A June 21 article and photo caption incorrectly referred to the D.C. housing development of Wheeler Creek as being in Anacostia. The development is east of the Anacostia River but is not in the Anacostia neighborhood. The story also referred to a shooting as drug-related. The victim of the shooting says she does not know the nature of the dispute. (Published 6/22/05)
There are times, Jacqueline Massey said, when the quiet of her Anacostia neighborhood reminds her of the dark days of nearly a decade ago, when only eight families remained at the public housing development of Valley Green, huddled in the center of a virtually deserted complex of 34 crumbling buildings.
But it is not the silence of the ghost town it was back then, when it was abandoned by the residents, the police and even the drug dealers. Now, the 58-year-old said, the silence she feels on those same streets is the calm of a community at peace.
"I love going home," Massey marveled. "God is good. He sent us on a journey like the children of Israel. And if you wanted to get to the promised land, you had to work hard to get there."
The journey that turned the blighted apartments of Valley Green and nearby Skytower into the bucolic development of Wheeler Creek appears to exemplify the promise of President Bush's ownership society. Yet the Bush administration is seeking to eliminate the program largely responsible for Wheeler Creek's creation, known as Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, or Hope VI.
"This is truly an opportunity without a handout," said Ronald Jones, 47, a consultant at the defense contractor Whitney, Bradley & Brown Inc. and one of the higher-income homeowners who bought into Wheeler Creek at market rate. "Hope VI meets you halfway, and then you want to do away with it? The president has never visited Wheeler Creek."
In far Southeast Washington, Skytower and Valley Green were once considered the city's preeminent symbols of public housing failure, "Pork Chop Hill" up top, "Death Valley" below. Ayyisha Turner, 40, survived a Skytower drug shootout in 1995 by lying flat on the front seat of her car with a neighbor on her back. A bullet grazed one arm, drawing blood. Another blasted through the car door and came to rest four inches from her head.
All of that is long gone, plowed under to make room for open streets and tidy clapboard townhouses, many of which, in turn, were offered for purchase to low-income families who had taken a rigorous course on homeownership. The $53 million project was financed in large part by the federal Hope VI program, which has tried to demolish blighted concentrations of poverty and replace them with mixed-income developments such as Wheeler Creek.
Scott Keller, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would not speak ill of Hope VI, which started in 1993 as a follow-on to efforts launched by the Reagan and first Bush administrations. But, he said, taxpayer dollars could be used better.
Bush has proposed replacing the $500 million program with an expanded $200 million American Dream Downpayment Initiative, which would finance house down payments, and a $40 million homeownership counseling program. Much of the Hope VI funds are used to demolish distressed buildings and to rebuild in their place. The most blighted projects are now down, Keller said, adding that it's time to move on to simpler, smaller efforts.
"We're not going to say this is a bad program," Keller said. "It's a good program. It's done good things. But what we have to do is make sure the taxpayers' money isn't lost in a morass of bureaucratic red tape."
The administration has its defenders in the housing community. Jair K. Lynch, president and chief executive of the Jair Lynch Cos., which specializes in affordable housing development, said it may be time to break up Hope VI and farm some of its pieces to social services agencies that would be better equipped to handle the cultural support efforts needed to keep new homeowners afloat.
"Personally, I think Hope VI projects have started to become so big, they're trying to address physical plant and human capital issues," Lynch said. "I'm not sure HUD is the best agency to do both."
Others are adamant, however, that it is precisely that comprehensive approach that has made Hope VI successful.
"You can't promote homeownership and eliminate Hope VI," said Michael P. Kelly, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority. "There's a disconnect there."
Homeowners at Wheeler Creek testify repeatedly to the power of ownership that Bush touts. Turner was on welfare in 1998 when she heard Skytower would be demolished to make way for a home she could own. It was like a kick in the pants, she recalled.
She took a construction job from the company demolishing her home, then went to work as an administrative aide for Nation's Capital Child and Family Development, a day care center, where she worked her way up to assistant to the chief operating officer. On June 6, she took a job close to home as office manager for the Wheeler Creek Community Development Corp. Her 10th-grade daughter's grades rose to the A-B range from a B-C average after she had a house to come home to and peer pressure changed. Now, Turner is plotting a return to school for a new career in human resources.
Before buying at Wheeler Creek, Vickey Shy, 40, had been a secretary for the Arlington County school system, renting a two-bedroom apartment at Baileys Crossroads for $950 a month, sending her son, Preston, to the local public school and largely keeping to herself.
Now, she pays a $750-a-month mortgage payment on her three-bedroom house and has landed a job as a community advocate for Wheeler Creek residents, helping them stick to their self-sufficiency programs, hold down jobs or navigate the bureaucratic thicket of the D.C. Housing Authority. She found a charter school for Preston, now 10: the Arts and Technology Academy 30 minutes away in Northeast Washington, where she drives him every day. And she is careful to keep $2,500 tucked away in savings, earmarked for the upkeep of her home.
"I never thought it would happen in Southeast D.C., but here it is," said resident Luella Johnson. "I can't even explain it, the sense of pride, 'Gosh, I own this.' It promotes the sense of community you see on TV."
As Massey said, the journey taken by Wheeler Creek homeowners has not been easy. In 1997 and 1998, when Valley Green and then Skytower were razed, only 23 families remained between the two developments' 450 units. They were relocated to subsidized apartments during construction. But in all, 286 former residents were eligible to return once Wheeler Creek's construction was complete.
Of those, only 80 signed on and enrolled in the family self-sufficiency program.
The coursework could take as long as three years and included personal finance and credit repair, employability and life skills, the workings of a mortgage, and the maintenance of a dishwasher. Wheeler Creek started an ex-offenders employment program, a substance-abuse program and parenting classes.
Even now, Wheeler Creek remains in the womb of the welfare state, to some extent. The D.C. Housing Authority was generous with its own jobs. Massey received management training at Catholic University and is now a property manager for the housing authority. Irma Turner, 65, one of the last Skytower residents, runs a catering business from her home, but the housing authority and Wheeler Creek are key customers.
Bessie Swann, executive director of the Wheeler Creek Community Development Corp., helped negotiate a deal with Harkin Builders Inc., the program's main contractor, to employ many of its residents. On Thursday paydays, resident employees had to get their paychecks during lunch at the community center, where they could talk about getting through the weekend with their checks largely intact, Swann said.
Once potential home buyers qualified, Wheeler Creek and the housing authority set the terms for entry. Some have been offered a lease-to-purchase program, where ownership comes gradually. Most are given what Kelly calls a "soft second" mortgage. Buyers would take out a commercial mortgage of about $45,000 on a home worth $115,000, with the housing authority paying the difference. That second mortgage will be completely forgiven if buyers stay put for 20 years. Selling earlier would leave them responsible for some or all of the "soft second," depending on how quickly they sell.
To discourage refinancing, especially cash-out refinancings that would only increase homeowner debt loads, any refinancing means assuming the whole cost of the home. And Wheeler Creek caseworkers stay vigilant long after a home purchase.
"With homeownership, people can transform their community if they have the support they need," Swann said. "It will just be another failure without it."
Not all homeownership projects have taken the cradle-to-grave approach. The immaculate-but-nondescript brick townhouses of Frontiers Condominiums at 14th and S streets NW were built in 1974 as public housing destined for homeownership. But because of mismanagement, indecision, and some even say theft, it took a quarter of a century for the D.C. Housing Authority to make good on that promise.
Still, without anything like the infrastructure of Wheeler Creek, Frontiers has managed to sell each of its 53 units, the last one this year. Housing authority officials made home visits to check on housekeeping abilities, credit histories and income streams. A nonprofit organization, Manna Inc., was brought on to teach homeownership skills such as maintaining credit as well as gutters. But the cost has been minimal.
What Frontiers had that Wheeler Creek didn't was the neighborhood -- rapidly gentrifying 14th Street. Drug dealers once conducted hostile takeovers off Frontiers' front stoops, and prostitutes turned tricks in the courtyard, recalled John Olden Sr., 77, one of the complex's original residents.
"Now, its gotten so much better," said Elgin Speight, 70, another original resident. "Everybody wants to live on this side of town, everybody."
Frontiers' residents who once watched out for stray bullets now look out on the upscale Garden District greenhouse, Sparky's Espresso Cafe, and Dogs by Day, a pet day-care center. Because decades of rent checks sent to the city that were supposed to go toward a down payment simply disappeared, Olden was awarded his home in 1999 for $500, plus condo fees, free and clear. He recently had his house appraised for a half-million dollars.
"We knew people were watching us, saying, 'Oh, Lord, that eyesore's going to be with us forever," said Delores Rogers, a Frontiers resident and president of its condo association. "That just made us want to prove them wrong."
Wheeler Creek's problems are just the opposite, staving off criminal elements on its borders.
"If the city doesn't do anything to improve the surrounding environment, some of the undesirable things will creep back in," said Jones, the defense contractor consultant, who delivered a strong warning: "Now you've plopped this jewel into an economically depressed area, what is your next move? You can't hope that everything good in Wheeler Creek is just going to span out into the area. It just won't happen."
That fear does not seem to dampen the pride of ownership at Wheeler Creek or Frontiers. Olden recounted a recent encounter he had with a neighbor, strolling down his block of Riggs Street with his young son. The man had been bragging about the lovely rowhouses on one end when he came to the more utilitarian townhouses of Frontiers. These, he told his son, were owned by the D.C. government and rented out to poor people with something called Section 8 vouchers.
"I heard that and I said, 'Excuse my French, but that's a damned lie,' " Olden harrumphed, still indignant. "These houses are all owned, and owned by us. Don't put us down like we're nothing up here. We're not nothing. This is ours."
From her front porch, Jacqueline Massey looks out on Wheeler Creek, a federal housing project in Anacostia.
Frontiers Condominiums, a former public housing project that is now all privately owned, is in the middle of an evolving Northwest neighborhood.
Ronald Pope, 14, and his mother, Renee Brown, pick weeds from their front yard in Wheeler Creek. The Bush administration wants to eliminate the federal program that helped revitalize the area.