Can a small housing miracle developing in an East Brooklyn ghetto provide an answer to the housing crisis affecting Washington's low- and moderate-income residents? That was the question 37 Washingtonians sought to answer Tuesday in a day-long visit to the Nehemiah project.
The group, comprising governmental and community leaders, came away greatly impressed, not only by the $40 million development, but by the innovative initiative undertaken by the Brooklyn residents to improve their living conditions. At the same time, they were uncertain that District residents could manage a similar revitalization of their riot-scarred corridors and arid vacant lots.
The Nehemiah project, sponsored by 50 churches and parishes that formed a group called East Brooklyn Churches, has in three years built 500 brick two- and three-bedroom homes and sold them for $41,000 to $43,000 each to families with annual incomes of $20,000 to $40,000. By the time the project is completed, the group will have built 2,600 row houses, at a cost of several hundred million dollars, in two New York neighborhoods.
"Impressive, really impressive," said James Banks, longtime Washington housing expert, as he walked through the spacious living room and up the carpeted stairs of a new Nehemiah house. D.C. City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) looked pensively out a window where a green sodded lawn had replaced a garbage-strewn empty lot.
Prodded by the District's critical housing shortage for low- and moderate-income families, the Washington Urban League and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association sponsored the trip to this inner-city development. Aside from public officials and community leaders, Washingtonians visiting the project included representatives from the banking, construction and realty industries, ministers of two District churches and representatives from several community development organizations.
Over sandwiches in a modest church basement, they heard one of the founders of East Brooklyn Churches (EBC) discuss how this project was initiated solely by the community. Five years earlier, a group of interdenominational ministers invited the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing group, to train and organize them so that they could transform their devastated community into a healthy family neighborhood.
"You always think of ministers having big egos," said the Rev. Clarence Williams, pastor of Southern Baptist Church, "but we found we could work together, and with faith and the power of our people united, we could own our organization, our communities and ourselves."
I.D. Robbins, director of the project, had long insisted that good quality affordable housing could be built in riot devastated inner cities. According to Robbins, the ingredients for Nehemiah's success include: (1) Availability of cheap land to build a "critical mass" of 500 to 1,000 houses; (2) Creation of a revolving fund (EBC raised $8 million for construction); (3) Mortgage money made available to the home buyers at below-market interest rates and tax abatement; (4) New York City's contribution of $10,000 per house; (5) Highly qualified contractors and sophisticated management not motivated by greed.
"I'm satisfied," Robbins told the group, "that new housing could be delivered in cities like Washington for even less than the $43,000 per house we are charging in New York."
On the bus ride back, I couldn't help thinking about the housing situation for low- and moderate-income Washington families. Between 1970 and 1980, the District lost 1,400 housing units. More than 10,000 families are waiting for public housing, some for years, and the list is growing. Disgusted working people are leaving the city to seek affordable housing in other jurisdictions. Those residents who remain in the city often suffer the indignity of living in deteriorating housing because of lack of city enforcement of housing regulations and a sluggish bureaucracy that treats their neighborhoods with benign neglect.
With the District projecting it will need about 20,000 housing units just to meet the population growth within the next 15 years, the hopes for improved housing of many longtime residents are as barren as the riot-torn corridors. Seventeen years after the riots, success stories are rare on H Street NE and in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Washington has several large tracts of land east of the Anacostia on which new housing could be built. The city also has no shortage of churches capable of doing here what churches did in New York. Moreover, particularly at this time, the local banks -- or any banks doing business in the District of Columbia -- should be urged to deliver on their new promises to do more for District neighborhoods.
Clearly, a concerted effort by the nonprofit and private sector can make a difference in the housing situation of District residents. The question is whether our city's residents can be mobilized to take their housing fate into their own hands and force our politicians and bureaucrats to move in new directions.