Housing Complex

Overlooked and Underfunded

Just south of Anacostia, on a hill overlooking the Suitland Parkway, lies a ghost town.

I first encountered it earlier this summer while driving around Southeast D.C. with Reuben Pemberton, a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs official who was showing me buildings with some of the highest outstanding vacant-property tax bills in the city. These properties were largely alike: boarded-up apartment buildings subject to frequent break-ins by people seeking shelter or a place to do drugs. But the empty buildings on Robinson Place SE stood apart for their sheer scale.

The cluster of buildings dwarfed the others in terms of both price tag—while the other properties owe five or six figures, the total bill for the Robinson Place addresses is more than $5 million—and size. Here were 20 apartment buildings, with red boards over the green-trimmed windows like a Christmas celebration gone awry, and taunting, years-old “Now Leasing” signs fluttering off a couple of the brick facades. The buildings lined an eerily silent dead-end road with only one other house. The sole sign of recent human activity was a heap of discarded mattresses, dumped where they’d be unlikely to bother anyone.

Pemberton was surprised to find an open gate in the chain-link fence that surrounds the complex. We drove into a small parking lot by the old management office, where a Jaguar and an SUV were parked. Pemberton advised me to stay in the car and got out, putting on a D.C. government cap to lend himself an official air. As he approached, a woman stepped out of the SUV. She wore a “security” shirt and said her security company had been hired by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency to monitor the vacant property—for more than half a decade.

This was news to Pemberton; city property records show that the apartment complex belongs to NHTE Parkway, L.P., with an address in Alpharetta, Ga. “We always go off of what’s reflected in the property tax records,” says DCRA spokesman Helder Gil. “If that’s not who actually owns the property, then whoever owns the property needs to update the records with Office of Tax and Revenue.”

According to a Housing Finance Agency official who was not authorized to speak on the record, the HFA manages the property and has attempted several times to obtain an exemption from the vacant property tax, but so far has not received it, and the tax bill has continued to grow. But that’s the least of the problems for the Robinson Place properties. The bigger issue is why a complex that used to house more than 1,000 low-income people in 266 units has sat vacant and deteriorating for six years—and whether it’s ever going to become affordable housing again.


Until 2007, NHTE Parkway, L.P. was the owner and operator of the Robinson Place complex, known as the Parkway Overlook Apartments, and all of the tenants received Section 8 assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under a Housing Assistance Payments contract. But the owner neglected Parkway Overlook’s upkeep, and the property quickly deteriorated.

“We had a lot of drug trafficking and murders in the neighborhood, a lot of drive-by shootings,” says Parkway Overlook Tenant Association Vice President Cynthia Eaglin, who lived at Parkway Overlook for 16 years. “HUD allowed us to live on that property with all the rodents, and the management team went downhill, maintenance went downhill because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.”

Parkway Overlook failed its HUD inspection several times—five according to Eaglin, and between three and five according to the HFA official. So HUD withdrew its Section 8 subsidy, the property went into default, the tenants were forced to leave, and the HFA, which had issued nearly $15 million in bonds to NHTE Parkway, L.P. in 2001, retook the property as the “mortgagee in possession.”

Since then, the HFA has tried three times to dispose of the property. All three attempts were unsuccessful. The most recent began in 2011, when the HFA issued a request for bids that yielded eight responses. The agency selected a team consisting of Philadelphia-based Pennrose and D.C.-based Blue Skye. But a funding gap prevented the team from carrying out the plans for Parkway Overlook, so the arrangement fell through in January 2013. (Pennrose’s Ivy Dench-Carter, who oversaw the project, says it was an HFA decision to cancel the agreement.) And once again, the HFA was stuck with a property it couldn’t seem to get rid of.

On June 28, the HFA submitted a so-called final claim to HUD—something it’s entitled to do if it’s been unable to sell a HUD-assisted property for more than five years. If HUD accepts the HFA’s analysis in the final claim, the HFA’s debt to HUD—which paid the bondholders for the property after it went belly-up and expected repayment from the HFA—is wiped clean. That means the HFA gets to dispose of the property however it wants, without HUD approval—and it’s no longer required to keep it affordable housing.

The HFA official insists the agency is seeking to keep Parkway Overlook affordable. And there’s plenty of pressure to do so. On June 30, the nearby Brighter Day Ministries United Methodist Church held a sermon in support of affordable housing at Parkway Overlook, and Mayor Vince Gray was in attendance. According to Pastor Charlie Parker of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church (which partnered with Brighter Day), who led the sermon and spoke with Gray, the mayor seemed supportive but wouldn’t give a concrete promise to preserve the property for low-income residents.

“He seemed very sympathetic and enthusiastic,” says Parker. “He stopped short of making an absolute commitment to it. But he did text the gentleman who’s in charge of the HFA and asked him to make sure he’s working with the residents’ association down there, and he seems committed to the idea.”

Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says Gray is “committed to keeping [the complex] affordable.”

Last week, Eaglin and the tenant association president met with HFA Executive Director Harry Sewell to discuss Parkway Overlook’s future. Eaglin says the meeting went well, and that Sewell “really wants to see it stay affordable” but was likewise noncommittal because he’s still negotiating with HUD. Sewell, Eaglin says, asked them to give him until mid-August, at which point he’ll have more information. Sewell could not be reached for comment.

If HUD approves the HFA’s request, the agency has several options for disposing of the property, including another solicitation to developers and an auction to the highest bidder. But there’s no guarantee that these routes would produce affordable housing.

A Parkway Overlook that’s not primarily dedicated to affordable housing would be a mistake. So unlike previous attempts to revive the development, it’s time for the mayor’s office to get involved—with hard cash and not just text messages.


Over the years, media coverage of Parkway Overlook has been limited almost entirely to the various violent crimes that have taken place there. Since it’s become a ghost town, it’s gotten virtually no notice.

But the site holds tremendous promise for the city as a source of affordable housing. For one thing, it’s huge, and it already exists. If the city can resurrect it, that’s 266 fewer units of affordable housing that it needs to build or otherwise obtain.

For another, the units are larger than most being built these days. Nearly half of the units—127 of them—are three-bedroom apartments, and another 100 are two-bedrooms.

“There’s a lot of single mothers that have more than one child and need those three- and four-bedroom apartments,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anthony Muhammad. “Those are hard to come by in any part of the city.”

Finally, Parkway Overlook’s location—historically a detriment, with no through streets and few reasons for anyone to visit—can become a real asset. Currently, getting from Parkway Overlook to the Congress Heights Metro station requires a circuitous mile-long walk around the St. Elizabeths East Campus. But with the city planning a massive mixed-use redevelopment of St. Elizabeths, it would be simple to tear down the fence behind Parkway Overlook and connect a road through St. Elizabeths to Robinson Place. Not only would this cut the distance to the Metro in half, it’d also enable new Parkway Overlook residents to take advantage of the amenities at St. Elizabeths, and it could make Parkway Overlook an attractive place to live for people working at St. Elizabeths.

“That would be awesome,” Eaglin says when I propose a St. Elizabeths connection, noting that the most recent development team had actually discussed such a plan.

But Catherine Buell, who leads the St. Elizabeths development effort for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says the only time she’s been contacted about Parkway Overlook had to do with running utility lines under the property.

The potential of Parkway Overlook won’t be realized, in terms of affordability or neighborhood connections, without help from the city. All three development efforts failed because of funding issues. If the next one is to succeed, it’ll happen either because the developer finds a way to transform the property into something more profitable—and presumably less affordable—or because the city chips in some cash.

The 2011 request for bids specified that proposals relying on any city funding would be “deemed infeasible.” But Gray announced in February that he was investing $100 million in preserving and creating affordable housing—and preserving Parkway Overlook’s affordability would be a relatively cheap and effective means toward that goal, and a way to repopulate the complex after more than a half decade of vacancy. (Ribeiro notes that Gray “doesn’t make the decisions on how all the $100 million gets spent.”)

“There have been a number of developers who were very close to making the numbers work on that, and needed just a little more subsidy from the city or HUD—given the scale of the city budget, a relatively modest amount,” says Parker.

Both Parker and Eaglin say the new Parkway Overlook doesn’t need to be 100 percent affordable, and that a mix of incomes could be beneficial. But Eaglin says the majority of the former residents are still in the District, and many would like to return to Parkway Overlook.

“We were a loving family at Parkway Overlook,” says Eaglin, “and I’d like to see that community come back again.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • http://www.elfland.net elfland

    (in)credulity, that's the word that comes to mind.

    soon to be a shining city over the hill.

    a free range two bedroom chicken in every pot. a three bedroom chicken for the larger appetites that the two bedroom chicken just won't satisfy. and a heaping helping side of saint elizabeth's amenities.

    what's the appropriate dessert for this meal? a plum on the thumb?

  • Anacostia bound

    its good to see that Pemberton is taxing those places at the higher rates. They shouldn't get a pass like other government projects.

  • John Muller

    It's an entirely another world once you cross that river...

    Thank you for this timely article and your investigative work, Aaron.

    As my friend William Alston-El has said, when we've ridden through Robinson Place SE, "This is the mother ship of abandominiums."

  • BiLL

    I really hope HUD allows HFA to dispose of the property any way it wants, and that it can go to a developer who will develop it in way consistent with the current market. I'm so sick and tired of people whining about "affordable" housing and getting assistance from the city. I live where I live because it is affordable to me. I don't live in Georgetown because I can't afford to live there. I don't ask for any handouts, I don't get any handouts.

    My favorite line of the whole article was from the former resident who said, "We were a loving family at Parkway Overlook." Of course earlier in the article, the same resident said, "We had a lot of drug trafficking and murders in the neighborhood, a lot of drive-by shootings."

    Doze it, sell it, be done with it.

  • Thunder

    No mention of the HR Crawford management of this property?

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  • Angelina

    DC will manage to sell these properties to Developers from $1.00 to $100. Stay tuned, you will ready about it in the city paper.

  • SEis4ME

    Uhmmm...Bill, clearly you speak as someone who has absolutely NO idea where this property is. People "whine" about affordable housing because very, very few (including you) would be willing to pay market rate at that location...as back in the cut as it is.

    Please...you DC elitist kill me.

  • SEis4ME

    And big ups to Aaron for traveling in my neck of the woods. I'm sure you were like WTF...looking at all this nothing.

  • http://www.congressheightsontherise.com The Advoc8te

    Hi Aaron--

    You know you are my boy and I respect the thrust of the article in theory but I am going to have to disagree with your stance on this. When I read the article and the suggestion that what an economically depressed area such as this needed was more "affordable" housing to attract more economically depressed people I had to disagree -- strongly. I don't think I am the only one. I am pretty sure that the people in the surrounding neighborhood wouldn't be that keen on that complex turning into exclusively section eight housing.

    With that in mind and because I didn't want to comment bomb your post (see I have manners lol) I wrote my own take on how I feel the concentration of "affordable" and subsidized housing in Ward 8 is doing us more harm than good.

    If anyone is interested they can go to my blog now and read the post. I really do want someone to explain to me why we should continue to concentrate people in need of jobs, services, and reliable public transportation away from those things. Call me a skeptic but I tend to think affordable housing and housing for the working poor would be of more use in neighborhoods with JOBS and AMENITIES. Not in the ward with the highest unemployment in the city.

    Just my 2 cents.

    The Advoc8te

  • http://www.congressheightsontherise.com The Advoc8te
  • GoldCoastKid

    SouthEast does not need more "affordable" housing. That would only attract more poor people to an already depressed area. Build something that the new Homeland Security staff are going to want to live in.

  • SEis4ME

    I'm not sure if Aaron is advocating for a Section 8 plan. But we would be remiss not to understand that the development NEEDS affordable housing. I have no real knowledge but I was not under the impression that DC's "affordable housing plan" mandates a majority of any new development must be Section 8. Instead, it seems as if builders are required to maintain a minimum number of affordable housing options..similar to what's going on at Sheridan Station and CityHomes. I have a friend who purchased one of the townhomes and qualified for the "affordable housing" option because he made less than 80k. That's not section 8.

    What we may be having is a "semantic" argument. That is, while under the umbrella of "affordable housing" sits workforce and Section 8 alternatives, most of us never read nor discuss the distinctions between the two.

    I would not be in favor of a new Section 8 development but would support more affordable/mixed income housing. Frankly, it doesn't matter if they charge market rates, the development will not be a move-to spot for the overwhelming majority of Homeland Security staff for some time now, despite its proximity to the campus.

  • Billie

    Dear Gentrifiers, This is still OUR city...not yours. "Communities" such as Arthur Caper and Barry Farms provide for each other and don't need services from the government...since our communities have been and are still being destroyed, requests for services go up. Did you take any econ classes back in Nebraska?

    Obviously if YOU personally had the money, you wouldn't be living in the city renting a unit either (want to be cool, move to Portland); and you are probably 2 paychecks from being homeless--don't judge. You apparently have options and a job...hopefully sequestration will not pull the job from under your feet.

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  • GoldCoastKid

    @ Billie. Reverse racism isn't any better that regular racism. Take a look in the mirror.
    And for the record, its your children and grandchildren that are destroying neighborhoods, not the "gentrifiers" as you put it. And lastly, um.. last time I checked Ward 8 had 10 times more people per capita accepting government subsidies for food and shelter, and education. So when you're done reading this go out and slap the shit out of your child and get that little bastard a book to read instead of buying him the latest basketball sneakers.

    And for the record, GoldCoastKid is a DC born and raised black man living in his own home with a beautiful wife and kids. Oh, and i have a job too.

  • Ward-8

    Dam GoldCoastKid, I hate racism however, you are soooo right, I see it all the time, pants dragging their ass with brand new Jordon's on their feet, living with their enablers in Public or subsidize housing. Robinson place at one point was a beautiful housing until the section-8 along with their enables(Moma, Grandmoma, Aunti and Baby Moma) moved in, then followed the thugs and drug dealers, then followed the neighborhood beef for the nickel and dime drug trade, followed by the drive bys and almost daily shooting as the few good folks cowered in fear. Then management working overtime and spending more money than collected in rent correcting housing deficiencies only to have corrections destroyed before the repairman return to their shop and when you say something to the ignorant few and the enablers "It's not my place", They totally forget they live their. The enablers and the no snitch Bull shit allows every Public Housing and majority Section-8 properties in DC to be in constant disrepairs prevalent with crime to determent of the few Law Abiding folks who only want peace and a living environment. This is facts that the Politicians and civil do gooders don't want to talk about or enforce the District Regulations on Public Housing and Subsidize housing that if you want to enable and or be a criminal you get evicted and until this happen we will be singing the same song year after year.

  • SEis4ME

    @Golds, frankly who give a fuk?

    I live in W8, not married, have no kids and a job. Unlike you, I don't write off my marriage and kids as a gov't subsidy. So when you're done thumping your chest talking about people in W8 who accept gov't subsidies, I suggest you take a look at your own tax returns.

    But then again, w/a name like GoldCoastKid, I shouldn't be surprised at your level of haughtiness. For my dime, I'll take HillCrest on any and every day.

  • SEis4ME

    And now to this other asshole, W8.

    How do you know what child wearing whatever shoe is a section-8 recipient? Or do you, like many others, assume that everybody else but YOU and those w/in YOUR circle are welfare kings/queens.

    Whether someone has Jordans on their feet has nothing to do w/crime, race, or Section 8. You seem to have more knowledge about Robinson place than I do but at what point in its history was it NOT designed as a housing project?

    DC is once again on track for having the lowest homicide rates in decades. How much has the "no snitch" mentality contributed to that? You don't know right? But you bring your ignorant bullshyt in here quoting decades-old ideas and clearly have no idea what confluence of factors lead to EOTR being...EOTR.

    Here is what you and your, "its not me but them" compadres can do. Move out of W8 and go purchase property WOTR since you will be around hoards of people you actually like. That way, those of us who actually DO like where we live, can live in peace w/o reading diatribes from monkey dung like yourself.

  • ShawGuy

    Yeah, I agree with some of the other commenters on here. The absolute WORST POSSIBLE IDEA for this complex is to redevelop it into 100% affordable housing. Or anything more than 40%, actually, and with a breakdown of 20% affordable for the very poor, 20% affordable for workforce housing (people earning $40-60k a year like teachers and police officers), and 60% pure market rate.

    Two reasons for this - first off, it's Congress Heights, not Logan Circle. Market rate really isn't that high to start with. Yes, it will (hopefully) go up, and that's GOOD - that means the neighborhood is improving instead of declining. Second, projects like Arthur Capper Carolsburg (near the ballpark) and the Ellen Wilson Place redevelopments (near Eastern Market) have proven - load a place up with 100% poverty stricken families and you will get run down, crime-infested hell holes (the previous versions of both complexes) every single time. I don't know a SINGLE "100% affordable" complex or building in the city that anybody would want to live in. Not ONE. Load a place up with a very limited number of very poor people, many middle-income people, and a lot of wealthy market rate people (as they both did in the new versions of the projects), and you get an awesome project that fits seamlessly into the neighborhood that does not have a crime problem and is well maintained.

    Redeveloping this into ANYTHING more than 40% affordable will lead to it being a boarded up abandominum again in 20 or 30 years, just like what happened to it the LAST time it was 100% affordable. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Why do this again? It was tried, and it failed. Let go and try something new here.

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  • GoldCoastKid

    Question. Did anyone here finish 9th grade English?

  • http://www.lymanhreynolds.com/lymanhreynolds.jpg lyman h reynolds

    I don't comment, but I glanced through a few comments here How an eerie vacant property could become affordable housing once again - Housing Complex. I do have some questions for you if it's allright.
    Could it be just me or do a few of the comments come across as if they are written by brain dead people?
    :-P And, if you are posting at additional online sites, I'd like to keep up with you. Would you list of every one of your social pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  • Drez

    Glad to see this article attracting so much attention.
    My $0.02: DCHFA is slow, inept, and opaque. And not just in this case.
    Taken together these raise my suspicions that the agency is a nest of corruption.
    Consider: They don't even tell DCRA the disposition of a major property after 5 years?
    This shit is so off the books it screams for further digging.
    Too much gets swept under the rug as a "mistake" that really isn't.
    Remember: Every inefficiency has it's constituency.
    Who's benefiting here?

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  • VonniMediaMogul

    No one wants to live in Parkway Overlook or public housingfor that matter. To increase funding and not tear that hell hole down in the name of it being cheaper is absurd. National trends show public housing being torn down in place of mixed income homes. If a 3 bedroom shortage is the issue, create more of those but don't leave those buildings up. Tear the eyesore down.

  • CapitalTruck

    I like when people indicate "My grandmother, my mother, and I have all lived in [insert public housing name]." Clearly that indicates that as a society we have messed up. Nobody should be living in public housing for multiple generations. We have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, it seems like eventually people give up trying to find work (many times the jobs just don't exist...try finding decent work around here without a college degree) and join the alternate reality of sleeping all day and acting up all night.

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