By Lauren Oswalt McHale
In 2012 The L’Enfant Trust launched its award-winning—and Washington, D.C.’s first—Historic Properties Redevelopment Program (HPRP) in the Anacostia Historic District. The HPRP uses historic preservation as the key to reclaiming derelict buildings and transforming them into first-rate, turn-key homes that bankers will readily finance for new homeowners—members of the city’s workforce who have long been priced out of the expensive D.C. real estate market.
Incorporated in 1854, Anacostia was one of D.C.'s earliest suburbs and is physically separated from the rest of the city by the Anacostia River. It is rich in historic character, with deep roots in D.C.’s African American community, but like so many other urban communities, it started to experience a rapid decline in population and community investment in the 1960s.
Still today many buildings in Anacostia sit vacant and deteriorate year after year. In most cases, the cost of rehabilitating these structures now far exceeds their market value. Neither for-profit developers nor private homeowners in Anacostia can afford to take on these projects. Thanks to generous philanthropic partners, like the 1772 Foundation, private individuals, and local businesses, the Trust’s HPRP was able to take on two of these “negative-equity” projects and reclaim them for the community as sorely needed affordable workforce homeownership opportunities.
Creating a Home
In fall 2013 the Trust acquired the first of these two projects, 1347 Maple View Place, SE, also known as “Little Green.” Henry A. Griswold, a friend and associate of abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, built the home between 1887 and 1894. Douglass lived just a short distance away at Cedar Hill, now a National Historic Site.
When the Trust acquired the Queen Anne–style house, it was structurally compromised due to the removal of the rear exterior wall and some load-bearing interior walls by a previous owner. The Trust’s extensive work on the building included structural stabilization; reconstruction of the rear section of the house; and restoration of the original siding, trim, and the only extant original window.
As the Trust was finishing the rehabilitation of this house, Stephen Gerber and his wife were looking for a single-family home. Gerber, a firefighter paramedic for the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, is required to live within the District as a term of employment. Finding a home that not only was affordable in D.C.’s very expensive housing market but also could accommodate their growing family was a challenge until they looked to Anacostia.
The Trust put the fully rehabilitated 1347 Maple View Place on the market in October 2014. Several interested buyers, the Trust’s staff and board, and members of the Anacostia community attended the open house. The Trust received seven offers, and the Gerber family won the bid. They closed on their new home the following month and soon welcomed their first child. “Living in a beautifully restored historic home within the city limits is something that we could not have imagined would be a possibility for us,” the Gerbers said.
The Trust knew from the start that the cost of acquiring and rehabilitating the building would not be recovered from the sale, but the impact it made on neighborhood revitalization was immeasurable. Even though the Trust financed the majority of the development costs with capital from its investments, it would have not been possible without two generous grants from the 1772 Foundation; support from individual donors; and in-kind corporate donations from Architectural Ceramics, Enviroshake, Marvin Windows, and Ikea—to name a few.
In July 2016 the DC Council introduced the Historic Preservation of Derelict Properties Act of 2016, which transfers four vacant, city-owned buildings on the verge of demolition by neglect to the Trust’s HPRP. The legislation calls for the houses to be rehabilitated and sold as workforce housing.
Workforce housing is often defined as households with one or more moderate-income workers essential to the economic vitality of a city or region and the success of its corporations, institutions, and governmental functions. These households make too much money to qualify for significant federal housing subsidies, but they don’t make enough to afford the market prices for homes or apartments in the communities where they work.
The Gerbers, who know a thing or two about workforce housing, were strong supporters of the legislation and of the Trust’s HPRP. Stephen Gerber took time away from his demanding job to testify in front of the DC Council. When asked about living in one of the Trust’s rehabilitated historic houses, he explained that, “The quality of the work … is unparalleled—especially, because I go into people’s houses every day I’m at work, so I’ve seen the gamut of homes in the District, and mine is up there.” When explaining HPRP projects, Gerber told the Council, “The Trust sold the properties at a loss … I would have never been able to afford my home if it was listed for the amount of money that was invested in its restoration.”
The DC Council sees the legislation as a win-win for the city, preserving Historic Anacostia’s rich architectural heritage and providing much-needed workforce housing for more D.C. firefighters, police officers, health care workers, and teachers without using ever-shrinking local and federal government dollars.
The DC Council passed the Historic Preservation of Derelict Properties Act in December 2016. The Anacostia community and the Trust are now looking to the District’s mayor to comply with the law and allow the Trust to undertake this important historic rehabilitation work. Even with the legislation in place, the mayor is at odds with the DC Council regarding how best to address the four long-ignored, city-held structures.
The Trust is committed to creating housing that one or more moderate-income members of D.C.’s workforce can afford. Each house will be priced within Ward 8’s affordable-housing spectrum, and the Trust will conduct community outreach at the Ward 8 Homebuyers Club to reach as many existing Anacostia residents as possible. A multiyear homeownership requirement will be included in each property’s sales contract to ensure the new owners’ long-term commitment to the Anacostia neighborhood.
The Trust is standing by and ready to begin this work with philanthropic support, including grant monies and Program Related Investments—not government/taxpayer monies. It hopes to find a path to partnership with all branches of the D.C. government to use historic preservation as a tool for community revitalization and for creating workforce homeownership opportunities. Stephen Gerber explained it best when he told the DC Council that, “The Trust is uniquely positioned to take on the work of restoring these properties, and they have a proven record of successfully completing the job in a timely manner while remaining sensitive to community concerns.”
Lauren Oswalt McHale is the executive director of The L’Enfant Trust in Washington, D.C.
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