Strolling in a light drizzle on a grassy slope in the Fort Dupont neighborhood yesterday, Phebbie Scott imagined a dream she never achieved but still wants to make possible for others: homeownership.
The dark side of the hot Washington real estate market is that Scott, who has a job and resides in public housing, and many others she knows living east of the Anacostia River are being priced out of the city.
"People don't want to run to Maryland and Virginia just to find a house you can afford," she said. "I want to keep that dream alive, for younger people to have the opportunity to buy their first home in this area."
Last night, Scott joined more than 450 members of the Washington Interfaith Network, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and housing and business leaders at St. Luke Church on East Capitol Street to celebrate a down payment on that dream. The network, known as WIN, announced a project to build 130 to 150 town houses on the gentle hill near Minnesota Avenue and Ridge Road SE.
"We want to build sustainable communities," Williams said. "The best way to do that is homeownership."
Cardinal James Hickey of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, one of several religious leaders present, told the packed church of his concern for the plight of the working poor. "One of the answers to helping change their situation is surely affordable housing," he said.
The three-bedroom homes will be affordable for families with incomes of $15,000 to about $60,000, with most reserved for households earning less than $45,000. The average mortgage will be $85,000; families will pay less or more, depending on their incomes.
"A working person making an honest living deserves to have their own home," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, co-chairman of WIN, who said the city housing market is tilting toward the more affluent. "They're talking about building a country club. . . . We're talking about building a new city for everybody."
The project marks the fulfillment of a political promise Williams (D) made to court the support of WIN's potent grass-roots movement when he was running for mayor. The network of 51 religious congregations representing 20,000 families does not endorse candidates, but individual members have been pleased to find Williams as both candidate and mayor hewing to their goals in housing, public safety and after-school programs.
During the campaign, Williams pledged $3 million in city money and free land for 150 houses. He also promised the city would help WIN build another 850 affordable houses over the next four years.
Rounding out the funding, the archdiocese, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the regional United Methodist Conference and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod have pledged $2.5 million in no-interest loans. Timothy Coughlin, president of Riggs National Corp., pledged $500,000 in low-cost financing and said Riggs would help raise $2.5 million from other financial institutions.
The 12-acre location is owned by the D.C. Housing Authority and is the former site of some buildings in the Fort Dupont Dwellings. Most were demolished four years ago, and the rest were taken down this year. Other parts of the Dwellings have been renovated for residents such as Scott.
"This is a perfect place for this," said David Gilmore, the court-appointed receiver for public housing in the city.
Although there is a waiting list for public housing, Gilmore said there was no money available to build rental units to replace the "unliveable" apartments that were demolished. The WIN proposal was attractive because it offered the chance of homeownership to families who are eligible for public housing.
Construction is to start next fall, with the first 50 families moving in a year later. The homes will be constructed by Enterprise Homes Inc., which is affiliated with the Enterprise Foundation, created by the late developer James Rouse for inner-city community development. WIN will earn a fee to cover staff time. The amount has not been negotiated, but it could be about $500 a house, said John More, a member of WIN and one of several key volunteers who worked on the project.
The so-called Nehemiah Homes fit WIN's philosophy that the city needs a critical mass of homes for purchase by the working poor, to build strong communities. Similar projects have been created by WIN's sister organizations across the country, including in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
The effort has been a long struggle. WIN first started working with then-Mayor Marion Barry to create Nehemiah Homes. An early proposal for the Fort Lincoln neighborhood fell apart when some residents decided the project was undesireable.
In Fort Dupont, WIN trod carefully, making sure Scott, president of the Fort Dupont Residents Council, and other residents favored the project. The residents council toured the Nehemiah Homes in Baltimore. "Their homes were beautiful," Scott said. "The residents were ecstatic over the units."
The council voted to support WIN. Residents will have a say in what the new homes look like and how they are designed.
People who live in the Fort Dupont Dwellings will be offered a chance to buy the houses, but Scott said she expects people from around the city to be drawn to her neighborhood, which boasts two nearby Metro stations, a supermarket and new restaurants opening. The energetic 57-year-old said she felt it was a little late in life for her to get involved in buying a home, but she said her son, who is a federal computer analyst, would qualify at the high end of the income spectrum. He rents an apartment in Northeast and may buy his first home in his old neighborhood.
CAPTION: Phebbie Scott shows Washington Interfaith Network leaders the site for new homes in the Fort Dupont neighborhood.