Five years ago, when the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization developed Banneker Ridge, a community of 27 single-family houses in Southeast Washington, many others had long written off the neighborhood.
After all, in nearly 40 years, no houses had been built in the area, known as Greenway. It was plagued by crime and littered with blighted public housing. Not many people gave the new development a chance at success, said Carrie Thornhill, the interim president and chief executive of the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization.
While many sections of the District were beginning to experience the nation's real estate boom, the good fortunes had not yet reached east of the Anacostia River. Still, the community-development organization and other public and private builders began a construction boom of sorts in about 1998; hundreds of townhouses and single-family houses have since been built in Southeast.
Marshall Heights took on a section of Greenway that consisted of one-bedroom apartments that did not meet the needs of the community, Thornhill said. The nonprofit group converted 817 single-bedroom apartments into 469 multi-bedroom units, which left a plot of land along Minnesota Avenue SE and Ridge Road SE ripe for something else -- and that became Banneker Ridge.
In 2000, a new market-rate house in the Greenway section, including Banneker Ridge, cost from $135,000 to $196,000. Recently, according to several homeowners, the assessed values of their properties have more than doubled, with some homes now valued at more than $400,000.
The area surrounding Banneker Ridge is still a work in progress. Ward 7, which includes Banneker Ridge, is home to only one major sit-down restaurant, a Denny's about a mile away on Benning Road in Northeast. But while several blighted buildings are still visible from Banneker Ridge, in the community itself, the Colonial-style houses sport decks, spacious porches and attractive gardens.
For Jo-Ann Young, 53, a life-long Washingtonian, the decision to buy at Banneker Ridge has turned out to be a happy one. "I call this my castle," said Young, as she leaned on the kitchen island in her three-bedroom house.
"I never thought in my lifetime I'd have a home built," said Young, a postal worker and mother of two adult sons.
Young, who moved less than half a mile to Banneker Ridge from a small rowhouse on B Street SE, said she couldn't believe that new, single-family houses with private parking were coming to her neighborhood.
"When was the last time you've seen a detached house in Southeast?" she asked.
Like Young, Barbara James-Scott said she moved a short distance from her previous home, on D Street SE, to what seems to her an oasis. "It's very important when I can sit out on my back porch and see trees," said James-Scott, president of the Banneker Ridge Home Owners Association.
Howard Ragin, a D.C. police officer who moved into his house three years ago from Woodbridge, said he likes his four-bedroom, 31/2-bath house. He was quick to point out that while he bought his home for $190,000, he would not be able to afford it at its current value, which has more than doubled.
"The housing market is forcing people to look outside the city because housing is just astronomical," Ragin said.
While many longtime residents had all but given up on the idea of new construction coming anywhere near Southeast, some, such as Ivan Brown, president of Ivan Brown Realty Inc., say they thought it would be only a matter of time before the bulldozers found their way to Ward 7.
"The area was pretty depressed . . . but it worked," said Brown, who has worked as a real estate agent in the District for 21 years. "Southeast and Northeast are some of the last areas of the city that have any land left that can be . . . developed."
Like many sections of the District, Banneker Ridge has experienced a decline in crime during the past five years, said Ronald Thomas, 39, who has worked in the District as a letter carrier for nearly two decades.
Crime "happens all over," he said. "Every day on the news, you hear people talk about how they never thought it would happen where they live. You can't run from trouble," said Thomas, who grew up in Southeast.
For William and Jean Martin, who are members of the board of the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, one major convenience of living in Banneker Ridge is location.
We're "really not that far from downtown," said William Martin, 71.
Jean Martin said the most enjoyable part of living in Banneker Ridge is the sense of community.
"I think we've really been fortunate," she said, referring to the couple's discovery of the neighborhood. "It's so wonderful to be living in a place where you can wave to people."
As for Thomas, he said that when he heard new, single-family houses were coming to Southeast, he could think of only three words: "location, location, location."
Thomas, who moved to Banneker Ridge from Fort Washington three years ago, said his house is just a five-minute drive both to his job and his weekly dialysis treatment. He said that often, after treatment, he would be too tired to endure the 45-minute drive to Maryland.
"I feel like I found a gold mine," he said.
With gasoline prices on the rise, Thomas said he has discovered another benefit of living so close to work. "I don't even worry about gas prices," he said. "If it gets too high, I'll walk to work." After all, it's less than a mile.
Young, who said she once thought rising real estate prices would force her to become a lifetime renter, said the best thing about her new house was the smell.
"You know how, you buy a brand new car, you can't describe that smell?" she said. "That's how a new house [is], you can't describe it either."
Barbara James-Scott and her daughter, Alisha James, moved a short distance to the Southeast neighborhood made up of 27 single-family homes.
Bill Mentis walks his dog, Rufus, in Banneker Ridge in Southeast Washington.