Leon Waddy grew up in the District’s Shaw neighborhood in the ’80s and ’90s, but he doesn’t recognize much of it these days. African American residents used to make up 90 percent of the neighborhood. Today, they’re less than 50 percent.
“The demographics completely changed,” he said. “When I was a young kid, it was a predominantly black neighborhood. . . . Now, it’s pretty much a predominantly white neighborhood.”
That is why Waddy and his wife, who were renting in Congress Heights, looked to historic, majority-black Anacostia in Southeast Washington when they began searching for a home.
“We wanted a neighborhood where we would feel at home, that would be like the D.C. that we know,” said Alison Waddy, 31, principal of the Oklahoma Avenue campus of the AppleTree, a public charter preschool. “And that’s what we found here.”
“They look like us,” Leon Waddy said of his neighbors.
With home prices across the city continuing to rise, east-of-the-river neighborhoods such as Anacostia and Congress Heights, which the District housing boom had largely passed over, are becoming increasingly desirable — and expensive.
As more investors and homeowners look east in the hopes of riding the wave of development, there are also worries that residents will be priced out of what has historically been a low- and moderate-income part of the city, forced to move further out, beyond the boundaries of the District. Homeownership can provide a needed hedge against skyrocketing rents.
This is where Lydia’s House, which helped the Waddys become homeowners, comes in. The nonprofit group is one of a handful of local organizations that offer guidance to first-time, low- and moderate-income home buyers looking to purchase property in the District. Other groups that offer similar services include MANNA, the Latino Economic Development Center and Housing Counseling Services.
Lydia’s House in particular works with residents of Wards 7 and 8, helping them “obtain, maintain, and retain homeownership,” said Cliff Beckford, the organization’s deputy director.
Over the past two years, Lydia’s House has helped its clients purchase 50 homes. Demand for its services is also growing, with a 25 percent increase in clients over the last year, Beckford said.
“We recognize that with the cost of living increasing, and the lack of affordable housing, residents in our communities are being forced out of the city,” he said. “We want people who have been longtime residents and who have been part of the city to stay in the city.”
Homeownership also helps to stabilize neighborhoods and gives constituents a stronger voice on how the city develops, said Yulonda Queen, a housing counselor for Lydia’s House.
For their part, the mostly minority clients that Lydia House helps believe that they can play a vital role in maintaining the character of neighborhoods undergoing rapid change with large influxes of affluent white newcomers seeking urban amenities. They say that they, as longtime D.C. residents, hold many of the jobs that help the city run.
By tapping into loan programs, Queen helped the Waddys last year buy a four-bedroom brick townhouse for about $380,000 on a quiet street in the heart of historic Anacostia, just steps from the Frederick Douglass house.
“It feels good,” said Alison Waddy about calling this neighborhood home. “It feels really good.”
All around them, the Waddys’ new neighborhood is taking off.
Over the years, people have begun to realize that the Anacostia historic district is a “crown jewel of a neighborhood” and the area has started to attract more attention as the economic development conversation moves eastward, said Charles Wilson, co-founder of the Historic Anacostia Block Association and a former advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area.
A Walgreens opened in the neighborhood in September. Busboys and Poets, the local independent bookstore and restaurant, expects to open its fifth D.C. location in Anacostia early next year. And the much-touted 11th Street Bridge Park, a $45 million project that will transform the old, abandoned freeway bridge into an aerial park connecting communities on both sides of the Anacostia River, is slated to open in 2019.
“The market is hot,” said Darrin Davis, the principal broker and owner of Anacostia River Realty. This month, he put two houses on the market, and both were snapped up within a day.
Anacostia is “the last affordable neighborhood in D.C.,” Davis said, and with a shortage of inventory, he expects the market to become more competitive. In 2016, the average sales price in the area rose 17.7 percent.
In nearby Congress Heights, Tiffany Chase marvels at how far her Southeast neighborhood has come.
Growing up, Chase had spent a lot of time in the Valley Green public housing complex, which was built in the early 1960s. After it became blighted, violent and drug-ravaged, Valley Green was demolished in the late ’90s and replaced with a mixed-income development called Wheeler Creek.
“The neighborhood is changing drastically,” said Chase, 30, as she sat on the living room of her family’s new single-family home in Congress Heights, purchased with the help of Lydia’s House.
“For the good,” said her husband Travis, 30, a firefighter.
But the neighborhood is also quickly getting more expensive. In the first half of this year, home values in Congress Heights increased by 32 percent, making it a neighborhood with the sixth-highest price appreciation in the city, according to UrbanTurf, a D.C. real estate blog.
Lydia’s House helped the Chases buy their four-bedroom home for $416,000 by connecting them with two D.C.-funded loan programs — the Home Purchase Assistance Program and the Employer Assisted Housing Program — and one of six affordable dwelling units at Asheford Court, the community of single-family homes where their house is located.
“Without their help, this would not be our dream,” said Tiffany Chase, who works as a visual stylist for Gap. The Chases had previously rented near Marshall Heights, also in Southeast Washington.
While buying this home has made her dream of homeownership come true, it also means making a statement: “That you can’t run all the black people out of the District.”
There are moderate-income workers — including firefighters, police officers and teachers — who are essential to making the city work, she said.
“So why wouldn’t the city be an affordable city for those people to live, the people who make the city go? That is crazy and outrageous to me,” she said. “ . . . You can’t price out the people who make this city work.”
For Alison Waddy, too, buying her Anacostia home goes beyond just homeownership. It is a way of being “part of a solution in our community: living here as homeowners, paying taxes in this neighborhood,” she said.
She shops at the local grocery store and supports the small businesses in the neighborhood. It’s all part of empowering the community and making sure that her voice as an African American homeowner is heard, she said.
“We do things that say, ‘This is a viable neighborhood, and we don’t need you to change us’ ” through gentrification, she said. “That’s what I choose to do: saying that there’s so much we can do to uplift this neighborhood, and pour our dollars here, so you see that we’re making it work.”
On a recent afternoon, as she sat on a stool by the kitchen counter, Alison Waddy reflected on the past 15 months that she and her family have spent living here — and the many more years to come as she and her husband raise their children, ages 5 and 8.
“We love our home. People come here and they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect this here,’ ” she said. “I feel like we can show people that Anacostia can look amazing — you just have to put work in and it can look just like any other home.”