Greater Greater Washington

"Abandominiums" house Anacostia's resentment

In the heart of Anacostia lie a large concentration of forgotten or unfinished housing enterprises. Instead of generating needed jobs and taxes, these "abandominiums" play home to squatters and a community's frustration.


One of Historic Anacostia's abandominiums. Photo by the author.

Sitting on the steps of an abandoned apartment complex in Historic Anacostia, underneath graffiti reading "Beneath the INFLuence =)", William Alston-El says indignantly, "All these buildings ever do is sit. Everyone wants to talk about the commercial strip. What about the inner-part of Anacostia?"

Last year, the Washington Post called this cluster of three vacant buildings on High Street SE, "one of the oldest unfinished projects in the country." It's part of HUD's Home Investment Partnership Program, which was the subject of a scathing expose about millions of dollars going to projects that remain incomplete and vacant.

But vacant doesn't necessarily mean deserted.

"This is one of the best abandominiums around," Alston-El said, peering through an opening into one of the building's basements, spotting scattered drug paraphernalia. "This is where they come to shoot the dope at. They jump in and jump out."

Walking the streets of Anacostia, at the turn of every corner, Alston-El is greeted with shout-outs and recognition. Speaking authoritatively about his community and its problems, Alston-El says, "When people talk about the good things happening in Anacostia, I wonder who they are talking about. They're not talking for me or people I know."

The people he speaks for are those who occupy Anacostia's vacant homes and apartment buildings and convert them to their own safe houses.


Vacant apartment buildings in Historic Anacostia. Photo by the author.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, Anacostia's abandominiums are a 2," says Bill Jackson, the last occupant of 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. "But the reason folks run up in abandominiums is because they get tired of the shelters with their rules and regulations. If you find an abandominium uptown people notice, but in Anacostia nobody seems to notice or care."

Sadly, "they're safer than shelters," Alston-El says. "You don't have to worry about fighting with somebody. You don't have to worry about rats, because there's no food."

The misfortune is not in the people who squat in abandominiums, but those who own them and let them scar the neighborhood, say Alston-El.

1401 Bangor Street SE


1401 Bangor Street SE abandominiums come with electricity. Photo by the author.

Behind the three vacant High Street properties, across the alley, is another vacant building on Bangor Street SE.

While looking in the open rear basement door a neighbor calls out at me, "Hey, what are you doing? I'm calling the police! Get on!" I quickly identify and introduce myself.

The neighbor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, opens up about the ongoing problems with the property, a nearly 4500 square foot red brick building built in 1945.

"This building used to be for seniors, but they moved everybody out and tried to flip it," the neighbor said. "But that didn't work and it's been vacant since."

According to tax records the multi-family property was sold in November 2002 for $75,000 and was last sold in April 2005 for $288,000. The building and the 1/8 acre lot it sits on are assessed at $385,700 according to city records.


Wide open rear basement door at 1401 Bangor Street SE. Photo by the author.

"It's a problem with the drug boys, the homeless, the prostitutes, you name it," said the neighbor. "I called DCRA after calls to 311 went nowhere. They did come out and board up all the openings. But you can see that didn't last long."

In the small room leading from the open door beer cans are strewn on the floor alongside cigarette butts and empty packages of Backwoods cigars, used for rolling up weed. A hot water heater remains intact adjacent to the door.

Back outside on Bangor Street, two neighborhood men pass by. I ask them about the building and its impact on the community.

"If you're living in the streets, a vacant house is a roof over your head," said Jerry. His friend Maurice added, "Gray and all them, they could fix these places up. But see the thing of it is, is that you got money they sending across the water instead of taking care of your folks at home."

Walking past the Bangor Street building on a recent evening, I notice a light on on the second floor. On its east side three separate power lines run into the domicile. With a second floor rear window open, a bucket propped upside down on the ground below providing a step to ease entry to and fro, this abandominium is apparently occupied.

"When you find one with power and water you stay put," Alston-El says, "because you're living like a king. You turn that place into the 'hood version of a five star hotel. The only thing missing is room service."

1700 - 1720 W Street SE

While taking pictures of a boarded-up apartment complex on the 1700 block of W Street SE, two blocks from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, someone calls out, "You guys finally going to get started?"

After explaining ourselves, Kirk Clark, a contractor who lives across the street, shared his memories of the collection of derelict three story buildings. Ivy is slowly encroaching on the banner pledging "Spacious 2BR/2 Bath Homes Coming Soon" at the Buxton Condos.


DMPED owned "abandominiums" in Historic Anacostia. Photo by the author.

"When I got locked up in '87 it was open," says Clark. "I came home in '91 and it was closed. It's been closed ever since." The only other activity he's seen in and around the property, other than neighborhood children, has been the coming and going of Anacostia's displaced souls.

"They got a lot of homeless people out here who don't have nowhere to go. And when you leave a lot of abandoned buildings around that's where people are going to go so they can go sleep," Clark said.


Alston-El leans against a door frame in the rear of the Buxton abondominiums. Photo by the author.
Walking around to the back of the property, Alston-El and I ascend the stairs to the second level of one of the units and enter a former one bedroom apartment, stepping over a door that's been kicked in. A few wayward t-shirts and Gatorade bottles show someone has recently been here.

"Look," Alston-El says reaching up, "you can see they've cut all the copper out. I know how it's done because I used to do the same thing."

The properties, owned by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, have an assessed value at just over $2.2 million.

"The most important matter," says Alston-El, "is that these places don't do anyone or the city any good. They don't generate any taxes and they don't generate any jobs."

"We got all these people, working people who need some place to live and can't find anything, yet this stuff is allowed by the city. They want to build something new, why not fix what's been here?"

All the while, across the river, a new tower crane pops up every few weeks. Is it any surprise some people in Anacostia feel resentment?

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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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Councilmember Barry, looking out for his Ward and people one day at a time.

by Luke on Mar 21, 2012 10:27 am • linkreport

Wow. Amazing piece. Most enlightening thing I've read in a long time, looking at a slice of life that 99% of use never see. This isn't the 1% the Occupy movement is focused on, but someone should focus on these people. I'm really intrigued by the notion that some of these places have water and electricity.

While it's undeniable that the situation in Anacostia is disheartening, I'm left wondering what will happen to the squatters if development does come. With each new administration, we do even less for those most in need of a helping hand. If development does come and these buildings are reclaimed to house those that can pay rent, what will become of those who can't? I know residents of Anacostia want better than they have, and the area has potential that should be exploited, but we must find ways to provide for the squatters, too.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 21, 2012 10:41 am • linkreport

What happened to the sweat equity program announced with fanfare last year? Oh, and wasn't this an issue discussed & strategized at the W8 Econ Summit?

From my experience in Ward 7, it's a shell game. Office of Tax & Revenue wants to keep these properties on the rolls to make the tax records/assessments look positive. DC has not seriously decided to develop a vacant property strategy that merges with its housing needs. The housing advocates, in my opinion, are missing an opportunity to turn the hew & cry to action that achieves many public policy goals--jobs, housing, improving individual & community quality of life, increased tax base, etc.

by SCBrown, ANC7C04 on Mar 21, 2012 10:42 am • linkreport

It's not just in Wards 7 & 8. Look up the Peaceaholics abandoned buildings and you'll find some in Ward 5 as well. It would be convenient to blame Gray for this but this has been going on for a looooong time. It's unfortunate that this is where money for affordable housing goes.

Nice job filling the article with quotes from members of the community who can speak authoritatively on the subject.

by Falls Church on Mar 21, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

This is an excellent piece. I can vouch that there are some forgotten areas like this in Ward 5 for sure. It is absurd with the lack of affordable housing in the city that residential properties like this rot in squalor while the rest of the city looks like Dubai with all the cranes popping up.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 21, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

The housing advocates, in my opinion, are missing an opportunity to turn the hew & cry to action that achieves many public policy goals

It's almost as though they're more interested in self-promotion and personal power than getting things done!

by JustMe on Mar 21, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

The tower cranes are supported by the free market and demand. So, yes the resentment is surprising if it's being directed at the government over development happening in other parts of the city.

There isn't demand to build in Anacostia currently. So, you're comparing Apples to Oranges. The real question is why some of these properties, funded with government money, never got finished. That's a scandal.

Certainly these units could at least be turned into affordable housing units. But comparing what is happening across the river to what is happening in Anacostia doesn't do any good.

There is incredible demand to build and live in the main part of DC, that's why there are so many cranes. It's not because of Gray "sending money across the river." That's patently false and you should challenge a source on something like that.

by Patrick Thornton on Mar 21, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

I thought that people were flocking to the inner cities from the suburbs and that DC had a shortage of affordable housing...at least, that's what every urbanist blog out there purports nowadays. Shouldn't these urbanist pioneers be snapping up these cheap condos and houses like fresh flapjacks? Guess this neighborhood is still a bit too "street" for them.

by Jackson on Mar 21, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

Nicely done. Interesting read.

by todd on Mar 21, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

Code enforcement is what keeps these units from being effective very-low income housing.

by Adam on Mar 21, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

Exactly. Code enforcement. If only we didn't require some bare minimum of quality to limit the risk of deadly fires, building collapse, and exposure to powerful toxins. Then, these folks would have a decent place to live.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 21, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

We coul d solve the problem if we put the screws to owners of vacant and dilapidated properties. But every time the city does that, people complain. After all, my cousins friend got put the list and was hit with a big tax bill and had to write a letter to get off of it.

Then there's the issue with "evil developers". Everyone knows that the biggest problem to hit DC between 1990 and present is that developers have undertaken projects that have lured middle-class residents in from the suburbs. And while blight is certainly not optimal, the only thing worse is having commercial development.

So we're stuck with conflicting emotions: on the one hand vacant and dilapidated properties are destroying our neighborhoods; on the other redeveloping those properties risks changing the nature of those neighborhoods.

Maybe we should just "punt", raze them, and put up a practice facility for a local professional sports team.

by oboe on Mar 21, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport

And while blight is certainly not optimal, the only thing worse is having commercial development.

You're joking, right? How is bringing in more middle class people bad for the district? More tax revenue, not to mention the middle class tends to commit far fewer crimes.

by T. Gordon on Mar 21, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

@Fischy:

There is incredible demand to build and live in the main part of DC, that's why there are so many cranes. It's not because of Gray "sending money across the river." That's patently false and you should challenge a source on something like that.

An obvious point, and well-said. I'm curious, would free-housing advocates really be happier if an army of tower cranes suddenly showed up in Ivy City, and started erecting market-rate two-bedroom condos? Those cranes west of the river aren't building housing that's being funded out of DC's revenues, and the people living in them aren't west-of-the-river homeless folks.

by oboe on Mar 21, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

Uh, Mr. Gordon (excuse me if you're a Ms.), it's called snark and it's called for here. Frequently, beneficial projects are stymied by interest who argue that just about anything will "change the character" of their neighborhood, and many financially feasible projects are killed because of this. I can't speak specifically to Anacostia because I don't live there, but I see this from even my own, generally reasonable neighbors around here. I once mentioned to a neighbor that a certain strip-mall a few blocks from our residences, right on the main drag, a few blocks from Metro, would be an ideal place for a nice mixed-use development. She immediately started on a diatribe about how it was "too close" to our lower-density residential neighborhood, and how she would fight anything higher-density than a small commercial or residential development there tooth-and-nail. Um, what? New businesses in that strip mall location would be a HUGE benefit to us, while new residences would be ideal since they're (a) far enough away to not really "change the character" of our neighborhood; (b) make any retail more viable; (c) infuse some new lifeblood into the community; and (d) be well-located close to services and the Metro. But god forbid her useless, trash-strewn, sprawly strip mall that doesn't host anyone but drug dealers and winos "change," right?

by Ms. D on Mar 21, 2012 7:43 pm • linkreport

This building was at 2nd and T St. NE for a long time:

- http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/853897594/in/photostream/

I don't know what the status is today, I guess I haven't been over there for awhile.

One of Jim Abdo's stories about rehabbing a building in the Logan Circle area was that it was off Pepco's rolls for 20+ years.

In short, this is pretty typical. I can show you buildings in the H St. neighborhood that have been vacant for all the years I've been in the city (24+) although now some of them are starting to be rehabbed.

This is a function of the strength/weakness of submarkets. Regardless of the liberal beliefs, it can be very expensive and difficult to manage rental housing/collect rents/maintain properties in economically challenged areas. The opportunity cost is paired with the pain in the ass cost, and some buildings remain vacant/mothballed.

This is but a continuation of the argument of John's very insightful entry the other week about a related topic, the difficulty of mixed rate housing new construction to achieve the necessary appraisal values high enough to enable construction loans in low income neighborhoods.

Note though that typically, to build the market in situations like this is the role of community development corporations.

But you need really good ones, capable of portfolio management and investment in the long term. Traditionally, DC has not had such cdcs (Jubilee Housing is one organization that does this, CPDC does it too), especially not in W7 and W8. There you need exceptionally able groups in order to deal with the persistent economic/valuation/management problems.

Examples from other communities could include the Abyssinian Development Corp. in Harlem and Bethel New Life in Chicago.

by Richard Layman on Mar 21, 2012 10:25 pm • linkreport

This is a for profit that does particularly noteworthy work in this arena:

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCormack_Baron_Salazar

You should do an interview with Richard Baron. Get him to come out and look at W7 and W8.

Maybe David Smith too. You should at least subscribe to his e-letter:

- http://recapadvisors.com/state-of-the-market

by Richard Layman on Mar 21, 2012 10:28 pm • linkreport

It would take a lot of money to get these buildings up to a livable standard. And if its not done right, then advocates will holler that the government is putting people in substandard housing. So it has to be done right, which I agree with.

As for what would happen to current squatters, DC has a robust housing first program and many, many homeless people have housed without preconditions. Often, this process takes multiple re-housings due to the rehab needed, especially with the persons who are suffering from severe and persistent mental illness, co-occurring substance abuse disorders and histories of homelessness. There are remarkable success stories and the process is ongoing. I guess my point is that there is a large housing program and many of these folks have been in it and will need it in the future. Housing first is the best thing we have going for solving homelessness problems.

by H Street Landlord on Mar 21, 2012 11:23 pm • linkreport

I've bought into Buxton. I plan to be involved in the community when I get there, heck before I get there. Reading this article pains me a bit to know that its development will displace already displaced people. I see change will be very hard here but I am personally willing to help bring it.

by Camyj on Mar 22, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

In regards to the property located at 1700-1720 W Street, SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District’s PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several “speed bumps” those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:
• Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
• The District’s Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
• The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.

We are committed to the communities in Wards 7 and 8, including Anacostia. Manna has launched the East of the River Homeownership Campaign to increase homeownership rates, which has been presented to the Deputy Mayor and to Council Chairman Brown. As part of this campaign, Manna will be hosting a homebuyer education fair in May to inform residents about first-time homebuyer programs available to them. And for the first time, Manna will be holding its annual 5K in Anacostia Park (traditionally held in Rock Creek Park) on April 21.

Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.

by Jennifer McAllister on Mar 22, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

The W Street is being turned into affordable housing: http://www.mannadc.org/doc/The%20Buxton%2012.9.11.pdf

by mphs on Mar 22, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

If the rent control law were modified, these buildings would get selected for reconstruction in a minute. There would be affordable units here in trade for those in other parts of the City (not hardship cases, the ones that roll each year) that would bring a higher return to the owners. the result also would then the tax assessment base of those buildings would go up, yielding more return to the City. the rent control laws are needed in some way but are antiquated and give no incentive to renovate to anyone who gest how to do it.

by Rip off the Rich on Mar 22, 2012 8:03 pm • linkreport

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