It was 1969, Riots had raged down 14th Street the year before. Shoot-outs and shooting up were the way of life on the street. Anybody who could afford it fled 14th Street and Washington's inner city.
"After the riots, black people had this town in their hands," said Emmanuel Dickey, a black man and self-described inner-city housing speculator. "This area was no-man's land. You couldn't get white people to stick their foot in this town. People were looking for a way to sell."
So Dickey began buying. He bought as many houses around the lower 14th Street near Logan Circle as he could. The old Victorian town houses with their sagging facades, the brownstones with their clogged fireplaces and rotting floors that had been chopped up to create rooming houses, were going cheap -- anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 each.
Dickey was betting that the middle class would someday return.
Barbara Rothenberg thought she saw a good thing, too, when she discovered the Logan Circle area in 1972. The ghetto, it seemed to her, was but the dust covering a priceless painting: large and majestic old houses in the very heart of the nation's capital.
Convinced others would soon share her view, Rothenberg, who now lives in a restored Victorian house on the circle, became the first white person to begin selling property in the area after the riots. It was natural that she and Dickey would come to know each other -- he had houses to sell and she was adept at selling them.
Today, Dickey's and Rothenberg's inner city no-man's land is frantically blooming. Workmen in overalls are transforming the old decaying homes into fashionable center city residences. Down once shabby streets long known by names like "Stab Alley," brass knockers gleam on newly stained front doors and windows are filled with hanging plants. Houses that 10 years ago sold slowly -- if at all -- for $10,000, sell for $200,000 and up today. If you are lucky enough to find one.
And as the urban pioneers move in they are moving out the poor who called those neighborhoods home for years. Today the displaced poor, loath to leave their community roots, crowd into whatever inner city housing they can find. Sometimes three or four families jam into a house in the downtown area so that they can afford soaring rents that are being driven ever higher by the relentless approach of restoration.
"All those black people that got pushed out are so stupid," says Dickey, shaking his head. "All they had to do to own those homes was to ask. The people who owned those houses were looking to get rid of them."
Behind the exit of thousands of poor families like the Baileys who rented one of Dickey's houses on Kingman Place for 12 years until Rothenberg found two middle class buyers for it, are the business deals of a handful of people. The Rothenbergs and Dickeys of Washington have played a key role in the transformation of the inner city from ghetto to high-priced intown neighborhoods.
Along the way, Dickey and Rothenberg have made big money. Dickey bought a $150,000 house in Shepherd Park five years ago, owns a 1979 Cadillac and a home in Atlantic City. Rothenbergs says that, if she sold the nine houses she now owns in the Logan Circle area, some with partners, it wouldn't make her a millionaire but it would make her rich -- very rich.
For Dickey, who came to Washington from Marion, N.C., much of the route to his success was paved with good fortune, as he readily admits. He learned how to make money in Washington real estate by watching Marvin Green, a white man who hired him to work as a porter in Green's 14th and P Streets hardware store for a dollar an hour in 1958.
"Jesus must have sent that man to me because he saw a poor country boy who needed to make some money," said Dickey.
Green taught him real estate speculating techniques as a father would teach his son, Dickey said. Beginning in the early 1960s, using $2,000 he had saved while he was in the Army and money he was earning at Green's hardware store, Dickey began buying houses in the Logan Circle area from other speculators. They were cheap even then because, as Dickey recalls, heroin was rampant along 14th Street and addicts were mugging and stealing and -- incidently -- keeping real estate prices down in the area.
Dickey would keep the houses a few years, making minor improvements and renting them to pay his mortgages. Then he would sell them to collect a modest profit.
By the time the riots swept through 14th Street in 1968, he had enough money to buy Green's hardware store and the houses his mentor had bought speculatively; including a dozen on Kingman Place. He was ready to begin his big dip into speculation:
The time-proved techniques of real estate speculation Dickey employed following the riots were simple and effective. Dickey explained the process this way:
He would buy a decaying inner city house on the depressed market for, say, $9,000 and then invest another $2,500 for what he called "cosmetic repairs" such as a new paint job and new linoleum over a bad floor. These minimal repairs were designed to increase the value of the house far beyond what the repairs themselves cost."
As a result the house would now be worth a minimum of $12,500, or at least $1,000 more than his $11,500 cash investment.
Dickey's next step was to approach a lender, such as the black-owned Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association, and arrange a mortgage on the property for 80 percent of its value, effectively freeing as much of his cash investment as he could. With the $10,000 or more thus obtained, he would buy other houses and repeat the process.
Because Dickey's objective was to sell the house as profitably as he could, he might price his cosmetically repaired house at $17,000. Market conditions were bad in the late 1960s and early 70s, however and sales were slow. So Dickey, whose mortgage payments were being met by the rent from the poor people who lived in his houses, decided to offer to sell them to his renters.
Under Dickey's plan, the renters could buy the $17,000 house with as little as $500, or even no money down. Because the poor were poor credit risks, Dickey found that he could only entice lenders to offer the buyers a mortage if he cosigned the documents. At the same time, because the buyers rarely had enough money to make up the difference between what the banks were willing to lend on the property and what he was asking, Dickey would, himself, "loan" the buyers the difference. As a result, the poor new homeowners had to pay off both a mortgage and the note held by Dickey for the amount they had to "borrow" from him.
Often the low-income buyers would quickly begin to miss their payments to the bank which would then call Dickey and tell him, as cosigner, that it was about to foreclose on the mortgage.
Dickey would then pay off to the bank what the homeowners owed in back payments, putting them in further debt to him. He would then demand repayment which in most cases, the homeowners could not afford. The only answer, he would tell them, is for them to sell. He would help to find a buyer.
If Dickey could find no outside buyer, he would buy out the owners himself. Sometimes, Dickey said, the property had appreciated, and the lucky owners would end up with $2,000 or $3,000 in cash from Dickey when he bought the house back. But often the owners had to settle for little or nothing in order to clear their debt to both the bank and Dickey;
Dickey would turn around and sell the house again -- to someone who could afford it outright, if he could, or if not, to another low-income renting family.
And all the while his property was growing more and more valuable.
"There was money to be made," Dickey said. "I knew things were going to change. This is the federal city; I knew the white people were going to start coming back,"
In the 10 years from 1969 to today, Dickey has sold a large number of houses. He refuses to say exactly how many, explaining that he doesn't want tax auditors all over him. But Dickey's speculations go beyond the Logan Circle and sometimes beyond Washington. He is considering speculating in houses in Atlantic City where he already owns a summer vacation house across from the beach (He said he knew that the resort town would boom once gambling was legalized there.)
But generally Dickey keeps his speculation close to home. Today he owns property at the triangular corner of 8th Street, Florida Avenue and Georgia Avenue, near where metro plans to have a subway stop, He's convinced the property's value will skyrocket when the station is opened.
He owns and is buying more property along New York Avenue near North Capitol Street which he calls the last commercial strip to be developed in Washington. He says he'll renovate the boarded-up houses there into rental properties until he hears of a big hotel which he might interest in buying the land.
He owns houses in Adams-Morgan that he won't sell because Dickey says his wife Lana has told him, "We've got too much, we've got to be careful with the tax people."
He said he has even acted as a front for a lawyer handling an estate that included a brownstone house in Adams-Morgan. He explained that the lawyer could not buy the property without being charged with conflict of interest. So, Dickey said, he bought the house with the lawyer as his silent partner.
But the plight of the poor families who used to rent his houses -- people like the eight-member Charles Bailey family who now share a house with two other families -- elicits little sympathy from Dickey. He said the situation was largely of their own making.
"Now, I love my black people," said Dickey, "but some of them need some education or something, especially the ones from the South where they were living in some shack. Maybe they should have a national TV hour to teach them. I'd go up to these people and tell they could buy a house with $500 down, or no money down, and they's say, 'What I want with this old ragged house? I don't want no house. Look at these floors falling in.' The white people came and bought the houses, fixed them up . . . "
"Bailey and his family and all of them old black people that used to be around here weren't victims of nothing," said Dickey. "I'd have sold Bailey that house, but he didn't want it. Bailey was having trouble paying his rent [between $110 and $180 over 12 years]. He's come in here somedays and pull me over to the side. He wants to talk to me. He can't make his rent payments and he wants to borrow some money. He'll pay me back double when he gets the money . . . "
Today Dickey can stand by the front door of his hardware store, which does a booming business now with all the renovation going on in the area, and marvel at the changes in his world. Though prostitutes still linger on corners nearby, the old whorehouse across the street is no more -- it has been converted into a condominium. Now young well dressed white men walk the streets from the corner store to their homes on Kingman Place and other almost completely renovated neighborhoods.
God bless these fags with their dogs," said Dickey as one man disappeared around a corner holding the leash of his golden-colored Afghan hound in one hand and the morning paper, flowers and orange juice in the other. "They don't mug nobody. They don't kill nobody. You don't see them out here stumbling around drunk or looking to buy some dope. They're coming into these messed up houses, taking the boards off of them, fixing them up . . . These urban pioneers are the best thing that ever happened to this neighborhood. They're bringing it back from the dead."
Barbara Rothenberg, who said she had difficulty interesting middle-class blacks in the area, agrees.
"I think the homosexuals are on the forefront of a lot of things," she said. "They are the pioneers in the real estate market here, in Capitol Hill, in DuPont Circle . . . they appreciate the faded elegance and they don't seem to mind renovating because it allows them to give the house their own special touch."
It was not until Rothenberg got into the real estate business and started advertising houses in Logan Circle in 1972 that the middle class slowly began to return.
It was then that Dickey asked Rothenberg to sell two houses he owned on Kingman Place, including the one the Baileys had lived in for 12 years. Rothenberg sold one of the houses to two middle-class white men, Charles Medling and Larry Foust, for $20,000 in 1974. Today it is worth $150,000.
Middle-class whites also bought the other house, she said. For her efforts, she earned $1,000.
Next, in partnership with another real estate agent, she purchased about a dozen houses in the Logan Circle area from Dickey in 1974 for about $100,000, she said. She has since sold all but four of the package she bought.
Meanwhile, between 1976 and 1979, real estate prices were jumping from the $20,000 range to $80,000 or more for unrenovated houses. Renovated houses are now selling for $150,000 to $200,000 and more, she said.
Rothenberg, who got into real estate at the insistence of her former husband, said that Number 7 Logan Circle, just a stone's throw from her own home at Number 12 Logan Circle which she bought in 1974 for $42,000 -- sold for $180,000 in 1978 and then nine months later sold again, this time for $440,000.
To poor blacks in the area, Rothenberg, a little white woman in what can still be a tough, ghetto neighborhood, has become a symbol of displacement. She has sometimes disturbed their meals or awakened them in order to bring in prospective buyers to look at the house they were renting.
"I'd feel bad about going into their homes again and again," said Rothenberg. "But there was no way around it. How do you sell a house without showing it? In some houses that had been divided up into rooming houses you'd have to go in on four or five families to show one house. I've come across people in drunken rages . . . I'd just leave."
But Rothenberg was never cursed, attacked or threatened on the street, she said.
"As a white woman around here," said Rothenberg, "the only hassles I every got was being mistaken for a prostitute. I would be standing on a corner waiting to cross the street . . . I'd tell them I'm a real estate agent not a prostitute."
Rothenberg became front-page news when she organized some of the middle-class white beginning to move into the Logan Circle area in 1976 to picket 14th Street prostitutes in an attempt to get them to move out of the neighborhood. She also tried to close houses and apartments where prostitutes took their customers. That earned her a death threat on the street -- one of the witnesses to the threat was seriously injured when the man who threatened Rothenberg attacked him.
Both Rothenberg and Dickey feel they have helped their neighborhood and their city by selling to middle-class, largely white buyers. They both speak fondly of the time when Logan Circle was the home of the religious leader Sweet Daddy Grace and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
They both feel angry, too, at how they, as business people, are fingered by the community and government leaders as the source of housing problems in the inner city for the poor.
"The government wants real estate dealers to take care of the poor people," Dickey said. But they can't do nothing for the poor man. See if any of these people around here paying $100 or $200 a month in rent could get into public housing if they had to."
In fact, according to city officials, there is a wait of more than five years to get into public housing in Washington.
"I don't believe anything could stop what's going on now, Rothenberg said. "The city is changing and it can't be stopped. Maybe a riot would stop it but I don't think the powers that be would allow that to happen. There is too much to lose."