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Old Anacostia's spirit unshakable despite vacant properties

Anacostia waits. With entire half-blocks of its commercial district vacant, many of the remaining occupied buildings serve a plenitude of aid agencies. With nearly a fifth of the historic neighborhood's residential properties vacant, this area of the city remains an economic dead zone.

Photo by the author.

Although a smattering of small businesses have opened in the past year in Anacostia, joining established merchants including a music store, clothing boutique, flower shop, and Jamaican eatery, and a promising arts district has begun to attract visitors from within and outside the neighborhood, this small corner of the city remains lost, forgotten economically.

The headquarters of the Department of Housing and Community Development anchors the gateway to Historic Anacostia at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, but many storefronts sit vacant on either side, down Good Hope Road SE and up "the Avenue."

Northwest corner of 13th & Good Hope Road SE. Photo by the author.
At the northwest corner of 13th and Good Hope Road, a former gas station was torn down years ago, leaving a vacant lot. At 1909-1913 MLK Jr. Avenue SE the external shells of three adjacent two story brick buildings covered with multicolor wheat paste flyers loom over the street. More than five years before, a fire gutted the interiors.

Across the street, a handmade sign in recently opened Second Chance Convenience Store proclaims, "!Sorry! no E.B.T" posted next to a sign that reads "NO Change Without A Purchase." This is the Southside. This is Old Anacostia. Pretentiousness doesn't stifle life here. "Watermellon [sic] Slices 1.75-2.25"

Anacostia's stock of vacant residential properties

2315 High Street SE. Photo by the author.
According to a limited canvassing report provided by DCRA, Historic Anacostia has 40 vacant properties, 16 blighted properties, and 2 vacant lots. 3 of the properties in the report, the Big K homes, are cited as "government owned."

Vacant properties are "complaint generated" according to DCRA, meaning that as citizens report the properties, DCRA follows up. According to officials I spoke with, DCRA has a staff of no more than two responsible for visiting and inspecting vacant properties across the entire city.

Although Anacostians have been diligent in their canvassing and reporting, a recent walk of the residential neighborhood revealed vacant properties and lots that have, presumably, not yet been reported to DCRA. For example, the list of 40 vacant properties omitted several abandoned homes on W Street SE between 13th and 16th Street, some less than a half block from the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site.

1326 Valley Place SE. Photo by the author.
Another house not included in DCRA's list is 1326 Valley Place SE, owned by Darwin Trust Properties, LLC, whose "CEO was incarcerated" during ongoing demolition by neglect litigation. Therefore, the city "successfully secured a court order allowing DCRA to abate the violations."

To put pressure on owners of vacant and blighted properties, city legislators created a Class 3 property tax rate for vacant commercial and residential properties and a Class 4 tax rate for blighted properties. Class 3 properties are taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, Class 4 properties $10 per $100 of assessed value.

In contrast, Class 1, residential real property including multi-family, are assessed at $0.85 per $100, and Class 2, commercial and industrial, are taxed $1.65 per $100 up to the first $3 million of assessed value, and $1.85 for value exceeding $3 million.

"[W]ith regard to the high number of city-owned properties that remain vacant and in some cases blighted, I share your frustrations," writes Nicholas Majett, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "Hampered by recent economic downtown in the economy, a number of D.C. Government offices remain focused on this problem. At this time, DC owned properties are treated like privately owned properties with respect to vacancy and maintenance. The difference is that there is no tax reclassification."

Historic rehabilitation grants provide hope

Photo by the author.
Anacostia became recognized by the city as a Historic District in 1973. The Anacostia Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places says,
The Anacostia Historic District is an area of approximately twenty squares in southeast Washington, generally encompassing Uniontown, the Griswold Subdivision, and immediately adjacent areas.

The architectural character of the Anacostia area is unique in Washington. Nowhere else in the District of Columbia does there exist such a collection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century small-scale frame and brick working-class housing.

The Anacostia Historic District is dominated by three major architectural styles—the Cottage Style, the Italianate, and the Washington Row Style. A number of Queen Anne houses are scattered throughout the historic district.

During the past several decades, much of the housing in area of the Anacostia Historic District has fallen into a state of disrepair. In recent years community organizations, the Neighborhood Housing Service and the Department of Housing and Community Development have been encouraging people to rehabilitate their houses, many of which are in good condition, needing only routine maintenance work. A number of single-family houses have recently undergone dramatic changes as a result of rehabilitation work.

In 2007, Anacostia was selected by HPO for a pilot program that awarded competitive grants of up to $35,000 to repair and restore the exterior of the area's historic homes. More than fifty grants were awarded to homeowners totaling nearly $900,000. The average grant size was $16,856.

Despite strong community participation, the grant program was not renewed for the neighborhood.

What will happen to Anacostia's vacant properties?

Is Old Anacosia's historicity part of its livable future? Will forthcoming change whitewash its history, making the neighborhood unrecognizable? Change happens slow here.

The default inclination of many in our city is to frame and discuss development and revitalization in terms of identity instead of economics and investment. By steadfastly misdirecting the conversation away from policy, for years, and towards identity Anacostians, newcomers and generational residents, have suffered gravely.

Change has been painfully slow to reach Anacostia.
Whereas city officials, academics, the media, and others have begun touting Anacostia as an emerging neighborhood célèbre there is a raw disconnect between the hype and the reality.

Residents want the vacant properties cleaned up and dealt with yesterday while seemingly everyone from bloggers to elected officials and bureaucrats are overlooking the problems of the here and now to speculate on the possibilities of tomorrow. To many, optimism in Anacostia is an oxymoron.

Plans have come and gone while the crumbling homes and buildings of Old Anacostia continue to sit, as they have for years, decades, and wait for life to return to this small bend of the capital city.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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"The default inclination of many in our city is to frame and discuss development and revitalization in terms of identity instead of economics and investment."

Let's be clear: the "many" are often Anacostia residents. The author goes on to make the distinction between the problems of today versus the development of tomorrow. So we need to fix all the old building before constructing new ones? Eradicate all crime or poverty before advocating new investment? I'm really not sure what the author means to say. The truth is that there is no way to please everyone. Development always wins in the end, so instead of arguing about development taking place, we need to have real conversations about how that development can serve the most good.

by MJ on Aug 9, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

There is some good and some bad in Anacostia. The city and the non-profits have made the area a social service ghetto. Thanks for telling the truth even if it hurts. The city only moves when it's shamed into action and their shameful treatment of Anacostia has been going on forever.

by James Barry on Aug 9, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

Vacant unreported properties are just one of the many problems facing Anacostia but this one is easier to fix than most. The city has employed a lot of resources (including a contractor) to identify illegal basement apartment and bring them into compliance. Why not shift some of those resources toward identifying vacant properties and following up on complaints? Seems like vacant properties produce a lot more negative externalities than illegal basement apartments.

by Falls Church on Aug 9, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

Well, ok, I've had a long and boring day, so let me be the one that throws in the flare: Gosh, Anacostia can be happy with its CM. Luckily, he has been a great force for the good of the neighborhood..... Or maybe not.

by Jasper on Aug 9, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

@MJ I don't think the point the author is making is that Anacostia needs to delay development. I think he is saying that BUSINESS and DEVELOPMENT is what is missing with all the vacant stores. But I think he is also saying that it's pretty messed up this area is in this bad of a condition and new development and the vacant homes and stores are not mutually exclusive.

Areas come in and out of favor all the time as I've seen it in my 40 plus years. When it's in favor people from out of town and connected to the city politicans make money. When the neighborhood is out of favor the people leave town laughing all the way to the bank. It's happened with North Capitol Street , Georgia Avenue, and other places. I hope this isn't what is happening over there in Anacostia.

by Tonya on Aug 9, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

I argue that neighborhoods need to create their own multifaceted plans. I have been talking with someone in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in Baltimore (I spent a day there last month, but haven't written anything publicly yet) about extending their greening approaches ( ) to other areas of their program, housing, schools & youth, intraorganizational development and community capacity building, and local business development.

WRT housing, I suggested that they need to differentiate between foreclosure counseling, and recapturing already vacant houses and lots (they have a few hundred vacant buildings), and have a thumbnail action plan for each property.

They could start with this:


And Mallach's _Bringing Buildings Back_.

Anacostia needs to do the same.

by Richard Layman on Aug 9, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

DC is America's ghetto, and Anacostia is a basketcase. Let the market sort out these matters since we are not a socialist country, and stop throwing taxpayer dollars down the hatch.

by Liz Hurley on Aug 9, 2011 9:32 pm • linkreport

Agreed, this is a city where students propose a lively mixed-use project for SW Washington at Buzzards Point, and the city proposes a prison. Just hopeless.

Gonna get worse with the current ghetto mayor

by Mark Harrison on Aug 9, 2011 10:32 pm • linkreport

Here's the dirty little secret of DC's demolition by neglect law: It's rarely enforced because the burden of proof is so high and when it is enforced, convictions are a rare occurrence. If a person doesn't have the money to pay for a massive renovation, what's a judge going to do? Throw them in jail? Force them to sell? Neither option is likely to survive either on appeal or in the court of public opinion. So most of these owners make bare minimum repairs and there's not much more the city can do about.

And just how serious is the city about dealing with vacant and blighted properties when all it pays for is a measly 2 inspectors to cover the entire city? How many slowly deteriorating properties are DHCD and DCHA sitting on? What's the downside to those agencies' inactions?

Articles like this are informative and may lead to the local politicos pounding a table and saying how outrageous it is. But will it lead to an increased budget for inspectors? Nope. Will it lead to anyone at DHCD or DCHA being fired? Nope. Will it lead to a re-thinking of the city's vacant property strategy? Nope. Vacant properties are simply not enough of a big problem in enough areas to get the city's political class' attention and money.

by Fritz on Aug 10, 2011 8:00 am • linkreport

The City is the worst offender of vacant and blighted properties in Old Anacostia. They not only own a ton of properties along the commercial corridor and throughout the historic district - but they have let the properties fall apart for years.

Why are the Mayor and CM not doing anything about such a known problem? What will it take to move them to action?

by Gangsta on Aug 10, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

Devils advocate for a moment here (in this case the devil being not the libertarian pessimists commenting above, but the long term future optimists)

Anacostia's big advantages,besides the historic stuff, are proximity to the coming DHS campus, and proximity to near SE. Near SE has been delayed by the financial crisis.

Near SE is finally really picking up again, with several projects underway, including the first phase of the Yards approaching delivery in October, construction begun at the boiler shops, etc. DHS is well on its way, IIUC. There really is no way that Anacostia won't pick up in two to three years (and with all that new stuff its convenient too, its probably a safer bet than a lot of new transitional areas that could be sunk by macro econ conditions). Given that, why would the DC govt spend a lot of time agonizing about it? Seems that you are saying if they don't, the development will come too late to save the historic properties. But surely not all the historic properties are vacant, and some of those are not so decayed - and will still be subject to sale and rescue when nabe economic conditions improve. As a preservationist losing even one contributing house is a bad thing - but is this really a priority to DC govt? Im not sure.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2011 9:57 am • linkreport

Dear AWalkerInTheCity,

Clearly you have no sense of how much of Old Anacostia (or rather Uniontown) has been lost. See for example - Anacostia has not lost just one or two buildings. Rather, its community has been decimated by demolition by neglect for over 30 years. “Why should the DC govt spend a lot of time agonizing about it”. The problem is that until recently, they’ve spent little to no time addressing the issue, let along “agonizing” about it. See for eg, 1909-1913 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

Maintaining the integrity of our communities must be a priority to our elected officials. The blight not only thwarts any economic development efforts – but studies show that it also contributes to high crime levels. To put it simply – more blight = less jobs and higher crime.

by Really? AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2011 12:32 pm • linkreport

(BTW, I confess to not having walked in Anacostia, yet)

I hear you, thanks for the info. However, from your post, the massive loss has been over 30 years. IF one believes the turn around is within two or three years, how much more decay will take place in that time? I can see a city govt with a lot of other things on its plate letting this problem solve itself (and yeah, I know about "broken windows though I dont think Ive actualy read the JQ Wilson paper)

by AWalkeInTheCity on Aug 10, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

May a geezer in Portland OR comment? The highlighted notable example of 1326 Valley Place was my family's first dwelling in DC, in 1936!, and shared with another Depression-era family. Its condition, both physical and financial (owned by the city), surely asks the question: Why not demolish this eyesore which surely weakens the motivation of nearby property owners to maintain/upgrade their homes?

by Don Lief on Jan 14, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

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