Government and community leaders assist Mayor Gray on breaking ground for The Nannie Helen at 4800.
Mayor Gray speaks at the ground breaking ceremony for the Nannie Helen at 4800 housing project.

Meagan Ramsay

Affordable housing was listed as a “top priority” of residents attending Mayor Vincent Gray’s Feb. 11 One City Summit.

Less than two weeks later, at a Feb. 23 ground-breaking ceremony for a new low-cost housing development, the mayor was eager to show he had gotten the message.

He described the new apartments that would soon rise on the site and announced the reformation of a task force dedicated to shaping a long-term affordable housing strategy for the city. “We can never become one city without recognizing the importance of housing to our residents,” Gray said at the event. “I would love to say we’re winning the battle, but I’m not sure we are. I think we have a long way to go to be able to say we have enough housing for the people who live in the district.” Flanked by other city officials, developers and local residents, the mayor announced the Nannie Helen at 4800, a mixed-use 89,000 square-foot project featuring 70 affordable housing units, retail space, parking and an adult education and fitness center.

The development located on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE in the Dean- wood neighborhood will be available to seniors, working families and individuals.

Gray called the project “a pivotal milestone in the continued development of East-of-the-River communities in the District.”

Tony Wash, of A. Wash & Associates, a development team, said he envisioned the project five years ago after observing the lack of development in the neighborhood. He said he grew up in the area and returned with the intention of improving his community.

“It is gratifying for me to be in a position to be able to give back because so much was given to me through afford- able housing,” said Wash.

Within the next three weeks, the existing building on the site is scheduled to be demolished. Construction is scheduled to begin six weeks from now, said Wash, with the projected completion date set for July 2013.

Gray used the ground-breaking event as an occasion to unveil a newly reconstituted Comprehensive
Housing Strategy Task Force (CHSTF), comprised of 34 individuals charged with reporting to the mayor on specific issues. The taskforce, which originated in 2003, made its last report in 2006.

The Mayor chose Harry Sewell and Deborah Ratner Salzberg to co-chair the CHSTF.

Sewell is the Executive Director of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency and has more than 30 years of housing experience in the public and private sectors. Salzberg serves on the board of directors for Forest City Enterprises and is president of Forest City Washington, according to a government press release.

“I’m so pleased that the mayor has embraced a comprehensive housing strategy that not only calls for a supply side mechanism—how can we increase the supply of affordable housing, but also encompasses a demand side strategy—how can we bring down the demand for affordable housing by giving people good
education and good jobs,” Sewell said at the press conference. “Then they can afford their own house in the neighborhood of their choice.”

The demand strategy was key in convincing Salzberg to accept the position.

She said that residents in the District not only need affordable housing, but they also need the opportunity to work and live comfortably in affordable housing so they can eventually transition out to make space for others. The focus should be on combining services, affordable housing, and jobs.

With the placement of over 200 homeless families in motels in recent weeks and a backlog of additional families in a city shelter, unable to move on, affordable housing has become an even more critical issue for city leaders.

“If we don’t focus on the demand side, there will never be enough supply,” the mayor said. “We will constantly have customers who will find themselves in circumstances where they can’t be moved beyond a particular economic point.”

Little by little, projects such as The Nannie Helen at 4800 are slowly making an impact in communities around the city, said Yvette Alexander, Councilmember for Ward 7.

“I have so many shovels from the ground breaking’s in Ward 7, I’m going to need more office space,” she said. “This represents that our community is going to stay in our community. Our residents are going to be able to have affordable housing.”

The development will bear the name of Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African American leader and scholar who dedicated her life to the education of women and girls.

Burroughs, the principal of the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls which
was located in the District, died in 1961.