Worship, abandoned properties coexist in an up-and-coming neighborhood
| By Mary Bowerman |
After a 150-year-old history that began during slavery and survived race riots and two fires, Shiloh Baptist Church faces a new obstacle: a congregation that can no longer afford to live in close proximity to the church.
Thomas Bowen, the social justice minister at Shiloh Baptist Church says as Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood has changed, many long-term residents who did not own homes have moved out of the city, others have struggled to pay rising rent.
“The community has changed,” Cowen said. “We believe that those coming into the community will find something of value. We also continue to find ways to meet the needs of those in our community.”
Perched on the corner of Ninth and P Streets Northwest, the church has more than 3,600 members and boasts several chapels, a gym, and a restaurant that is open most of the week. In addition to those holdings, it owns a string of abandoned properties on the 1500 block of Ninth Street Northwest, which are, along with the rest of the neighborhood, becoming prime real estate.
Affordable housing needed as property values skyrocket
The Shaw neighborhood is one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The median sale price for a home in Shaw is now $555,000, with the average list price at the end of November at almost $850,000. This is in stark contrast to ten years ago, when the median sale price was one third of what it is today.
Driving the increase in property values is the slew of new developments in the neighborhood, from high-rise apartments to trendy restaurants. As new apartments go up, the district’s inclusion zoning policy requires that a certain percentage of new construction units be set aside for low-income residents, though some say “affordable” is still too expensive for those living in the neighborhood.
Chris Smith, a consultant who moved to Shaw a few years ago because rent was cheap, says up-and-coming has its disadvantages.
“It’s becoming pricier around here,” Smith said while holding a six-pack of beer from the new Giant grocery store and following his friends to watch Saturday football at his apartment on Ninth and O Street Northwest. “The 7th Street Flats are one of the most expensive places in the city, and I’m not sure who they are even filling them with.”
According to Art Rogers of the DC Office of Planning, places like 7th Street Flats have to “fill” themselves with a certain percentage of affordable units. Rogers said inclusion zoning is required for all projects 10 units or higher, setting aside eight to 10 percent of the units as affordable to a household earning 50 percent of the area median income or 80 percent area median income, which would be $39,000 for a single person and $82,000 for a family of four.
“Inclusionary zoning’s main tool is to achieve some new affordable housing in high cost areas or those increasing in cost,” Rogers said, stressing that it does not prevent rent from increasing in older buildings that do not fall under the 1985 rent control law. “But that does not address the changes in the existing stock.”
Alexander Padro is the executive director of Shaw Main Streets, an organization funded partially by the city and dedicated to commercial revitalization along 7th and 9th streets Northwest. Padro says for seniors in the Shaw area, unless they have a housing voucher, which allows them to pay only 30 percent of whatever their income is, the list to get into affordable housing in the new units can be extremely long.
“If they don’t have a voucher and unless they are being displaced, the waiting list for new housing projects is in the tens of thousands,” Padro said.
Rogers said the city recently hired the Urban Institute to committee a large scale housing needs study that will reassess whether the inclusion zoning policy can be altered to achieve greater affordability for residents.
Social justice and controversial vacant properties
Minister Bowen says social justice continues to be one of the church’s strongest values. In addition to a slew of community outreach programs, Bowen says they are working to address a different set of problems, the issue of church members who need affordable housing but may not qualify for inclusionary zoning.
“We are in the process of creating affordable housing for our seniors,” Bowen says. “We hope to be able to build housing for seniors because we understand that, in all the newness that surrounds them, there is a need for our members of the congregation to have somewhere affordable to reside.”
Within Shaw, the properties in progress that Bowen refers to have been a point of contention among residents for years. The five properties that Bowen says will become affordable housing have been sitting vacant for a more than a decade. In 2011, the district passed a property tax rate for vacant commercial and residential properties. Therefore, in addition to being an eyesore, they have also been collecting property taxes.
According to Padro, the church was deeded several of the properties from members of the congregation almost 30 years ago.
Over the years, the church has made plans to develop the properties, even holding a groundbreaking ceremony in August 2010 for a “Victory Village” project. Construction never started.
Padro says the street is like a black hole, with no lighting at night and the uninhabited buildings becoming homeless camps in the evenings.
“When buildings are boarded up instead of people living in them or having businesses in them, that is a negative on the neighborhood,” Padro said, reiterating that several of the buildings had businesses operating on the ground floors twenty years ago.
“The church decided: instead of rehabilitating the buildings or bringing them up to code that they would just board them up,” he said. “So, they turned buildings that were somewhat productive into completely unproductive ones.”
Bowen says while the church is paying taxes on the properties the major issue with moving forward has been funding and church bureaucracy.
“It’s a democratic process,” Cowen said. “We need funding, but also agreeing on a plan. It’s a democratic process, we need approval from within the church.”
Cowen says until an the church comes to an internal decision their are no firm dates or development plans for the properties.
Padro says that unfortunately, the vacant properties are a reminder to many residents of the churches broken promise – especially as climbing property prices have some residents making tough decisions.
“It’s rather tragic that the church has continued to sit on these properties,” Padro said. “It’s a lost opportunity. People could be living in those buildings by now.”