This piece originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.
In the heart of Anacostia, a neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C., lies 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.
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 Department of Housing and Urban Development’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.
“On a scale of one to 10, Anacostia’s abandominiums are a two,” says Bill Jackson, the last occupant of 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. 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 St. SE
Credit: John Muller
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 4,500-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 multifamily 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.
“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, “[D.C. Mayor Vince] 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 from 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 St. 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.
“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 on a vacant building’s steps. Credit: John Muller
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 (DMPED), 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, in much of the rest of the city, a new tower crane pops up every few weeks. Is it any surprise some people in Anacostia feel resentment?