Author: Kimberly Cataudella       Published: 9/20/21      WIF 

Our House DC

Lovell Walls

Lovell Walls is a third-generation Washingtonian.

His maternal grandparents, Ada and John Wesley Bailey, bought an 18-year-old house on what is now Grant Street NE in 1939. They bought four plots of land at $10 each, public records show, and probably spent a few thousand dollars on the house, Walls said.

Today, Walls calls this house in Ward 7 his home. Its value is assessed by the District at more than $430,000. Real estate site RedFin estimates its worth at close to $500,000.

The District is experiencing the hottest housing market in recorded history, and the median price of homes city-wide reached $700,000 this summer.

But this hot market comes at another price: Longtime Black Washingtonians say they’re getting pushed out of their city. In 1957, Washington, D.C., became the country’s first predominantly Black major city, earning the nickname “Chocolate City.” After years of gentrification, recently released Census numbers show that there are now more white District residents than Black.

Today, residents in Wards 7 and 8 – the areas with the city’s most Black residents – are getting offers left and right to buy their homes.

Walls, an auditor in the District’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, receives weekly phone calls, postcards, text messages and flyers from local investors, house flippers and developers asking to buy his property. Investors may not renovate houses and instead sell them to interested parties as-is, while flippers and developers will revamp homes to sell them at a larger profit. Developers often expand and add additions to homes, increasing their value all the more.

Since Walls began keeping track in 2018, he said he’s gotten more than 80 mailers, dozens of phone calls and constant texts, including a few in-person visits from interested investors.

He’s one of many District residents getting bombarded with offers to buy his house in “as-is condition” through a quick cash sale.

“No amount of money would get me to sell this house,” Walls said. “I don’t even engage in conversations with these people to know how much they’d offer, but neighbors and friends who’ve talked to these guys say that they offer pennies on the dollar, a fraction of what the house is worth.” Photo courtesy Shevry Lassister / Washington Informer

“No amount of money would get me to sell this house,” Walls said. “I don’t even engage in conversations with these people to know how much they’d offer, but neighbors and friends who’ve talked to these guys say that they offer pennies on the dollar, a fraction of what the house is worth.”

Walls wants to pass the house down to his sons, who would be fourth-generation Black homeowners in a neighborhood where the Black population dropped from 98% to 88% over the past decade, according to Census data.

“I grew up coming to this house on the weekends, mowing the lawn and taking my grandmother out grocery shopping,” Walls said. “The neighborhood was 95%, 98% Black. We all knew each other.”

Long-time Ward 7 resident Lovell Ward pictured in family photo.
Ada Bailey and his late grandfather, John Bailey, bought the house in the late 30s-early 40s. Pictured: (l-r): Gwendolyn Walls (Mother), Lovell Walls, Lindy Bailey (Great Aunt – seated), Steven Walls (Brother) and Ada Bailey (Grandmother) Photo courtesy: Lovell Walls.

Walls’ mother, Gwendolyn, took over the property after his grandmother died in the 1980s. She rented out the home, but after issues with tenants, she wanted to get it off her hands. Walls jumped at the opportunity and moved into the house in 1990 to make renovations, which included turning the four plots of land into one. He bought the house with his wife in 1998.

Home values are increasing. Is that always a good thing?

Walls began getting requests to buy the house as soon as he moved in, but they’ve become more frequent in the past few years.

“Wards 7 and 8 aren’t cheap, but investors see the ability to make more profit than if they were to buy property west of [Rock Creek Park] and spend millions,” said Ericka S. Black, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who bought property in Walls’ neighborhood in 2011. The area has more yard space than most places in the city, she said, allowing investors to expand properties and increase profits when they sell.

A hot real estate market can put stress on residents whose incomes are fixed or aren’t keeping up with increased taxes and other pressures.

Walls said he successfully appealed his property taxes, with Black’s help, a few years ago. When the city increased his assessment value by tens of thousands of dollars, his taxes increased by about $1,200 too, he said. Black helped him navigate the appeals process and avoid the tax increase.

“Why should I be penalized for keeping my property livable and up to standards? For the benefit of other people?” said Walls, who attributes the assessment value increase to beautification in his neighborhood.

Black, who has successfully appealed her own property taxes too, wants District residents to know they can appeal their tax assessment annually: “It’s a tedious process, but it could be worth it for so many residents.” Telling others about the appeals process is one of the ways she works to retain the city’s Black homeownership and keep housing affordable, she said.

But when you’re struggling, it can be hard to think about your house as a long-term investment, said Sunya Musawwir, a homeowner in Ward 7. It’s sometimes more appealing to get quick cash.

Musawwir, who has owned property in Ward 7 for more than 25 years and grew up in Ward 8, said she also gets offers from buyers on a weekly basis. She’s not interested in selling her home, hoping to let its market value rise with time.

“[Investors] offer $300,000 or $400,000, … and you’ll think that’s a lot of money, especially when you’re facing hard times, so you’ll take it. Then you turn around, and the person who put the house on the market sold it for $500,000,” Musawwir said. “That’s happened to people I know.”

Musawwir bought her home for less than $80,000 in 1994. Today, its assessed value is more than double that.

What buyers are up to

The pressure to get quick cash – even when you’ve been told over and over again to keep your property – amplifies when you’re receiving frequent requests to buy.

“It’s accurate to say that residents of the District continue to receive what seems like an exorbitant number of solicitations to purchase their house,” said Kevin Link, part owner of 4 Brothers Buy Houses.

MarketPro Homebuyers, HomeVestors and 4 Brothers Buy Houses, among the firms that are offering to buy residential properties in Wards 7 and 8, spoke to Public Integrity for this story. Seven other companies that District residents said frequently contact them with requests to buy their homes either declined interviews or did not respond to requests for comment.

Executives with those firms said they respect the first request to be taken off of contact lists and do not show up to houses without a prior appointment.

HomeVestors, also known as We Buy Ugly Houses, is a national organization that works with independently owned franchises all over the country, said CEO David Hicks. HomeVestors works with eight franchises across the District to buy homes, rehab them and sell them for a profit. The group rarely expands the properties, he said.

“There are people out there who prey on [sellers], and they offer pennies on the dollar,” Hicks said. “We make a fair margin on [our houses], but we’ve been in this business for 25 years, and we’ll be here for 25 more. To do that, we have to offer a fair price, … but we need to make a profit to stay in business. And we need the reputation to do that, so we offer fair prices.”

As co-founder of MarketPro, Danny Bronstein’s name and contact information is on most mailed flyers. He said they send yellow flyers by mail monthly to homeowners across hundreds of zip codes throughout the Washington metro area. The company provides a web link to get removed from all correspondence at the bottom of its flyers.

“We consistently mail out these flyers over and over again to the same houses because people’s situations change,” and someone who might not want to sell right now might want to in six months, Bronstein said. “And if they want to opt out, they have a clear process to do that.”

HomeVestors typically sends flyers through the mail every three months, Hicks said, and the flyers include written instructions to stop receiving them.

Housing equity’s been a long-standing issue. Is it getting worse?

Past District policies have helped investors snatch up properties whose owners were under financial duress. A 2013 Washington Post investigation revealed that longtime homeowners – most in Wards 7 and 8 – were losing homes via foreclosure when they owed as little as $44 back taxes. In response, officials prohibited the sale of liens on homes whose owners owe back taxes under $2,500.

An “assessment cap” enacted in 2002 limited annual tax increases to 25% of the previous year’s real tax bill. By 2006, in response to rising house prices in the area, this cap was decreased to 10%.

In May, Mayor Muriel Bowser allocated $400 million to support affordable housing and $23.5 million to help low-income first-time homebuyers with down payments and closing cost assistance.

“Mayor Bowser and our entire Administration are focused on ensuring all Washingtonians have a fair shot and can thrive in the neighborhoods they know and love,” said Shayne Wells, a spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, in an email to Public Integrity.

And for the past four years, DC Housing Finance Agency has had a partnership program with developers to build homes for residents who earn too much money to qualify for affordable housing, yet not enough money to buy a house within the expensive market. It’s also an opportunity to partner with local emerging developers of color, said agency spokesperson Yolanda McCutchen.

Even with what the city has to offer, longtime residents – especially those who are Black – say they feel like development is ultimately pushing them out.

The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) is a multi-faith, nonpartisan organization of religious leaders in the District that has been organizing on the issue of affordable housing for more than 20 years. The group is rallying around a theme of “housing equity” this year, hoping to teach struggling residents – especially younger generations – about resources they can use to keep homes.

The Rev. William H. Lamar, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church’s senior pastor and WIN member, said he wants the government to put as much effort into helping Black, brown and poor residents as they do in building partnerships with developers.

“They’ve been focused on helping developers complete projects that would not exist without support from our elected officials and our public funds,” he said. “The District does not belong to the donor class. It belongs to us all.”