D.C. housing officials are confidently predicting that they will launch the city's long-awaited homesteading program by summer's end, a move that is expected to give scores of low-income people the opportunity to become homeowners.
But some housing advisers and legal experts are warning that vaguely defined rules could hamper the program.
The law creating the program has been on the books for more than a year, but the rules and regulations intended to govern the program have been slow to follow. During a public hearing last week, William N. Hobbs, the acting administrator of the District's Neighborhood Improvement Administration, assured D.C. Council members that the program is about to begin.
Under the newly drawn guidelines, low- and moderate-income applicants will be able to purchase tax-delinquent properties for $250 each and receive a $10,000 loan to bring the house up to city housing standards.
"We've had literally hundreds and hundreds of calls and letters" about the program, said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who heads the council's committee on housing and economic development.
Tenants' activists have lobbied long and hard for the program, arguing that the District government owns many vacant buildings acquired through tax sales that could be put to better use as shelter for people who could benefit from home ownership.
But Rosanna Mason, a staff attorney for University Legal Services, a nonprofit housing legal service, said that the proposed regulations "fall far short of the intended mark and do little to resolve the underlying problems which it sought to correct."
The real costs of the program, the legal services group maintains, are hidden from potential participants, including possible added costs for architects' reports, loan application fees and settlement costs.
But supporters of the measure as drafted said that other programs operating within District government will be able to aid applicants who need help with added costs and that the measure as it stands will provide unique opportunities for motivated working-class individuals.
Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who sponsored the measure, said he is relieved that his proposal is about to become a reality.
"You've got to be long suffering to be a bureaucrat," Smith said. "If you live long enough, it will come to pass."
As presented to the council, tax delinquent properties would be designated for homesteading by the city finance department and then advertised for applicants who must be at least 18 years old, D.C. residents and first-time homebuyers. Ultimately, the homebuyers would be chosen at random from eligible applicants.
Homesteaders would then be expected to seek private financing for rehabilitation of the property and be prepared to live in it for at least five years after purchase.
"It covers enough of the bases so that we can go forward," said Larry Weston of the Washington Planning and Housing Association. "We would rather put it in place, and then see what the deficiencies are, than wait."
Jarvis conceded that some kinks remain to be worked out of the regulations that are now awaiting committee action. "We don't want to offer people a house for $250 and then have them shell out another $5,000 for closing costs," she said.
But the framework of the homesteading plan is in place, Jarvis added, still providing an "exciting opportunity" for people who have been "waiting and waiting" for a chance to own a home in the District.
If all goes as planned and the slow-moving program advertises its first houses in August, Smith said, "I'll be there to dance a jig."