When Dewey Sampson moved to a small Victorian on 14th Street SE in 2010, he knew he had moved to a unique stretch of Anacostia. The block between V and U streets was the site of the Old Market Square, a gathering place in the historic community, and the price for his home was impossible to pass on for what he wanted with his wife.
But the house next door was an abandoned, dilapidated mess, so much of one that Sampson was intent on doing something about it.
“We had some squatter issues, things of that nature,” Sampson said of the house, which was known to serve as a crack den. He added that he once considered buying the house: “I didn’t really feel comfortable with my wife being around those situations. So, I definitely had to call and got the house boarded up.”
Then, a stroke of luck. The L’Enfant Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historic properties, bought the run-down house for $112,000 and fully renovated it. The organization, known for offering tax incentives to owners of historic properties around the city, was looking for a place to start a new rehabilitation program, and 2010 14th St. SE, the source of Sampson’s angst, was a perfect fit. The group will now sell the house at market rate and use the profit to invest in more properties around the city.
All the while, it has restored a bit of pride to a neighborhood whose name alone still carries a certain stigma in Washington.
On Tuesday, representatives from the organization, D.C. officials and residents will mark the house’s transformation with a ribbon-cutting and ceremony. But by that time, the hardest part will be over.
“We’re sort of like the emergency room of historic buildings,” Carol Goldman, the trust’s president, said. She added that the new initiative, known as a revolving fund program, represents a shift in how the Trust identifies preservation projects. For years, the group has largely encouraged property donations and volunteer easements to foster preservation. The new program was initially funded by a $50,000 grant from a Connecticut foundation.
The group, which holds the most historic easements in the country, has bought properties to renovate in other places around the United States, but the Anacostia home was its first in the District. To assess the right deal, the nonprofit group solicited community input about which properties it should buy and is acquiring its next set of homes to renovate.
“Anacostia was clearly the place to launch this because they had these things sitting,” Goldman said, referring to the swath of historic houses in the community. “A number of them were crack dens. Lots of syringes. For decades. We thought, boy, if we can figure out a way to use our nonprofit funding mechanisms to rehab these buildings and put them back and stabilize and revitalize the neighborhood, that’s really good use of the trust and funding partners, our nonprofit dollars.”
Greta Fuller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for that part of the neighborhood and a member of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society, said she has welcomed the trust’s presence in the community.
“I liked it from the beginning because when I talked to them, they had a proven track record. They knew what they were doing with historic preservation. That was number one for our historic district,” Fuller said. “Long story short, they made something happen in less than six months that I’ve seen people try to do in five years.
“I think it’s a win-win for the neighborhood. I think that when people really start seeing the work that they have done on these houses, that they, too, will see the possibilities of what they can do with their house.”
But not everyone is so sure. The house will be sold at market rate, which means that in Anacostia, it will probably still be more affordable than many homes in Washington.
Ann Batiste, 73, works up the block at the St. Teresa of Avila Parish Life Center administrative office as director of Youth Faith Formation and wonders whether refurbishing homes is just another way of pushing people out, something she’s seen all over Southeast Washington. It’s a frequent concern from many longtime residents like Batiste.
Referring to one of the community’s main streets, she said: “When I look at what’s happening on Good Hope Road, I look at that old Woolworth Five and Dime building, and the arts center that’s in there. The first time I stopped long enough to pay attention to it, my immediate thought was: Who’s that for? Current residents or anticipated residents?”
For Fuller, that point of view is shortsighted. “We want these houses fixed up because we’re putting equity and we’re putting our heart and soul into this neighborhood. And we want what everyone else wants in the District,” Fuller said. “We’re not trying to run up the rates where nobody can buy. I think we are a long way away from market rate displacing people right now.”
Goldman and company’s work could go a long way toward people rethinking what they understand about Anacostia.
But there are still people who shudder at the word “Anacostia.” The concept of restoring beautiful historic homes might change those notions.
At the firehouse up the street from the old crack house, a garden is set up. On the planter’s box, the signs send a message that the block seems to be taking to heart: “Everybody grows.”
To read previous columns by Clinton Yates, go to www.washingtonpost.com/pb/clinton-yates.