The Changing Face of Anacostia: Public Housing and Urban Renewal

Black parishioners of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church
In the 1920s Anacostia was far more rural and boasted a higher percentage of home ownership than other sections of the District. In a study of residential building in the District during the '20s, the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission found that for the city as a whole, 23% of its dwellings were multifamily apartment buildings. Broken down by planning districts, in the central part of the city 32% of all dwellings were apartment buildings; in northwest D.C., 25%; in the northern area, 61%; in northeast, 4.5%; in the eastern section, 7%; and in Anacostia, apartments accounted for only one half of one percent of all residential structures. At the time Anacostia only accounted for five percent of the total city population, and it possessed forty percent of the District's vacant land; seen in light of these figures, its low number of apartment houses is understandable. However, Anacostia's population was increasing; from 1920-26 the area saw a 56% growth rate (the lowest was ten percent, and the highest was 187%), fourth highest among the planning districts. Yet during that time, only four apartment houses were constructed there, compared to 1,820 detached and row houses. (1) Clearly, Anacostia was a place intended for homeowners.

1928 table showing farm acreage in the D.C. area; Anacostia is the largest circle, near center
It was also a place intended for private businesses. In 1928, 673 acres of Anacostia land was in commercial and industrial use, compared with 454 acres for residential dwellings. Few other areas of the District were as well-balanced. In a regional study of produce farms encompassing roughly 1600 square miles, Anacostia possessed more than double the acreage under cultivation than any other location in the region. (2)

Less than fifty years later, Anacostia's schools were 83% over capacity (D.C. schools elsewhere were 16% over capacity); the federal and D.C. governments owned more buildings through foreclosure than in any other part of the district; and over 75% of Anacostia's land was zoned for apartments, when D.C. zoning law prescribed an 80% rate of single family occupancy in the other parts of the city. (3)

This radical transformation of Anacostia could be a simple story of rapid population growth and extremely poor zoning laws. But it is also the story of urban renewal and the expansion of bureaucracy on one side of the river, and the creation of racialized public housing ghettos on the other. The (indirect) role of the federal government in the creation of ghettos elsewhere in the country through FHA/HOLC/VA loans, the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, and subsidies for infrastructure improvements connecting city to suburb has been well documented by Arnold Hirsch, George Lipsitz, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton among others. They show that the federal government provided the funds and enabling legislation for local authorities to create racialized ghettos. Anacostia provides an example in which the federal government was more directly, and self-interestedly, involved.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Washington's poorest citizens lived in tenement housing in the alleys of the Nation's Capital; at the turn of the century, blacks comprised two-thirds of the alley population. Various acts of Congress dating back to 1872, including the 1914 Alley Dwelling Act which was declared unconstitutional, attempted to eradicate the alley population, which persisted into the 1940s. In 1930 the alley population stood at 11,000-13,000 people, down from its high of 25,000.

The National Capital Parks and Planning Commission addressed the alley problem in its 1930 comprehensive plan for the District. The NCPPC called for a Congressional act which would give the President and local agencies of the federal government the power to purchase/condemn alley buildings and to relocate alley residents, primarily to vacant street dwellings elsewhere in the District. The Commission strove "to assure street property owners and tenants that the character of their neighborhoods will not be injured. The search for vacant houses is confined to negro blocks so as not to raise any question as to the population of a given square." (4) The NCPPC justified the demolition of alley dwellings on the grounds of code violations and building obsolescence, but also through a moral appeal that alley tenants were particularly disposed to crime, delinquency, and communicable disease. The Commission's intent to relocate these tenants exclusively in black neighborhoods ignored the minority of white alley dwellers as well as the class-based heterogeneity of black neighborhoods. The Commission added, "Also, it is recognized that there are differences among the negroes and it is not proposed to give respectable colored neighborhoods a new character by flooding them with undesirable new tenants. This is a difficult problem. all alley dwellers are not undesirable neighbors. The transition must be handled with consideration and tact." (5)

Although the Commission claimed that enough vacant street dwellings were available to house the relocated alley dwellers, their numbers actually argued otherwise. The NCPPC's efforts would have rehoused families from 1,620 alley dwellings in 510 vacant street houses. If we assume that the street dwellings were bigger and thus able to accomodate multiple families, the NCPPC's formula would have worked. However, affordability destroyed the feasibility of this solution. In a breakdown of alley dwelling rents, the Commission reported that 133 alley dwellings rented at between one and two dollars per room per month; 399 rented between two and three dollars per month; 842 cost between three and four dollars a month; 206 between four and five dollars; and 40 cost above five dollars. In contrast, no street dwellings were available for between one and two dollars; only 44 rented for between two and three dollars; 122 cost between three and four dollars; 162 between four and five dollars; and 182 rented for over five dollars, per room per month. (6) Because the figures for street dwellings represent rent costs per room, unless multiple families occupied a single room they could not hope to piece together the higher rents.

Public housing in D.C. as of 1950
There was not enough vacant housing to accomodate the displaced families; thus public housing in the District was born. Congress created the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, which became the National Capital Housing Authority during the 40s; its responsibilities included construction of housing for war workers during WWII, eradication of alley dwellings, and construction of public housing in the District. The NCHA oversaw the construction of 943 public housing units throughout the District during the years of WWII. Congress's 1945 D.C. Redevelopment Act gave slum reclamation in Washington additional impetus, and placed both the NCHA and the D.C. Commissioners squarely under the authority of the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, a body whose membership included the chairmen of the District committees in the House and the Senate; presidential appointees like the director of the National Park Service, the chief of the Forest Service, and the Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army; and four presidentially-appointed city planners, one of whom had to be a resident of the District. The Redevelopment Act provided for the clearance of substandard housing, but it also allowed the federal government, through the NCPPC, to acquire land for federal development. In its 1950 Comprehensive Plan, the NCPPC mentioned that the Redevelopment Act would facilitate the clearance of a large area "to accomodate public buildings and an extension of the Mall east of the Capitol." (7) The process of redevelopment began with the NCPPC, which targeted certain areas of the city for clearance and redevelopment in accordance with its comprehensive plan for Washington. The D.C. Commissioners were given thirty days to approve or amend the proposal; following that, the Redevelopment Land Agency acquired the property through purchase, condemnation, or eminent domain, and the National Capital Housing Authority constructed and administered public/subsidized housing if the area was to be redeveloped for residential low-income use. Marshall Heights, an Anacostia neighborhood, was the first community targeted for redevelopment, but the testimony of residents before a Congressional committee resulted in Congress's refusing to fund the project.

Level of deterioration in D.C. residential dwellings; darker colors represent a higher % of unsafe housing
The NCPPC and the RLA hoped to begin redevelopment in outlying areas like Anacostia, perhaps so that public housing would be available when they got to the central section, thus freeing up space in the center of the city for federal purposes. A sample redevelopment plan for a targeted neighborhood in the center of the city included a proposed inner-city freeway directly next to the neighborhood. In all, The NCHA and private developers constructed 1,300 units of public/subsidized housing in the '50s and '60s for residents displaced by highway/redevelopment projects in other parts of the city. In 1965, however, 5,800 families were on the waiting list for public housing in D.C. In a 1965 housing report, the NCPC (by then renamed the National Capital Planning Commission) noted that urban renewal in southwest Washington in the '50s and '60s removed some the city's worst slums, but also led to a shortage of residential space for low income familes: "Other urban renewal projects, code enforcement, and public improvements, as well as private market demolition and rehabilitations, subsequently removed additional quantities of low rent slum housing. These removals...created a short-run improvement in the physical condition of Washington's housing supply...There may or may not have been an adequate supply of housing in the city available to low income families at rentals they could afford." (8) The NCPC's equivocal "may or may not" attempted to diminish the active role that they, together with the Redevelopment Land Agency and the NCHA, were supposed to have had in overseeing redevelopment and low income housing in the District.

1950 map showing locations of decentralized government centers
To some extent, the shortage of public housing was due to Washington's enormous population growth during the 1950s. In its 1950 Comprehensive Plan the NCPPC estimated that the population of Washington would reach a million by 1980, when in fact D.C. passed that number in just a decade. The shortage of public housing was also due to the federal government's re-emphasis on centralization of its bureacracy within the central part of the city. Earlier plans, like the 1950 NCPC plan, called for government offices that didn't need immediate contact with Congress or with the Executive branch to be located on decentralized sites throughout the metropolitan region; most of the infrastructure and mass transit plans of the 1950 plan, including the system of circumferential beltways, were intended to facilitate that decentralization. By the early '60s, the government called instead for an expansion of its office holdings in the central part of Washington. Because of the height restriction on buildings in Washington, and out of a desire to avoid increasing densities within the existing federal district, the government needed to acquire additional land. Redevelopment of the southwest section of the city provided office space to 2 1/2 times as many federal workers as had Federal Triangle in the earlier part of the century; planners estimated that demolition of the temporary offices built on the Mall during WWII would eliminate space for 20,000 federal workers. A 1961 NCPC plan proposed an expansion of the central business district by 250 acres in order to accomodate an increase in federal employment in that area of 75% over the existing level; in 1965 the NCPC planned an expansion of federal office space on South Capitol Street to provide room for 50,000 additional federal employees. In 1965 the NCPC estimated that 12,000 families would be displaced to provide necessary community facilities (schools, hospitals, etc.) and to raze substandard dwellings; an additional 12,000 would be displaced through private redevelopment. The long range projections were even less sanguine. The NCPC projected that from 1965-1985, 45,000 families would be displaced through land use changes and that 20,000 of these would need assistance for affordable housing. The NCPC and its related redevelopment agencies found themselves unable to serve those families whose housing was marginally inadequate or whose rent was just out of reach; instead, they became exclusively concerned with the relocation of families displaced by urban renewal, public works, and flagrant code violations. From 1963-1966, displaced families accounted for 23% of all public housing recipients, but fully 100% of new tenants in the larger public housing developments were displaced families. The 1965 NCPC housing report concluded, "in large units, the [NCH] Authority has had to serve wholly as a relocation resource to enable public improvements and other public actions." (9)

The NCPC planned that some of the redeveloped areas would be used again for housing, and it wanted a variety of income groups housed there, "not just displaced lower income groups." (10) This caused a net decrease in housing for the poorest residents of D.C. Where were low income families to go? The NCPC concluded in 1965 that D.C. probably couldn't house all its low income families because 1) the District's low height requirement precluded a high-rise solution, and 2) the expansion of the federal government in D.C. drove up land prices and made it unfeasible to find room and to pay for construction of low income housing. The NCPC proposed instead that low income black families could be housed through "a wide extension of the housing supply available to non-whites by a significant integration of housing throughout the metro area. It must occur on a scale sufficiently large to avoid "blockbusting" activities." (11). Although the NCPC plan recognized suburban restrictive covenants as one of the factors preventing low income black families from finding good housing, it failed to see that the significantly lower incomes of many black families would prevent them from being able to afford down payments and mortgages for suburban housing. An NCPC document written a year later listed the loss of purchasing power for blacks in the D.C. area due to discrimination (i.e., unequal pay for equal work/training) at $300,000,000 per year.

Map showing existing residential densities in D.C. in mid-60s; darker colors represent higher densities
By 1967 the NCPC abandoned its plan for suburban low income/public housing and focused instead on what it could do within the District's borders. Anacostia became the center of the Commission's attention: although in its 1965 plan it had advocated the dispersal of public housing in small clusters throughout the District rather than in large projects, in 1967 it called for the construction of 65,000 units of new housing (partially to accomodate the 45,000 families displaced by redevelopment). 50,000 of the units would be public/subsidized housing units. Anacostia was to absorb 30,000 out of the total 65,000. Construction of schools for the new residents would displace another 3,200 families in Anacostia.

Unfortunately public improvements didn't keep pace with the glut of apartment construction in Anacostia during the period. A lack of health care facilities in the 1970s forced residents to make long bus trips across the river to D.C. General Hospital and public health clinics; Anacostia schools in 1970 were 83% over capacity; and the Anacostia subway station was among the lowest priority projects during Metro construction during the 1970s. Local residents asked Metro officials to review this decision in light of the lack of work opportunities in Anacostia; the few bus routes going directly to the District, compared with other outlying areas; the topography and street design of Anacostia, which made extensive bus service impractical; and the fact that it would serve 160,000 people. In 1972 the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation challenged Metro's plans to bypass the community entirely and provide direct service to Suitland, Maryland. Although the Anacostia station was retained, it remained one of the last to be built in the initial stages of Metro construction.

Rather than rehabilitate developments like the Congress Park Apartments, which was built in 1950, comprised 684 apartments in 80 buildings, and was abandoned less than twenty years later, private developers and the National Capital Housing Authority continued to build new (and often shabbily constructed) public housing. The explosion of apartment construction in Anacostia far exceeded the need for public housing in the '60s. In 1970 in the Anacostia/Barry's Farm area, one of the oldest neighborhoods in east of the river, one third of the total housing stock was garden apartments less than ten years old. This translated into a significant number of foreclosed and abandoned properties; by 1970 the vacancy rate in Anacostia was 4.5%, compared to the city wide rate of ony 2.8%.

Apartments constructed during the 1960s, vacant today.
Developers and housing agencies were encouraged by ill-conceived zoning laws which encouraged profuse apartment construction in the Anacostia area. Despite worries about population growth in the District, the NCPC counseled a decrease in multi-family apartment zoning in 1950. The density regulations in effect in 1950 would have permitted an additional 3,670,000 people to live in the District. The Commission projected an increase of only 208,000 through 1980, and claimed that 310,000 could be housed on the vacant land remaining at that time. Although the Commission seriously underestimated the population growth which occured during the 1950s, in 1965 it still counseled that "The potential for intensification of development permited under present zoning regulations is far beyond any growth which could reasonably be expected to occur in the city within the next 30 or 40 years...controls [should] be tightened to protect Washington from an unavoidable haphazard development." (12) Accordingly, the District government scaled back apartment zoning in the rest of the city, but not in Anacostia, which carried the bulk of residential development and public housing in the 1967 NCPC plan. The same set of zoning laws prohibited the construction of row houses and reduced the number of commercial acres in Anacostia as well. In 1970 apartment zoning accounted for over 75% of the total area of Anacostia; elsewhere in the District zoning law required that 80% of housing was to be single family dwellings. A 1970 D.C. government study of Anacostia noted that the area had "the characteristics of a captive real estate market created by restrictions on the movement of the black population into the suburbs." (13). The study concluded that "The R-5-A [apartment] District, as presently in force in the zoning regulations for the District of Columbia, can be said to be discriminatory. It is discriminatory in a geographic sense because of its denial and/or discouragement of adequate home ownership opportunities in one part of the city. Zoning provides a broad incentive for home purchases in other parts of the city but effectively discourages it in the Far Southeast." (14).

Attempts by local activists to change the situation exposed class-based fault lines within the black community. A townhouse development in 1975 was the first single-family housing development constructed in Anacostia in 25 years. During the 70s a nonprofit organization called Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. gave renovation loans and coordinated bank funding to first time home buyers who were unable to secure loans by themselves in District banks. The D.C. government ran a similar lending program at the same time, but it proved less popular. Mary Kolesar, the Anacostia head of the D.C. Neighborhood Improvement Program, commented about the residents, "They aren't enamored with city programs. Their fear was that if you let a housing inspector in your house, they [the city] were going to take it from you." (15) Representatives from Neighborhood Housing Services joined the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council and the Fort Stanton Civic Association to request that the D.C. government rezone a fifty block area from mixed use to single family dwellings. Their concern was chiefly for the vacant land which existed in the area and their plan exempted most of the existing businesses and apartment houses there, but it still raised the ire of some Anacostia residents and developers. One southeast developer labelled it "snob zoning at best" while a resident argued that "we have to be cautious that this works for the benefit of citizens now living in Anacostia--not for the relocation of those citizens." (16) Too many Anacostia residents experienced urban renewal and relocation elsewhere in the city to feel completely comfortable with the proposed rezoning, which the D.C. government ultimately approved. Henry Lutterlough of the Fort Stanton Civic Association said, "It's very helpful to us out here to have this type of zoning. We can begin to become part of Washington now. In the past we've been isolated because of the helter-skelter way people were allowed to build here. Now we can attract people of the type we'd like to have as neighbors." (17) This class division manifested itself in other ways as well; when the lower middle class members of his congregation balked at the idea of a halfway house next to the church, Reverend George Stallings commented, "This is the kind of experience [that makes me think] my people have kind of gone to sleep on this whole thing." (18)

Certainly middle class blacks living in Anacostia during the 1970s were not to blame for their desire to see the area return to the level of prosperity and homeownership black communities there had enjoyed in earlier days. Nor can they be blamed for their concern over the number of vacant buildings, a rising crime rate, and a growing drug problem. The transformation of Anacostia into the racialized ghetto of today was a complex process which encompassed a variety of factors, many of them familiar to other cities; however in Washington, at least part of the responsibility rested with a federal government whose priority was its own expansion and public image, rather than the needs of the citizens in its backyard.

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1 National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Plans and Studies:  Washington and
Vicinity_ 1928: 14, 16

2  Ibid 11,52

3  Washington D.C. Department of Urban Renewal, _Washington's Far Southeast '70 Report_
1970: 23

4  National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Reports and Plans, Washington Region_
1930: 76

5  Ibid

6  Ibid 83

7  National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Washington Present and Future_ 1950: 20.

8  National Capital Planning Commission, _Problems of Housing People in Washington, D.C._
1966: 49

9  Ibid 107

10  National Capital Planning Commission and National Capital Regional Planning Council, _A
Policies Plan for the Year 2000:  The Nation's Capital_ 89

11  National Capital Planning Commission, _1965/1985:  Proposed Physical Development
Policies for Washington, D.C._ 1965: 35

12  Ibid 23

13  Washington D.C. Department of Urban Renewal 47

14  Ibid 38

15  Patricia Camp, "Neighborhood Housing Services Help People Get Loans to Buy Single
Family Homes," _The Washington Post_ Oct 24 1977: A1

16  Anne Oman, "Citizens Opposed Over Proposed Rezoning in Anacostia," _The Washington
Post_ Mar 16 1978: DC 02

17 Anne Oman, "Compromise on Rezoning in Anacostia," _The Washington Post_ Sept 7 1978:
DC 06

18  Phil McCombs, "Almost All Black Community Now Pondering Its Future," _The
Washington Post_ Dec 25 1978: B1