1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
Looks to Its Neighbors
York Times, April 4, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final,
Section 11, Page 7, Column 1, Real Estate
By JAMES R.
Cooperative effort by Howard
University and the Fannie Mae
mortgage-financing agency is
bringing new life to Le Droit
Park, a neighborhood rich in
architecture and African American
history, but full of boarded-up
town houses left vacant by
the exodus of the black middle
class from the inner city.
Fannie Mae, the nation's largest provider of home mortgage financing,
agreed in 1997 to join Howard in revitalizing the area surrounding
the university. The new partners agreed that their first task
would be to renovate houses owned by the university and building
new ones on Howard's vacant lots. The Fannie Mae Foundation,
an independent nonprofit group specializing in housing problems
that draws its sole support from its namesake, invested $1 million
in studies of land use, streetscapes and commercial development
needed to support the initiative.
Recently, two university employees moved into freshly renovated
turn-of-the-century town houses south of the Howard campus that
they had purchased from the university. A third buyer will be
joining them soon.
The residences that the employees purchased are among 14 virtually
identical narrow town houses on one side of Oakdale Place facing
a parking garage on the edge of the main campus. For more than
10 years, only one person, Lillie Robinson, lived on the otherwise
boarded-up block of town houses. Now, all but two of the units
Howard owns on the street have been renovated. "Mrs. Robinson
did something very few people accomplish," said H. Patrick
Swygert, Howard's president. "She outwaited an institution."
In a report last year, Concord Partners, a consultant commissioned
by the Fannie Mae Foundation to study the area, called the amount
of vacant and abandoned housing surrounding the university "staggering." Of
the five neighborhoods near the historically black university,
the report said, the worst problem is in the Le Droit Park area
to the south of the school, where 90 buildings, or 18 percent
of all residential properties there, are vacant or abandoned.
Concord identified Howard as by far the largest owner of vacant
homes in the area.
Howard's properties in the Le Droit Park neighborhood, most of
which is on the National Register of Historic Places, include
the 12 narrow town houses on both sides of Mrs. Robinson's house,
15 larger town houses and an equal number of vacant town-house
lots acquired in the 1970s and 1980s to accommodate future expansion
of Howard's health facilities.
The threat to the neighborhood posed by the university's proposed
expansion and the impact its boarded up properties had on its
neighbors severely strained relations between Howard and Le Droit
Park residents and preservationists, said Mr. Swygert.
Shortly after Mr. Swygert became president of the university
in 1995, plans to expand the campus into the Le Droit Park community
were dropped. To help revitalize the community and rebuild Howard's
relations with its neighbors, the university began to open facilities
along the commercial Georgia Avenue corridor to its west.
In 1996 and 1997, Howard moved its data center into the top two
floors of an old Wonder Bread factory, and opened a community
association center in a former convenience store and a joint
Howard University Security/Metropolitan Police Department station
in what had been a liquor store.
So far, 24 people have signed contracts to buy town houses the
university is rehabilitating or building anew. Contract purchasers
range from members of the university's cleaning staff to medical
doctors, said C. Peter Behringer, a development consultant retained
The renovated units range from the 12-foot-wide town houses built
around the turn of the century to a 1,680 square-foot Victorian
with ornamental brick detailing selling for $173,000. The new
units, which use several different styles to fit in with the
ecletic architecture of the neighborhood, range in size from
1,300 to 1,680 square feet and sell for $140,000 to $175,000.
Suman Sorg, an architect retained by Howard for its renovation
project, said it was a challenge to lay out rooms in the 12-foot-wide
town houses so that beds and sofas would fit. But all of them
have two bedrooms, a modern kitchen, a first floor powder room
and a high-tech wiring system to each room connected to fiberoptic
cable installed in the alley by Bell Atlantic, the Howard/Fannie
Mae venture's technology partner. The wiring system gives homeowners
high-speed access to university computers and the Internet.
The low price of the narrow town houses -- $89,500 -- makes them
available to college instructors and support staff members, said
Hassan Minor Jr., a university vice president.
EMPLOYEES can make a down payment as low as 3 percent because
Howard gives them a 7 percent subsidy. The university also gives
the subsidy to policemen, firefighters and teachers in District
of Columbia schools who are willing to live in the homes for
Fannie Mae is making below market rate 30-year financing at 5.9
percent available to new Le Droit Park homeowners by purchasing
special mortgage revenue bonds issued by the District of Columbia
Housing Finance Agency.
Ms. Sorg, the architect, said the the new homes the university
will build in the Le Droit Park neighborhood will have the same
exterior features as houses she is designing for a project in
Georgetown that will sell for $750,000 to $1.4 million.
One major reason for the low price of the renovated houses is
that it only reflects the cost of rehabilitating the properties.
Howard University is writing off its cost to acquire and carry
the properties to attract the families needed to bring new life
to the community, Dr. Minor said. In addition, design, construction
and management costs are lower because Fannie Mae made low-cost
flexible financing available to the university.
From the beginning, Howard University and Le Droit Park have
been inextricably bound. In 1873, six years after Howard University
was founded primarily to educate young blacks, Amzi L. Barber,
a university trustee, resigned his post and purchased 40 acres
from the university.
He hired James H. McGill, an architect and engraver, to develop
a subdivision he named Le Droit Park (after the given name of
his father-in-law, Le Droit Langdon). The whites-only subdivision
emphasized seclusion, fine houses and proximity to downtown Washington.
A brick and iron fence was installed at the front of Le Droit
Park and a high board fence was built to separate it from a black
settlement called Howard Town.
By 1877, 41 new houses, all designed by McGill, had been built,
using a number of styles, including Italian villa, Gothic Revival,
Queen Anne, Second Empire and Italianate. A number of these homes
are still in existence.
Nearby black residents soon tired of walking around the gated
community. In July 1888, they tore down the board fence in protest,
according to a brochure published by the District of Columbia
Historic Preservation Office. By 1891, the fence was abandoned.
Soon afterward, the district government took over the streets
and opened them to public access and remaining lots were sold
to speculators who began to develop Queen Anne row houses.
In 1893, a black barber in the Capitol moved his family to Le
Droit Park. The next year a second couple, Robert Terrell, a
Harvard-educated lawyer who was the first black municipal court
judge in the district, and his wife, Mary, a foreign-languages
teacher and women's activist, moved in.
Notable African Americans who made Le Droit Park their home in
the first half of the century include Senator Edward Brooke of
Massachusetts; Ralph Bunche, the United Nations official who
was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for negotiating armistices
between Israel and the Arab countries after the 1948 war; Gen.
Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the nation's first black general, and
Walter Washington, the first black mayor of Washington, who has
lived at the same home on T Street since 1941.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Rehabilitated town houses on Oakdale
Place. A 19th-century mansion in the Le Droit Park historic
district. (Photographs by Michael Geissinger for The New
Map of Washington, D.C., highlighting LeDroit Park Historic District.