By Katie Williams
Anacostia is a predominantly Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. endangered by decades-long disinvestment and the tensions between the need for economic investment and the risk of displacing long-time residents. It is a community that cares deeply about the heritage of their historic neighborhood—Anacostia was the cherished home of Frederick Douglass—and wants to see it preserved and revitalized, just as white, wealthier neighborhoods in DC have been.
Recognizing this need, in 2013, The L’Enfant Trust, a historic preservation nonprofit in DC, launched its Historic Properties Redevelopment Program (HPRP) in Historic Anacostia. The L’Enfant Trust’s HPRP is a revolving fund program that acquires and rehabilitates severely distressed historic buildings. The program focuses on identifying properties that are facing demolition by neglect where rehabilitation will have a positive impact on neighborhood revitalization and stabilization. Since 2013, The L’Enfant Trust has successfully rehabilitated five properties, which following renovations, were sold to low- to moderate-income, first-time homeowners including teachers, health care workers, and government employees all of who serve the community but are often priced out of DC’s expensive housing market.
As an organization that has spent the previous decades helping to preserve historic properties in the majority white neighborhoods of Northwest DC, it was important to us to develop strong ties with the Anacostia community to demonstrate our commitment to historic preservation across all eight wards of DC. Critical to our success in Anacostia over the past decade has been working directly with community members and listening to the wants and needs of residents to inform our work.
As we engaged with neighbors during the rehabilitation of our first two properties, the community made it clear to us that city-owned, vacant properties were an issue in the neighborhood. Residents voiced their concerns through email, at fundraising events, and on walking tours lamenting to us that these severely dilapidated properties attracted drug activity and crime, affecting the safety and quality of life of nearby neighbors.
Several neighbors even hosted us at their homes to hold community meetings regarding the problem properties. We also made sure to distribute flyers around the neighborhood to reach folks who may not be on social media, have access to the internet, or email. Flyers were also a good way to reach elderly community members, or those with disabilities, who may be less mobile and unable to attend in-person community events.
In 2018 after a robust community led effort, DC City Council passed D.C. Act 22-379 transferring four, city-owned properties to The L’Enfant Trust to be rehabilitated and sold as workforce housing. In testimonies before DC Council’s Committee on Housing & Community Development, residents of Anacostia voiced their desire for preserving the unique historic and architectural legacy of Anacostia and creating new affordable homeownership opportunities for families.
"The L'Enfant Trust has delivered on their promise to the Anacostia community. There's been a history here of other developers and nonprofits abandoning similar projects halfway through or producing shoddy flips, but The L'Enfant Trust has done what they said they'd do creating quality, affordable homes to last for generations," said Charles E. Wilson, co-founder and president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association.
Continued Community Involvement
Staying connected to the Anacostia community is critical to the success of the Trust’s revolving fund program. With our program’s upcoming historic rehabilitation of 1220 Maple View Place, SE (a large Queen Anne-style house built in 1902) and hopes of growing our HPRP, it’s important that our organization continues to remain in-touch and connected to the Anacostia community. We also recognize that our relationship with these restoration projects and the community will continue long after the actual physical work is done.
While the COVID-19 pandemic limited our community outreach in-person events over the past couple of years, we’ve continued to participate in virtual meetings, share progress updates via neighborhood email list serves and the Nextdoor neighborhood app, stay up to date on neighborhood issues with local leaders from the Historic Anacostia Block Association, the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society, and other neighborhood groups. We also try to support Historic Anacostia residents as a community resource for technical preservation, offering ongoing guidance on the care and maintenance of a historic property.
Greta Fuller, co-president of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society, who worked tirelessly on behalf of the Anacostia community to support The L’Enfant Trust in our negotiations with the District government over the transfer of the four properties said recently, “The Trust regularly attends community meetings in Anacostia and is always willing to meet with residents and consult on matters of community revitalization and historic preservation. I, and many other community members, consider the Trust a genuine friend and key partner in the effort to preserve and protect Anacostia's unique cultural and architectural heritage, while also providing affordable housing opportunities.”
Developing these ties with the community not only brings success to the program and the community, it has also helped us with our own fundraising efforts. Just recently, we received nearly 40 letters of support from neighborhood residents in support of a congressional community project funding application, which was a testament to the importance of maintaining these on-the-ground relationships for our organization’s own financial benefit.
Looking to the Future
Of course, there is always room for growth and there were lessons learned along the way where we could have done a better job engaging with the community. In particular, we want to work on reaching community members, both homeowners and the neighborhood’s many renters alike, who want to create more affordable housing opportunities and revitalize their neighborhood, but don’t see historic preservation as having an important role to play. It’s up to us to show them how our work can benefit their community by creating more equitable housing opportunities through the transformation of vacant, dilapidated properties.
As we look to grow our HPRP, we’ll focus on creating new ways to solicit feedback from the community through surveys, events, email marketing, and other grassroots strategies. We also want to be able to grow our programming to include more educational opportunities for local student groups and community members to learn about our HPRP projects, career opportunities in preservation, construction, architecture and engineering, and the unique architectural heritage of Anacostia.
The L’Enfant Trust’s Historic Properties Redevelopment Program has proven that historic preservation can be utilized to create affordable homeownership opportunities. With the growth of our program and our sights on the horizon, community buy-in will be more important than ever.
Katie Williams is the Operations and Communications Manager at The L'Enfant Trust.