Jackie Lashley-Ward's plan for this morning was to get out of bed at 4 a.m., resettle herself on the living room floor, flip on her gas fireplace, and watch the stars over Washington fade into day.
Ward has been doing this most mornings since she moved into her new home two weeks ago. Her view from high atop one of Anacostia's hills sweeps from the Jefferson Memorial clear back to the National Cathedral and over to the Capitol dome.
But what takes Ward's breath away is that this place is hers.
Four years ago, collapsed under the weight of clinical depression, sudden unemployment and a broken romance, Ward found herself without a home or means of support.
She ended up at N Street Village, a Northwest shelter where she was nursed back to health and to work. Three years into her stay there, Ward had established some stability, working at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., preparing documents for filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. One day, a mentor at the shelter, Dixcy Bosley-Smith, pulled Ward aside and asked, "What are you going to do with your life?"
"No," came the reply, "you're going to own your own home."
Ward had always figured there were two ways that that might happen. A relative might die and leave her big money -- extremely unlikely, given that she knows of no family with big money to leave. Or she might hit the lottery. This was her active plan.
Bosley-Smith pointed her instead to Manna, a District nonprofit that trains first-time homeowners and finds them places to buy. Ward joined Manna's Homebuyers Club, where counselors helped her shed $15,000 in credit card and student loan debt, taught her how to save, set her up with brokerage accounts and a retirement fund. Before long, Ward was talking stocks with her boss. Every paycheck, she bought some shares (this was pre-bust).
Then the market went south, "and I was sure I wasn't going to get my house," she recalls. But by then, just a couple of years from being out on the street, Ward was on her way. The city's Home Purchase Assistance Program had qualified her for a $15,000 loan at 3 percent interest, and a Bank of America program designed to revitalize Anacostia had offered her a $12,000 grant. N Street let Ward stay on at the shelter at reduced rent so she could save for her down payment.
The only question was where to find an affordable home. After years of living in Columbia Heights in fast-gentrifying Northwest, Ward knew that apartments were soaring into the $300,000 and $400,000 range -- way beyond her. She saw too many neighbors being encouraged to move out by developers hungry to renovate and grab themselves a piece of the high-flying action.
Manna suggested Washington View, a complex in Anacostia once known as the Ambassador Square Apartments, which had been abandoned for more than a decade after having served as a drug mall and shooting range during the crack wars. Built in the 1960s as luxury dwellings for young black professionals, by 1981 the complex was overrun by rats, cited for 2,080 housing code violations and routinely flooded with foul water. Now, Manna and Bank of America were combining in a total rehabilitation, creating spacious new apartments with fireplace, balcony and the best view in the region. Ward could have a two-bedroom unit for $97,000.
Ward heard about the place and said, "No, no, no, I am not going to Southeast. I used to listen to television and I'd hear about five murders and no-oh, not for me."
Then Ward was lured out to take a look. The rooms were big, her balcony looked out over picnic tables and a playground, and the people who were moving in impressed her -- graduate students, government workers, people she knew would care about their homes. She walked the neighborhood. And she took in that view.
She was sold.
At 48, living alone, she was going to be a homeowner. She got to choose her fireplace, cabinets and carpeting. And she plans to keep waking early to savor her own piece of the planet. "It wasn't long ago I was just worried about surviving to the next day," Ward says. "Now I keep walking around from room to room wondering if this is really mine. I know it is, because I have to do everything. Renting, you really don't care, because somebody's going to come to fix it. These days, that person is me."