Fun with ProQuest: Black middle class tries to help

From “D.C. Frontiers, Inner-City Renewal Project, Will Open Soon: Inner-City Renewal Housing Project to Open Soon” by John Saar, Washington Post, 8/13/1973 pC1
Quick abstract: Black businessmen and other AfAm professionals in the form of non-profit DC Frontiers Inc, build, at a financial loss several (and after sever set backs) townhomes at 14th & S, 11th & M, & 11th & N for low income families.

You can still walk by those townhouses today and after 30 some odd years you could say that the project was a success. In the article there was expressed concern that the surrounding decay would undermine the goals of the project. There was a problem with theft while the building was getting built, some snafus that added to construction expenses and there was this inflation thing going on in the 70s. Despite all that the buildings got built stable families got in them and they survived the Crack Barry years and the gentrification.

According to the article, DC Frontiers Inc was more successful than RLA (Redevelopment Land Agency). The difference between the two (besides one being smaller and non-govt) was DC Frontiers aimed for low density and homeownership whereas RLA was high density and rentals, which would be “recreating the old ghetto conditions.” The Frontiers houses aimed for something the high rise apartments for poor families wouldn’t have, a living room for the parents, play room for the children, a small yard, space for living.

The black middle class I write of were doctors, lawyers, Realtors and such who sponsored the construction costs of building the houses. They wanted to do something to help rebuild the area and they did by offering an alternative. As I mentioned RLA was aiming for high density high-rises, which solves the problem of putting roofs over peoples heads, but does little in stabilizing black families and helping them build wealth.

Frontiers sought to ‘reseed’ 14th St NW with families with low but steady incomes who paid their rent on time and turn those families into homeowners. Candidates were chosen by what sounded like the lottery method, and had three years after moving in to decide if they wanted to buy. There was a monetary deposit that in 2007 dollars is $1,604.16 and the option of taking a 25 year mortgage.

Another form of criticism in the article I see aimed at RLA that was a problem then is probably a cause of development problems now (or not, it’s an opinion). RLA costs were ‘unnecessarily’ high because the project bought a lot of commercially zoned land for residential purposes. For you kids who don’t know, commercial lot is way more expensive than residential lot. Both could be the same in every way, one is more expensive. Fast forward to 2007, hey guess what is sitting on the commercial strips of 7th?

8 thoughts on “Fun with ProQuest: Black middle class tries to help”

  1. Land that should be higher density mixed use (residential/retail) due to it being near metro, and the need for development in Shaw. And land that should be mixed income to dilute concentrations of poverty in one area.

  2. I know the homes you mean at 14th and S, across from the garden shop, and always wondered about them.
    After reading your earlier posts, I drove by Sursum Corda, and thought: what exactly went wrong with these buildings? The houses look pretty cute to me. Likely the balance comes down to cost per square foot paid by owners, quality of construction, and other community elements adding to or detracting from the practicality of sustaining life in that place. The cited WaPo article seems also to refer to density, and dignity of the living spaces (i.e. separate bedrooms and sound insulation). I am amazed by the way the built environment affects people. Thanks for the interesting excerpt. Maybe we need another effort like D.C. Frontiers?

  3. oh, there is also an article in the New Yorker about sprawl and commuting problems in cities such as Atlanta… I was reading it over someone’s shoulders. It seemed to pretty much regurgitate Putnam’s Bowling Alone theories of social networks being important for health and wellbeing.

  4. i have spoken to several long time owners of places at Frontiers and they told me they get offers from real estate developers. one lady told me, “They offered me $300,000. and I still said no.”

  5. Reading some articles it seems at some point Sursum Corda planners threw out the idea of a mix of incomes… don’t know if it was actually attempted or what.

    What I like about the Frontiers idea, several things, was the idea of helping grow a middle class, reseeding 14th St with stable families, and giving people the opportunity to own homes worth owning. The cool thing about non-profits is that they can aim for goals and try things that the government can’t, because of certain constraints of the government (red tape, various oversights, etc). Manna, I think, does something similar in building house projects and selling some below market value and others at market value. However, these projects are small. So you have great quality, but not so much quantity. I guess in this world it is better to say one housed 1000 low income families renting than saying one made 100 low income homeowners who have the opportunity to build wealth.
    The good and bad thing (depending on you opinion) is you give people freedom and options. Usually after some time period, like 10 years, people have the option of selling to the middle classes and making a profit off their homes. They also have the freedom to stay and are not subject to Hope V or Hope whatever number programs because they as individuals (not a part of a co-op) own their own individual dirt.
    I like the idea of growing and developing a black middle class, as much fun as I may make of my bourgie black folk. Home ownership is one option to help move folk into the middle class because for many of us, our home is our biggest asset. It’s mine.

  6. so many things contributed to the failure at Sursum Corda. teachers unions out of control, the drug economy, throw away people, babysitting drug addicts, the physical community was a poor plan from the start. everything the new planners want to include now should have been included in the first plan. The Jesuits abandoned the mission of Father McKenna and established the Gonzaga cocoon. having the methedon treatment center across the street for 25 years isn’t very smart either. the section 8 folks will be blamed for everything after all, they’re an easy target.

  7. great post. i just wanted add a link to an article that just came out in late march by a syndicated columnist who writes about community development around the country and he talks about Manna in DC and how inner-city homeownership is “a seedbed of wealth for Americans who’ve never had it.” here’s the link:

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