The streets are lined with abandoned, weed-strewn lots and dilapidated brick buildings, one of which caught Lisa McCamey's eye last summer. The neighborhood's most prominent landmark -- a 93-year-old school -- has been boarded up for more than two decades, across from a strip of worn tenements where children and adults use the pavement as their outdoor living room.
This is Ivy City in Northeast Washington, one of the poorest pockets in the region, where McCamey, an Alexandria-based developer, overcame initial trepidation and bought a shell of a building not far from the old school. She figured she could convert it into a couple of rental apartments for low-income tenants.
Since then, she has discovered that she's not the only one investing in the neighborhood, and she is rethinking her plan. Drug peddlers and prostitutes still linger, but down the block a pair of vacant buildings have been reborn as four condominiums, each for about $250,000. A sagging, empty house was remodeled and faced in red cedar and sold for $330,000. In an adjoining vacant lot, a developer is building a five-bedroom house with granite kitchen counters and a Jacuzzi -- and a list price of nearly $400,000.
Now McCamey sees her building as two condominiums -- "no marble, no granite, just plain-Jane apartments" -- each for $250,000. "The ones down the street sold," she said, standing outside her building, its windows punched out and flooring covered in construction rubble. "The possibility is there."
Sweeping east across the District, the real estate gold rush has taken developers and speculators to such long-forgotten neighborhoods as Columbia Heights and Trinidad. But none may be as forlorn as Ivy City, a vista of rickety homes, vacant land and warehouses spread across a dozen or so blocks between New York Avenue and Mount Olivet Cemetery.
In recent months, the neighborhood's disrepair was sufficient to prompt a District planning official to suggest that the city relocate the residents. By the time those words were uttered, developers and investors -- in search of a dwindling supply of cheap city land -- had reached the neighborhood, driving up prices and causing anxiety among residents who fear they will be priced out.
"There has been an upward surge in the market," said Geraldine Gardner, a project manager for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. "It's not surprising that it came to Ivy City, but it is surprising how fast the land is appreciating."
What is playing out in Ivy City is the beginning of a cycle that has unfolded more fully in Shaw and Columbia Heights in Northwest, and Harlem and the South Bronx in New York -- poor and blue-collar areas where professionals moved into buildings remade into luxury apartments.
Fueled by low interest-rate mortgages, investors are betting that demand for housing remains strong and that prices keep rising. That scenario is not without risk, particularly in such areas as Ivy City, if interest rates rise and demand ebbs.
"You can point to neighborhoods that have been turned around, such as Logan Circle and U Street, but there's a limit to how far that will go, and to assume that it will keep going is hard to see," said Dean Baker, co-director of the District-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Baker cautioned that first-time home buyers, lured to Ivy City and similar places by short-term loans requiring no cash up front, could face ballooning mortgage payments in a few years and might have difficulty unloading properties if the market falls. "These people are going to find themselves with much larger payments, and in many cases they won't be prepared," he said. "They're expecting home prices to rise, and they very well could fall, and they could fall a lot."
In Ivy City, the risk is one that developers and home buyers are willing to take, if only because there are still deals to be found there. Once the site of a racetrack and a railroad roundhouse, Ivy City has always been home to a mix of poor and blue-collar residents. It was known in the 1980s for its open air drug markets, which prompted police to usher in the National Guard to set up floodlights to fend off dealers.
During the 1990s, Ivy City's households decreased by a third, according to the U.S. Census, leaving desolate streets and properties neglected by landlords. The decline prompted Deborah Crain of the District's Office of Planning to float the idea at a meeting last winter that the remaining residents be relocated and the area be remade into a commercial or industrial zone -- a notion roundly rejected by the community.
"In this day and time, it's absurd for people to live in those conditions," Crain said. "One radical option was to transform that area into something else."
By then, investors were already scouring the neighborhood, best known perhaps as the home of the popular Dream nightclub. McCamey's company paid $210,000 last fall for the shell on Kendall Street NE, a price that had nearly doubled since its previous sale eight months before, according to D.C. property records. McCamey decided to continue buying into the neighborhood, acquiring a house a block away on Corcoran Street NE and bidding on two more properties.
A market downturn is of little concern, she said, because she can always rent the properties to low-income residents who receive federal housing subsidies. "At least with real estate, you can hold on to it," she said. "Even if it goes down, you got it, and at some point it rebounds."
Her confidence in Ivy City is based on the sales and development she sees, as well as on the District's plan to sell 30 properties to developers for market-rate and subsidized housing. On a vacant lot at the other end of Kendall Street, developer Carlos Iglesias, 46, is building a five-bedroom house with 31/2 bathrooms and a gourmet kitchen. He plans to list it at $390,000.
Iglesias, who has built homes in Brookland, Petworth and Takoma Park, said he came to Ivy City seeking deals after striking out in Capitol Hill and adjoining Trinidad.
"The market got too expensive," he said. Last year, he overhauled the house next to the lot where he is now working, adding granite counters, crown moldings and stainless steel appliances. Barry Harmon, a federal law enforcement officer who moved to the District from Upper Marlboro, bought the house for $330,000.
His main goal, Harmon said, was to find a property he could sell in a few years for a profit. "Anyone moving into D.C. is going to make money," he said, sitting on his couch in his living room, the blinds drawn. "Give me about a year, and I should be sitting pretty."
Around the corner on Capitol Avenue, Henry Oladoyinbo, 29, a computer engineer who moved from Alexandria, leaned against a black granite kitchen counter in his $261,000 condominium, the first home he has owned. An architect and an Army lieutenant have also bought apartments in the once-vacant building, across from a recently completed playground.
When he first drove through Ivy City, Oladoyinbo said, he thought it was a "dump." But he was impressed with the condominium's price, particularly after finding nothing he could afford in other neighborhoods. To buy, he said, he put no cash down and took out a three-year interest-only loan. His friends, he said, "have doubled their money" buying homes in the District. "I wanted to get a piece of it," he said. "Why not go for it?"
The new faces and changes have not gone unnoticed by longtime residents. A few blocks from the new condominiums, in a row of bedraggled buildings on Gallaudet Street, residents live in cramped apartments with faulty wiring, rodents and back yards of cement. On a recent afternoon, kids tossed a football and hung out on the unfinished sidewalk, across from the former Alexander Crummel School, which has been shuttered since the 1970s.
Audrey Ray, 51, an administrative assistant who lives in a neat brick house on Providence Street, said she was pleased to see developers. But she also fears that rising prices will force up her property taxes. The thought of selling in the hot market holds no appeal. "Where am I going to live?" she asked. "Not anywhere around here."
Clyde Coble is one property owner who is ready to cut his ties to Ivy City. Since 1974, he has owned two apartment buildings on Kendall Street, buying them for $19,000 apiece. His wife, he said, feared for his safety whenever he traveled from their home in Montgomery County to the neighborhood.
Coble said he decided it was time to sell after turning 72 in October. He put the properties up for sale recently and not long afterward accepted an offer for $700,000, an amount he said he never dreamed he could get.
"I don't understand what's going on and why prices are going up so fast," he said. "But I do understand how to make a profit."