When David Meadows was shopping for his first house early last year, the neighborhood near the Navy Yard in Southeast struck him as a good place to invest. In fact, Meadows says, he was turned on to the location in a conversation with none other than Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
"He was so excited about the area," says Meadows, a fundraiser for the National Democratic Club. "I told him I had some money saved up. He said, 'That's great. We have some great things going on near the Navy Yard. We're revitalizing it, so check it out.' I did, and I bought one I could afford."
The cornerstone of the revitalization Williams was touting is the planned Arthur Capper-Carrollsburg HOPE VI project, a $35 million overhaul funded by the federal government. According to city officials, the Arthur Capper project would replace deteriorating public housing with mixed-income housing and bring an additional $400 million worth of new business and retail to the area.
But this past January, Meadows learned that his 1903 federal-style town house won't be part of the rejuvenated neighborhood mix. In fact, it's one of 20 private properties near the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Dwellings that the D.C. Housing Authority plans to acquire and demolish as part of the redevelopment.
Acting on behalf of the housing authority, the lead developer, Mid-City Urban LLC, has recently threatened to acquire some of the 20 properties via the city's power of eminent domain should residents refuse to sell. Appraisals will start soon, and offers likely will be made within six months, according to Paul Rowe, the housing authority's project director. Of the 20 properties, Rowe says, only eight are occupied by owners; the rest are a mix of rentals and vacant properties.
Meadows, whose house was renovated by the previous owner before it was sold, lacks the sympathetic profile of a long-term resident being displaced. Still, he says, he didn't buy the house as a mere short-term investment. "I'm afraid of losing my home, not just being low-balled," Meadows says. "Making $40,000 as a single, gay male makes it very hard to find a decent home in this town."
And he has been the most vocal of the homeowners, accusing the city and developers of putting on a show of "smoke and mirrors" since winter. In December, he says, city officials visited a community meeting and told residents that no privately owned homes would be involved in the HOPE VI project. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Neil Glick corroborated Meadows' account in a heated letter to his fellow commissioners. "We were told that all private homes would be left intact," Glick wrote.
Rowe disputes Meadows and Glick's account. "I was at that meeting," says Rowe. "We did disclose that some properties would be affected. We never made any site plans that showed [Meadows'] property as not being part of the properties to be acquired."
A little over a month after the meeting, Meadows received a brief letter from Mid-City Urban. After a paragraph extolling the virtues of the "mixed-income, mixed-use community" that will be created by "this large-scale development project," the letter informed Meadows that his house happened to be part of the plans. "[W]e have determined that your property will be required for the new development. Accordingly, we will be having your property appraised and intend to make an offer for acquisition."
Meadows received a more explicit letter in April. "The acquisition may be considered involuntary as DCHA has the power of eminent domain and can acquire your property by condemnation," the letter said. "An appraisal will be used to establish just compensation (fair market value) for your property."
Rowe says the city needs to acquire the 20 properties to make the city's promise of one-for-one replacement of public-housing units in the new community a reality. The properties will be replaced by privately owned row houses and rental apartments that will go at market rate, in order to subsidize the low-income housing.
Debra Frazier is a member of Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg, a group seeking official assurance that the same number of low-income units will be rebuilt and that all current residents will be invited to return after construction. She says the city is using their oath of one-for-one replacementwhich has not been guaranteed in writing, and which Rowe would not assure in an interviewas leverage to acquire the privately owned homes. "They're using the public benefit of 700 people [who should get public housing] to get to 20 private homeowners. But it's all based upon innuendo and qualifiers."
"If it's deemed a public benefit to acquire the private property, then that's the justification," says Rowe, adding that the city managed to substantially reduce its earlier estimate of 50 private homes to be acquired.
With a sale at current market value, Meadows would net a tidy profit. He purchased the two-story house for about $100,000 in early 2002. Judging from his tax increases and the jump in property values across the board, Meadows says an appraisal could put its value at almost twice the purchase price.
But a current appraisal would not include the implied value added by the restoration project itselfthe boon that current residents have been told they will benefit from. If the HOPE VI project goes as the city plans, the area could soon be a bustling retail, business, and residential community. "In three years, the house could be worth $400,000," says Meadows.
"Whenever you do an appraisal, it's the cost or the value of the land at that particular time," says Rowe. "We're dealing in real time, and we're trying to assess current value....If it comes to [the use of eminent domain], we will use it. We don't anticipate doing that. We plan to deal in good faith to come to a fair and equitable negotiation."
Of those property owners who could be affected by eminent domain, Meadows was the only one to speak at a public zoning meeting July 28 regarding the issue. He says there has been little communication between the owners and no effort whatsoever to band together. Regardless, he plans on putting up a long fight. He has retained a lawyer and says he'll stall city plans as long as possible.
He says he fears that most of the residents who own the private propertiesmany of them with low incomes and little community involvementmay be taken for a ride. "I hate to say it," he says, "but I guess [the city thinks it] can throw some minimal amount of money at some poor people and they'll jump at it." CP