When Camillia Osuji was on welfare and in the projects, she knew she would find a job but doubted she'd ever own a house. That seemed fantastical to a woman who grew up in a series of dilapidated rental homes in Southeast Washington and whose mother spent much of her life on welfare. As prices rose in the District's booming real estate market, Osuji's hopes fell.
Now, she says proudly, "I've got a piece of the rock."
Osuji's "piece of the rock" is a new four-bedroom house in the 1800 block of Alabama Avenue SE, part of the 600-unit Henson Ridge development. By completion in 2007, Henson Ridge is projected to include a community center, new school, recreation center, park, library and credit union. A program offers residents financial literacy classes, job training, health services and other benefits. Residents are organizing committees including one for beautification and one for voter registration.
Begun in the late 1990s, the project replaces two public housing complexes, Frederick Douglass Homes and Stanton Dwellings, that were beset by management problems, disrepair, drugs and violence, according to Michael Kelly, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority. The $122.4 million Henson Ridge venture, funded with public and private money, was launched by a $29.9 million grant from Hope VI, a federal program designed to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income neighborhoods. This is the first time the Housing Authority has paired Hope VI with homeownership vouchers, Kelly said.
Osuji, a single mother of four, recalled her stays in Frederick Douglass Homes and Stanton Dwellings. She mentioned holes in walls, broken heating, lack of air conditioning and roaches and rats at the two retrofitted World War II military housing complexes.
However implausible, Osuji wanted to own a home. That's not to say she was pleased when the city told residents they would have to relocate. Many moved to other public housing projects, which "just created more chaos" because gangs saw it as an invasion of their turf, said Harold Thomas, coordinator of Henson Ridge's Neighborhood Watch.
Some housing activists condemn the dislocation. Since many new units are priced beyond the means of former residents, "I think it was a form of getting rid of the black people and the poor people," said Ward 8's Sandra Seegars.
When Osuji moved from Stanton Dwellings, she used a Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) voucher to rent an apartment on Barnaby Street SE, where she said marijuana smoke came through the ducts and triggered her asthma. By then, she had worked for about a decade as a teacher's aide at Turner Elementary School and had started homeownership classes at night.
Although she found the homeownership process slow and inefficient at times, Osuji persevered, studying budgets, learning about maintenance, joining the Housing Authority's Family Self-Sufficiency Program.
Three years ago, she switched to a custodial job at the school. Even though she missed working with the kids, it paid better -- about $25,000 annually, she said. She reasoned, "If I want to be a homeowner, I better get something that's going to go all year-round."
Osuji, who came to Henson Ridge as a renter from her Barnaby Street apartment, now owns a detached home, where she lives with two sons and a granddaughter. For 15 years of her 30-year mortgage, she will pay 30 percent of her income to mortgage payments. The Housing Authority's Housing Choice Voucher, as well as any other financing, will cover the rest, she explained, sitting on a soft blue couch in her new living room. She is required to stay at least 10 years, and the authority must approve any sales after that while she is receiving voucher assistance, said authority spokesman Zachary Smith.
Osuji's home is among the first 45 homeownership units completed, of which former public housing residents occupy or have contracts to occupy 16. Of the 600 units planned, 320 are for homeownership; of those, 110 will be sold at market rate, and 100 are reserved for returning residents. Add to that 110 for families whose income is less than 80 percent of the area's median income, which is $89,300 for a family of four. To qualify, public housing residents must have a clean police record and a history of timely rent payments, criteria Seegars said exclude too many people because "with no jobs out here, most people are going to have a record, especially young men." The Housing Authority hopes half of former residents will return, Kelly said.
The replacement of the two public housing complexes with the tidy houses and landscaped streets of Henson Ridge has transformed Congress Heights. Just across Alabama Avenue, plans for a supermarket and 75 well-appointed single-family homes are inching forward. That 25-acre project will rise on the grounds of Camp Simms, an abandoned National Guard encampment that has lain vacant for years. Officials involved said transforming the public housing sites was instrumental in moving the projects forward.
As for Osuji, she's taking it one day at a time, still a little scared that "there's not a maintenance man I can call and say, 'This needs fixing. That needs fixing.' " She's paying off her washing machine with $100 a month and puts $35 aside monthly for maintenance.
After so many years in rental homes and public housing, she said she is gradually getting used to having somewhere to call her own. "You never know what will happen, but as far as I'm concerned, this is the spot," she said smiling.