Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Reverberations Of a Housing Boom

North Capitol Street Corridor Experiences Growing Wealth -- and Pains

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer

Second of two articles

In the District's fast-changing Bloomingdale neighborhood, a group of residents gathered on a recent snowy Sunday for homemade doughnuts and conversation. Talk turned to property values.

Vicky Leonard-Chambers, part of the first generation of urban pioneers to lay claim to this center-city enclave in the early 1990s, recalled people's lament that "$400,000 now buys you only a condo."

"Back when I bought my house, you could buy three complete two-story homes for that," said Leonard-Chambers, who works for a trade association and is active in a local effort to bring new retail to the North Capitol Street corridor.

"It's exciting to see that you have an investment that's increasing in value faster than your 401(k) plan at work," Leonard-Chambers said. "But the downside is that as it appreciates, so does your tax burden. You know that it's difficult for many of the seniors."

Residents of Bloomingdale and other District neighborhoods will get the government estimate of how much their property values are rising this month, when the Office of Tax and Revenue mails out proposed assessments for 2006.

City officials say the valuations, which have risen sharply in recent years as the city has emerged from fiscal and political turmoil, will continue to climb -- especially in formerly working-class neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale and nearby Eckington and LeDroit Park, all rapidly going upscale.

"Either you sell, or you make do," said Cleopatra Jones, president of the Bloomingdale Civic Association and a resident of Eckington and Bloomingdale for 40 years. She said she scrimps and saves monthly to keep up with taxes for her home on R Street NE and a rental property she owns nearby. "You wink and you go eenie-meenie-minie-mo and you decide which bill is going to be paid."

In these neighborhoods, which straddle North Capitol Street near Rhode Island Avenue, change is easily visible.

Home prices have more than doubled in the past three years. Dozens of houses sport "For Sale" signs. Construction crews renovating old rowhouses provide near-constant background noise.

Most of the once-ubiquitous metal awnings and green outdoor carpeting have disappeared from porch stoops. Instead, houses sport brass light fixtures, heavy wooden doors and fresh paint.

A modest coffeehouse called the Windows Cafe opened last year, to much fanfare, at First Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW. More than 50 neighbors turned out to hear a jazz band and to celebrate the conversion of an old bodega into the area's first restaurant where, after ordering at the counter, patrons can sit down to eat.

In the evenings, sidewalk traffic reflects the growing number of upscale professionals -- black and white, male and female, gay and straight.

"It's changing very fast, just from last year to now," said Hunegnaw Abeje, who with his wife, Roman Teklu, runs the cafe and an adjoining market, where the wine selection includes Chalk Hill merlot for $49.99 a bottle.

It is a far cry from the neighborhood that Virginia Johnson, 77, remembers moving into in 1960. Back then, every house on the 100 block of Thomas Street was full of children, she recalled yesterday. "You could go to bed and leave your windows and doors open, and nothing bad would happen."

Now, all but three of Johnson's longtime neighbors have moved, selling their homes for many times what they paid for them. Johnson, confined to a wheelchair and nearly blind, said speculators frequently knock on her door and offer her $275,000 for her rowhouse, which she bought for $20,000.

The modest structure is valued at $278,050. But the amount on which her tax is calculated is much lower, because of caps, exemptions for people who live on their property and a 50 percent credit offered to senior citizens.

Johnson said she is not interested in selling her house, which is paid in full and just a half-block from her beloved Mount Bethel Baptist Church. "I been here this long. I just like the city," she said, adding that with the help of her family and her God, if necessary, her taxes get paid.

But people at her socioeconomic level -- she worked as an aide for the D.C. public schools -- have long stopped being able to secure a foothold in this neighborhood.

Scott Roberts bought his house in Bloomingdale in 1992. Back then, he said, people of lesser means could still buy in Eckington, just across North Capitol Street. Now, homes there cost almost as much as in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale. Teachers, clerical workers and other relatively low-wage earners must look elsewhere.

"They're going over to Woodridge, Trinidad and then Wards 7 and 8," Roberts said, ticking off more affordable parts of the city where, nevertheless, prices are also on the rise.

Yolanda Murphy grew up in Bloomingdale until her family fled to Maryland to escape rising crime. Three years ago, she took over a dry-cleaning business at Rhode Island Avenue and First and T streets NW. At first, her customers brought in jeans and jerseys for cleaning. Now, she gets more dress shirts, suits and dresses.

"I watched it go down, and now I'm seeing it rebuilt again," Murphy said of her old neighborhood. She said she is pleased to see senior citizens walking the streets again and to wave to folks on the stoop.

Someday, Murphy said, she, too, would like to buy a house here. But she doubts that will be possible.

"I couldn't afford it," Murphy said.