Cracking Up The District Wants to Bail on Its Scattered-Site Properties—It Won’t Be Easy

The District government has spent untold sums trying to control the city’s drug problem—and supporting some of the city’s biggest crack houses.

The three red-brick buildings at 1414–1418 Euclid St. NW in Columbia Heights have haunted their neighbors for years. Boarded up and surrounded by weeds, broken glass, and abandoned cars, the building doubles as a magnet and way station for drug dealers, prostitutes, and gang members seeking a low-key spot to conduct their business. “People sling dope out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says 3rd District Sgt. James McQuire of the building.

For the building’s neighbors, it would be bad enough if the owner were a fat-cat Potomac slumlord waiting for the city’s real estate market to head north. Or an ex-neighbor who left the crumbling ’hood for the suburbs. But in this case, the owner is the District government, their putative protector and servant.

As it turns out, 1416 Euclid St. is just one in a portfolio of 100 or so vacant residential properties owned by the city. The District government acquired the properties in the late 1960s as part of its scattered-site housing program, which sprinkled public-housing recipients among middle-class neighborhoods as an alternative to packing them into inner-city projects. But like most of the city’s housing programs, this one failed, sticking communities like Columbia Heights with its blighted refuse. Although the city is promising relief through a program that would transfer the properties to nonprofits for renovation and resale, that relief won’t come fast: Red tape governing sales of District property will keep city-owned crack houses humming for years.

Nowhere are the failures of scattered-site housing more evident than in Columbia Heights, which hosts about a third of the program’s properties and more than its fair share of crack houses and makeshift homeless shelters.

“Entire blocks have been taken over,” says Columbia Heights activist Dorothy Brizill on a walking tour of the city-owned wreckage. Brizill was among the first to expose the link between the scattered-site program and residential crack houses. Her approach was methodical: In a 1988 probe of city land records, Brizill found that most of the eyesores in her neighborhood were owned by the District. Then, through a Freedom of Information Act request, she obtained the full scattered-site list, which she compared with police records of drug busts, murders, and other violent crimes. The correlation, she says, was overwhelming.

“The crying shame,” says Brizill, is that “the homeless and other needy citizens should be living in these homes.” She adds that some of the properties are classic brownstones that would make the yearly tour of homes if they were properly maintained.

But only police officers make routine visits to these houses. “Many of them are crack houses all right,” says McQuire, adding that the scattered-site properties provide the backdrop for some of the best-established open-air drug markets on his beat.

Over the years, Brizill and other activists have pummeled the D.C. government with complaints about the properties. And for a time it paid off: Housing authorities permanently walled off a few of the most troubled units with cinder blocks. Such temporary fixes eliminated an open-air drug market operating in a few scattered-site brownstones on Girard Street and have lifted the neighborhood out of the abyss in which it seemed stuck in the late 1980s.

Still, the city has left the majority of the troubled houses to fester. And several that were cleaned up have succumbed again to squatters and drug dealers. “People go through cinder blocks,” explains Knox Hayes, the housing authority’s real estate development adviser.

The District got into the scattered-site public-housing business after the 1968 riots. With the help of federal subsidies, the city picked up scores of abandoned houses on the cheap with hopes of putting needy families back on their feet. About half the properties for scattered-site housing were obtained through the Redevelopment Land Agency and transferred to the District’s housing authority. In theory, scattered-site housing was a brilliant innovation: Public-housing units mixed with private homes would free residents from the squalor and sameness of large projects.

In practice, the scattered sites fell prey to the same ills—lax management, incompetence, and corruption—that have leveled countless D.C. municipal services. The result? The District now has “a huge inventory of valuable property that they managed into the ground,” according to Roger Conner, director of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, which fights the spread of crack houses nationwide. Finally, in 1995 the city was forced to turn over its public-housing program to a federally appointed receiver, along with ownership of the 300-plus scattered-site houses.

“Houses like this make the neighborhood deteriorate. They are infested with the wrong type of people,” says Lintor Mordecai, a former Columbia Heights resident, standing outside a scattered-site property on Euclid Street. When Mordecai lived in the neighborhood—he moved in 1990 to Fort Washington, Md.—the house was clean and proud. Now it’s a crack house. “They’re havens for guys shooting up drugs—nobody patrols them.”

But permanent relief for neighbors who haven’t followed Mordecai to the suburbs is a long way off. Under a plan concocted by federal housing receiver David Gilmore, many of the abandoned Columbia Heights properties will be off the city’s rolls within two years. For starters, the plan proposes selling 48 of the District-owned units in Columbia Heights to a group of nonprofit housing providers, including Manna, Washington Intercity Self-Help (WISH), Hope Housing, New Community Land Trust, and Mi Casa, among others. With financing from Fannie Mae and other lenders, the groups would renovate the homes and sell them to low- and middle-income families. It will likely take another three years after that for the city to sell off the more than 250 remaining scattered-site properties in the District’s possession. Gilmore’s plan would also help current tenants purchase the properties they now rent from the city on a sliding scale.

The plan sounds great on paper. But in the real world, it must contend with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which must approve any sale of the abandoned properties. HUD approval is required because federal funding was used to purchase the properties in the first place. And securing HUD approval is no picnic—the sales must undergo a multilayered review known to last months, depending on the quality of the application, according to HUD officials. To compound matters, the District has yet to file the paperwork to set the process in motion.

The regulations require the District to demonstrate that the properties not only meet the criteria for disposition, but that the sale is feasible, says Lee Palman, director of the public-housing division of the HUD D.C. field office. “The city has to show that retention is not in the best interest of the residents or the housing authority,” Palman says. “They have to justify the disposition.”

“HUD doesn’t want to give them away,” says Thomas Redmond, staff director of D.C.’s committee on housing and urban affairs, which is chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith. Redmond says that HUD’s investment in the properties makes the agency skittish about selling them. “It’s a quagmire where no one can move without the consent of the other, where you have [HUD and the city’s housing authority] handcuffed together.”

Once they’ve cleared the regulatory hoops, the scattered-site sales meet another roadblock: the local housing market. If the city’s asking price is too high, the nonprofits will balk, figuring that the resale price will not cover the renovation costs. And private developers have shown little interest in the abandoned scattered-site properties. “They’re not worth anything if you can’t find a buyer or a market,” Redmond says. “A market doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

All this means business as usual: Your drug of choice will probably be readily available at the city’s scattered-site houses for years to come. —Julie Wakefield

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