The D.C. Council and Mayor Bowser Finally Agree on What Should Happen to Four Vacant City-Owned Houses in Anacostia

In an unexpected turn of events, District lawmakers and Mayor Muriel Bowser have reached consensus on the fate of four properties in Historic Anacostia that have remained derelict and in D.C.’s possession for many years.

Since late 2016, both sides had wrangled over which branch of government has the legal authority to control redevelopment plans for the properties. They also engaged in a lengthy dispute over which nonprofit developer should refurbish the vacant historic houses sitting on the sites into affordable homes, and at which affordability levels the finished products should be sold.

At the same time, Anacostia residents decried the eyesores that they were being forced to continue living with in their community. They said they were concerned about the structural integrity of the houses, potential decreases in surrounding property values, and illicit activity at the sites, including drug use, graffiti, and public urination—all while real estate prices in Anacostia kept rising.

It appears that officials are prepared to put aside their differences and assuage residents’ worries at last. Bowser is set to propose emergency legislation today that would imminently transfer the houses to the L’Enfant Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit that specializes in historic preservation projects and previously restored two other historic houses in Anacostia.

The legislation requires the L’Enfant Trust to redevelop the properties into “workforce housing” for civil servants like police and teachers, or other moderate-income families. Specifically, the homes would be set aside for households earning up to 120 percent of D.C.’s area median income—or about $132,000 a year for a family of four in 2017.

Because the houses are designated as historic, they cannot be demolished and must be renovated in line with historic standards. After they are refurbished, the L’Enfant Trust would sell them to qualified families who commit to living in them as their primary residences for at least five years.

If the trust’s name sounds familiar, that’s because the D.C. Council originally ordered Bowser to hand over the houses to the nonprofit, at Anacostia residents’ urging, last December. But the mayor’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversaw the properties in a portfolio of dozens of unoccupied city-owned sites (about half of which are in Wards 7 and 8), had conflicting ideas.

After DHCD Director Polly Donaldson refused to discuss the Council’s bill at an oversight hearing in March, the Bowser administration claimed that the legislature lacked constitutional powers to dispose of properties under D.C.’s Home Rule Act. The administration also argued that the Council’s action represented a “sole-source” giveaway to the L’Enfant Trust and evaded a competitive bidding process.

But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson strongly disagreed with this analysis, noting that the Council frequently exercises purview over public-land redevelopments, and that Bowser hadn’t vetoed the Council’s bill. He said her plan called for making available more than $1.5 million from D.C.’s affordable housing fund, while the L’Enfant Trust would do the work at no cost to taxpayers.

The Bowser administration proceeded with its own plan anyway. In April, DHCD announcedits selection of the nonprofit Development Corporation of Columbia Heights to transform the properties into either for-sale or rental affordable housing for people earning up to 50 and 80 percent of the area median income—or about $55,000 and $88,000 a year, respectively, for a family of four.

In a harsh statement following the announcement, Mendelson accused Bowser of “wast[ing] money and violat[ing] the law.” “The course the Administration is now taking—to ignore the legal transfer of title, to unnecessarily spend precious dollars, to disregard the Anacostia community, and to award the houses to an inexperienced developer—is not governing in the best interests of the District,” he said.

Later in the spring, during the Council’s budget process for fiscal year 2018, Mendelson quietly formulated statutes that blocked the Bowser administration from using any District funds to get the houses redeveloped. In effect, this made it even more difficult for DCCH, in collaboration with DHCD, to come up with the financing necessary for the below-market projects.

By September, it became clear that the executive branch and its chosen developer hadn’t found a way to advance the redevelopments. That month, in a two-sentence email to those who had signed up to testify, DHCD abruptly cancelled a public hearing it had scheduled on the properties, triggering further discontent from Anacostia residents.

The four houses are still ramshackle today. But that is poised to soon change with Bowser’s seeming about-face regarding the L’Enfant Trust, and essentially guaranteed approval from the Council. In a statement this week, her administration points to Mendelson’s budget rider as the impetus for it opting to introduce the emergency legislation.

“The Bowser Administration has always been focused on returning the Anacostia homes to productive use as quickly as possible,” says Chanda Washington, a spokeswoman for the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “After the Council legislation prevented the use of DHCD gap financing that would ensure the creation of affordable housing, the Administration decided that this was the best path to achieve that goal.”

At a legislative press conference on Monday, Mendelson described Bowser’s proposal as “substantially similar” to what the Council has already passed as law, and noted that he has discussed the issue with the executive branch. “I think the mayor saw that these houses continued to deteriorate, and the standoff, which came down to really who has the right to introduce the bill, was not helpful.”

“The Council made it clear that we did not like the alternative,” Mendelson continued. “I can’t speak for her, but I think that she saw that the neighborhood wasn’t getting any better because of this, and the houses weren’t getting any better because of this.”

Nevertheless, Bowser’s move surprised the L’Enfant Trust and DCCH. Both nonprofits say the administration did not inform them of its recent change in direction.

André Byers, the president and CEO of the latter group, says he only learned about Bowser’s legislation on Monday, a day before the Council is supposed to consider it. Despite losing out on the chance to redevelop the houses, he says DCCH is “proud of the team we pulled together,” which included architecture professors from Howard University, “and all the work we’ve done.”

L’Enfant Trust President Lauren McHale says Mendelson told her about the new proposal last Thursday, and up until that point the trust believed that getting to rehabilitate the properties was “a no-go.” “We just didn’t think it was going to happen,” she explains. “We still are very concerned about these buildings and we want them turned around. It’s been another year and they’re not in any better shape.”

As was the case several months ago, McHale says the L’Enfant Trust has secured sufficient private financing to renovate at least one of the houses, and it can use the revenue from any eventual sales to fund the remaining projects. An outside foundation has also awarded the nonprofit a $75,000 grant to refurbish the houses, contingent on it receiving the titles to all the properties.

“The real win will be when the houses are done and returned to the community,” McHale notes. She says that based on the trust’s past work in Anacostia, it would take about six months to finish renovations on each house and sell, adding, “We’re excited to get started.”

The four properties are 1220 Maple View Place SE, 1648 U St. SE, 1518 W St. SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE.