Johnathan Comer

A lively flea market, with neighbors selling jewelry, toys, and clothes was evidence to longtime resident Bonnita Monroe that her Edgewood Terrace community had changed for the better.

The flea market was just part of a larger movement to bring together residents to improve their community with the help of a nonprofit developer.

“Building camaraderie” is how Monroe sums up such efforts.

After one of Monroe’s neighbors came up with the idea for the flea market, Edgewood’s office of resident services helped the woman make flyers and find space to set it up. Then the resident started getting out the word, recruiting neighbors to become vendors. The event was a success, kindling fun and a sense of belonging. Perhaps most importantly, it built upon the creativity of the residents themselves.

“We learn what people’s talents are, what their intrinsic abilities are, and we use that to create engagement opportunities,” explained Jennifer Lumpkin, a community organizer at the office of resident services.

“It was an Edgewood community engagement event and a resident ran it all herself.”

On a tour of the project, Lumpkin pointed proudly to computer classrooms, a day care center, classrooms for adult education and tutoring programs, youth recreation areas, as well as an assortment of meeting and counseling rooms, all designed with community needs in mind. Edgewood also claims the distinction of being the first high-speed internet-wired affordable housing community in the nation. In the spring, Lumpkin is helping residents start an indoor garden.

Public housing projects have faced many challenges over the years. But nonprofit organizations such as Community Preservation and Development Corp.(CPDC), the re-developer of Edgewood Terrace, have new ideas about how to address them.

At the heart of these efforts is the goal of making formerly troubled projects places where residents can have a voice and improve their lives. As CPDC’s first community, Edgewood Terrace has grown to include 292 apartments with 40,000 square feet of common space for resident services. In the meantime, CPDC has also grown. The nonprofit has joined with a coalition of other housing nonprofits called the Housing Partnership Network. Together they have boosted their buying power by forming a real estate investment trust that allows investors to pool funds and collect modest dividends while helping to preserve affordable housing. CPDC now owns and operates additional affordable housing developments in the District and Virginia, always with an eye to offering not only housing but services to residents.

Providing stability to lower income families has been a focus of CPDC since its beginning, said Pamela Lyons, senior vice president for resident services.

CPDC founder Eugene Ford saw the housing problems District families faced as commanding obstacles in the lives of children.

“He saw young students, young people, who were changing schools,” Lyons said. “It’s very difficult to maintain achievement if you’re changing school every year, or changing schools every two years.”

Transience is just one of the challenges faced by many poor families. Households spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing are cost-burdened and may have trouble paying for necessities like medical care, food and transportation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Such stresses are increasingly common. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage can no longer afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.

Monroe grew up in Edgewood Terrace in the 1980s, and moved back in 1998. Back when she was living with her parents, the buildings she grew up around were out-dated. She says the renovations CPDC made when they took over helps awaken a sense of community.

Monroe, who took computer office skills classes offered by a community partner in 2002, says the community has changed drastically.

“It’s received a total face-lift.”

Lyons said she hopes that the Edgewood Terrace model might offer larger lessons about how to efficiently tackle the housing crisis.

“We feel out model is pretty dynamic,” Lyons said, “ and that is has built-in flexibility to accommodate the needs of the residents.”

She added that there is an increased interest from fund contributors to see more cooperation between non-profit and public housing organizations.

“I think that this is certainly a model that, if replicated, begins to build a capacity for resident in communities like ours to grow and become sustainable.”