Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Repost: Overlooked and Underserved: The Ward 8 Story

SOLD! 4th St Vistas 
First posted 11/27/13

With news of Walmart reneging on their plans to build two new stores east of the river I felt compelled to repost this editorial from 2013. While some progress has been made in our economic development story many things remain unchanged. 

Five years ago when I started Congress Heights on the Rise it was to shine a light on issues in my Ward 8 neighborhood that were being ignored. Important issues that were not being addressed by the media, the government, and the business community at large. In many ways I think our situation east of the river can be chalked up to being overlooked and underserved.

Yesterday, Aaron Wiener of Housing Complex looked into two auctions I raised here on CHotR a few weeks ago: the auction of the 4th St Vistas subdivision and the auction of a business plaza on MLK Avenue. Both auctions took place in Congress Heights.  The Housing Complex article not only focuses on the auctions themselves but the overall problem of Ward 8 flying so completely under the radar of D.C.'s notice that none of the big developers, DC government or even our Councilmember was really aware of the auctions and the winning bidder (a man named Roger Black).

From the Housing Complex article:
That is the full extent of the information I was able to gather about Black. I couldn't reach him by phone; Sacha Moise, a real estate agent who helped him at the auction, has called, texted, and left him voicemails over the past two weeks, but got no response. None of the developers active in the area with whom I spoke have heard of him. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has as much knowledge as anyone when he says, "I understand he's a white developer."
I can't say this enough, east of the river is so...segregated from the District in terms of real estate, economic development, and employment that at lot of times it feels like we are living in a separate city. The gap is so huge and the challenges are so many that there really should be an agency tasked with just monitoring and servicing Ward 7 and Ward 8 issues. Right now we are just getting lost in the applesauce of DC's issues and needs and I am not really sure who is looking out for us -- assuming they are even looking in the first place. I found out about these auctions by just doing a simple real estate search on Remax yet they went almost completely unnoticed by the development community. If I hadn't raised the issue of the auctions here and asked for Aaron's help in researching them I have no doubt we wouldn't be talking about them anytime soon. No one is really checking for us like that, not in a meaningful sense anyway.

If big real estate deals are happening like this one in Congress Heights and no one in a position of power noticed (or seemed to care), it makes me wonder what else is being missed? How can effective plans be made to solve Ward 8's unemployment, economic development, and housing crisis when no one seems familiar with the real problems in the first place? So if I seem skeptical of new housing projects coming online I have good reason. What is claimed in a press release doesn't always track with what I am experiencing in the streets of Ward 8. If I seem frustrated it is because I have been waiting a long time. This frustration is felt by many east of the river.  Almost daily a neighbor shares with me their concerns and frustration that action is slow to happen. I am hearing more hopelessness from people who have been fighting the good fight for years. I have neighbors who are moving out of Ward 8 and who are talking of moving out of Ward 8. Even I had to have an honest talk with myself about what more could I realistically do and what more could I take. This community advocacy stuff is hard.

I agree with Councilmember Barry 100% percent, Ward 8 has a serious homeownership problem. That is at the core of our other issues: unemployment, economic development, perception, and amneties.

But the powers that be can't get enough of creating more low-income and "affordable" rental housing options in a ward where the home values are so depressed that an unknown developer was able to buy a 59 unit subdivision for less than the cost of a McMansion. We live in a ward where an entire block of storefronts went up for auction without a sale because it didn't meet the reserve. We have homeowners who have experienced a 50% - 75% loss in their home values over the past five years. I'm not saying I am against all "affordable" housing projects in Ward 8. What I am saying is that we need jobs and amneties to go with those new housing projects. Without jobs (and the amneties and businesses that bring jobs) those low-income and "affordable" housing projects aren't really helping the situation -- in many ways they are making it worse because they keep the income levels depressed and keeping the retailers (and their jobs) at bay. It would be nice to go to some ribbon cutting ceremonies that involved some new businesses and retail and not just another remodeled group home.

DC we have an equality problem.

There are incentives out there for developers to create projects that would produce jobs and amenities for "underserved" communities but for some reason those incentives aren't coming east of the river and you don't get much more "underserved" than us. Why can't Ward 8 developers get some of those tax abatements that are fueling revitalization, jobs, and amenities in other parts of the city? Why are our only incentives low-income housing based? Why is the focus more on job training than job creation? Why does Ward 8 still only have one grocery store for 73,000 people?

Until those questions are answered we will continue to be on the outside looking in. So while I am glad that Housing Complex highlighted this issue I am under no illusions that anything is going to come out of it. I would be surprised if the article even gets 10 comments. Ward 8 issues just aren't considered DC issues, at least not yet.

Despite all the "One City" lip service it is just too convenient to keep Ward 8 on the back burner, out of the spotlight, and shut out of D.C.'s prosperity. What fueled my move to east of the river six years ago were the plans to develop Sklyand and the relocation of the Department of Homeland Security to the West campus, and the development of the East campus. I believed the hype. I believed the press releases. East of the river was finally on the cusp of economic development and revitalization! Jobs were coming here! Get here now while you can!

Fast forward six years and we are still talking about the same two projects -- Sklyand (Ward 7) and Saint Elizabeths (Ward 8). Nothing of large scale commercial value has come online in Ward 8 since the Giant opening in 2007.  During that same time period new grocery stores, shops, Walmarts, and more development projects than you can shake a stick at have come online west of the river. Southwest will probably get their soccer stadium long before the first shovel hits the ground at Skyland. DC has shown us they can get the job done -- and quickly -- for projects they really want.

There is a mighty disconnect and its fault line is at the Anacostia river.

And that realization, that east of the river might as well be at the other side of the world just makes my neighbors and I want to throw up our hands in frustration and defeat. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful things about living in Ward 8: the people, the green spaces, the housing affordability are just a few of the many perks of east of the river life.  That being said it could be better.

As a Ward 8 resident just pointed out on Facebook: "We have a dedicated councilmember Marion Barry and two at large members Councilmember Anita Bonds and David Grosso. And, a Mayor Vincent C. Gray that lives East of the River. SOS!"

Go HERE to read the full Housing Complex article.

Simply put, the sale of a 59-lot site to a developer no one has heard of, in an auction that the city officials I talked to outside of Ward 8 had no idea had occurred, would not happen in Petworth or Cleveland Park or Capitol Hill—or even Anacostia, a struggling part of Ward 8 that has recently received outsized public attention. But it happens in Congress Heights, where residents complain of neglect from the city with good reason. 
And this is not the only case. The day after the Congress Heights Vistas auction, a 16-unit, four-storefront, 18,000-square-foot property on the neighborhoodĂ•s main drag, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, was scheduled to be auctioned. I was unable to determine how much was paid for it, who bought it, or even if the auction took place. 
Last week, Mayor Vince Gray announced a $187 million investment in affordable housing, and one of the properties he plans to rehabilitate is a 20-building, 266-apartment complex just north of Congress Heights, the aptly named Parkway Overlook, which has sat vacant and overlooked for more than six years. The behemoth of a property received practically no attention from the city government or the press until a Washington City Paper story and a mayoral visit at the behest of a local ministry this summer.

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Time for a change said...

I read the article on Washington City Paper twice. The question of the day is what plans does Black have for this unfinished development? Is it true that this development also had sewage problems? Is it possible to interview him here on this blog? (Hopefully he will cooperate.)

Geo said...

I lived in Congress Heights in the eighties and nineties and loved it.

Then as it is now the DC political and business power broker's attitude toward East of the river has been totally unacceptable. Judging from their actions over the years it's not unrealistic to harbor the notion that if Maryland offered the DC government a couple of billion dollars for everything East, DC would would sell it quicker than a New York minute.

I agree with your observation on low income housing. Low income housing is good, but without businesses to generate jobs and opportunities low income housing is going to simply prolong the status qou of Congress Heights and surrounding areas.

The area needs major retailers and manufacturers to jump start the bogged down economic engine. The DC Government should seriously focus on attracting one for starters. Whatever they have to give the company in incentives, then give it to them because after that first company sets up, others will certainly follow.

The result would be a revived economy, new homeowners and renters moving in , jobs etc.

I don't know why the DC Government can't see that if they really paid attention to the East it would be win-win situation for everyone.

The Advoc8te said...

@Geo I could not have said it better myself. You summed up the situation perfectly. A strong EotR is a strong DC and I don't know why DC government can't understand that. By turning a blind eye (and an empty pocketbook) on east of the river DC is really missing out on some wonderful opportunities.

@Time For Change
I would interview him if I could but I have am very doubtful that if he wouldn't make himself available for the City Paper he wouldn't make himself available for me. The long and short of it is that developers don't need to talk to us -- heck, they are just taking a page out of the lack of interest that has been shown here for decades.

I am under no illusion that this article is going to change the status quo. It is just too profitable to ignore the situation and to patch it with social service initiatives.

The Advoc8te said...

The city wold rather invest $100 million dollars building more low income rental housing in Ward 8 than investing $10 million dollars in bringing some major retailers and manufacturers to Ward 8 that would provide jobs and raise the income basis of the residents who are here now.

Poverty pimping is just entirely too profitable and too easy east of the river and that is not going to change anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

I say send this information to Channel 7 Sam Ford is the District news chief. Let them do an investigation into this matter as well as the whole development issue. As an aside I read the city only collects 5.5 million in rent form the Nationals. That is not even 500k a month. What the helll is going on?