conversion would leave them without a decent apartment at a reasonable rent.
Without buying, the Kelleys believed, high rental costs eventually would push them to the suburbs, where they would have to commute long hours to their jobs in Washington. They also knew that the thousands of dollars a year they paid in rent returned them nothing -- no property, no security in old age, no borrowing power if they should need money to send their children to college.
But beyond all of these pragmatic reasons, Alfrie and Monica Kelley, who together earn less than $20,000 a year, burned to own a home of their own, out of a sense of pride, accomplishment and a desire to own a piece of ground.
"On my job, people look down their nose at me because of the kind of work I do," says Monica Kelley. "But I feel just great because I can tell them, 'I'm a homeowner.'"
"It takes planning, savings and two people," adds her husband, as he eases into the couple's only living room chair. "This is an accomplishment. "I've struggled to get this far, but it's a start. We're not satisfied. It's just a stepping stone."
The Kelleys' two-story brick row home sits on the crest of a hillside on a quiet, clean street in Marshall Heights, where long-time homeowners maintain their 40-year-old brick homes. Blocks like these found throughout neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, have become practically the last bastion of the $50,000 home that is decent and liveable.
The area has a reputation for poor schools, few stores, poor public transportation, undistinguished housing and high crime rates, although the areas east of the river have in fact a lower incidence of reported crime than some more fashionable areas west of Rock Creek Park.
The Kelleys' small two-bedroom house came with wall-to-wall carpeting, a new paint job inside and a window air-conditioner, but no frills. "It's just the two of us," says Mrs. Kelley, "and we don't need anything to get lost in."
Only nine of the city's 56 assessment neighborhoods averged home sales of $50,000 or below last year, and seven were east of the river: Deanwood, Fort Dupont, Lily Ponds, Marshall Heights, Anacostia, Barry Farms and Randle Heights. Of the nine neighborhoods only tow are west of the river -- Trinidad and Brentwood.
Trinidad is where the Atchersons found their first home.
"I just decided it was time to buy a home, but I was fearful we wouldn't find anything anywhere because we had no money," said Mrs. Atcherson, 41, as she relaxed in her home at 1186 Morse St. NE, where for the first time she has a dining room that is separate from the kitchen, an upstairs and downstairs, a back and front entrance in and out of her house and a front porch.
She worked double shifts as a practical nurse at the Washington Hospital Center. Her husband, a landscaper, took on extra work as a painter to save the money for their house's down payment. They cut their grocery bill in half by not buying "junk food." They planted a garden to ease their food bill.
For six months, the Atchersons put the money aside and in January they made a $3,000 down payment on their three-bedroom brick rowhouse which they found on the fringe of Trinidad, a quiet 60-year-old neighborhod tucked away on the north of Capitol Hill.
The Atchersons replaced window panes, plastered cracks and holes and painted the interior. The house needed work, of course, but it also came with a paneled entrance hall and a kitchen with a new sink, cabinets, countertop and bright yellow floor tile.
"It's something to be proud of," says Thomas Atcherson, 47, who had lived in an apartment since he left his home in Spartanburg, S.C., 31 years ago. "I never had anything. I just wanted something to say, 'It's mine.'"
Marlene Hines, 44, wanted a home of her own for many of the same reasons the Kelleys and Atchersosn wanted a home. A single parent of two, earning less than $20,000 a year as a secretary with the General Services Administration, she saved for three years and looked for five months for a house she could afford.
"I was just determined I was tired of living in an apartment," she says. "You are just throwing your money away.It's hard to find a decent affordable house in the lower income range so I thought I was extremely lucky."
In January, Hines found a three-story brick rowhouse at 5038 Benning Rd. SE, a few doors up from the home of former D.C. City Council member Willie Hardy in a community almost evenly split between apartments and owner-occupied homes. It, too, is a modest home.
What did she sacrifice to buy it? "In my salary range you sacrifice everything -- your car, clothes, things for your children. It's day-to-day life." She drives a 15-year-old car, maked most of her clothes and those of her two daughters. Like Mrs. Atcherson, she plants a garden to save on her grocery bills.
For the Atchersons, Mrs. Hines and the Kelleys, a house is worth all these sacrifices.
"It's part of the roots thing," explains Alfrie Kelley. "We have something to leave our children. It's a matter of thinking for the future. You hav e to go through your life and accomplish something. And not be just a blah."