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The Needless Death of a Shepherd Park House

Yesterday, a house on my street was demolished.

It had become so unstable that it was a danger to the adjacent houses, and there was probably no choice but to tear it down.

It had become dangerously unstable because the "cash for houses" vultures who bought it last fall let it decay, let the pipes freeze, and then, when spring came, demolished its chimney, ripped half its roof off, and left it exposed to the torrential rains of recent weeks. All this with a permit for "interior demolition only".

April 2014: "Interior demolition only"A helpful sign reminding you who not to sell your house toThey proudly planted their sign in front of this abomination.

Concerned neighbors and our ANC rep called in DCRA to inspect on the day the chimney was ripped out and again yesterday when the house was knocked over. DCRA responded very promptly, but in both cases it was too late. A stop-work order now sits atop the pile of rubble that used to be this house. 

May 14, 2014: Stop-work order posted amid the wreckage

Until the day in April when they knocked down the chimney and tore a hole in the roof, the house was in need of interior rehab, but it was structurally sound, with a welcoming porch, at one with the scale and period of the houses on the block, with room to expand in the back if a new family needed more space. Like many houses in Shepherd Park, which has a very high rate of home ownership and a very low rate of turnover, it was owned by an elderly couple, who lived in it and loved it until the very last possible minute, at which point they needed to sell and move very quickly. Like the other houses on our block in the southeast corner of Shepherd Park, it was built in the early 1920s, before L.E. Breuninger filled the neighborhood  with its better-known Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival houses.  Because the houses in our corner of the neighborhood are mostly shingled or clapboarded, a little older, a little smaller, and a little closer to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Walter Reed campus, I've long suspected that they would be more vulnerable to redevelopment pressures than the neighborhood's larger brick houses of the late 1920s.

During the few years since I bought my itty bitty shingled, kit-house bungalow here, several houses in the nearby blocks have been, one might say, "sensitively flipped" — bought at a modest discount from the going rate, given complete interior rehabs, and sold to young families eager for move-in-ready houses at half the price they'd pay for an equally leafy neighborhood west of the park. Other houses in "estate condition," including a very rare Sears kit house model, have sold to folks who clearly appreciated their scale and architecture and who updated them modestly for livability without destroying their character. Houses are going under contract in a matter of days here. Why, in this environment, anyone would purchase a house and intentionally destroy it by malicious neglect is beyond me. Public records suggest, meanwhile, that the previous owners sold the house for a pittance compared to what they might have gotten for it, which in turn suggests that they (or whoever was acting for them) were badly advised or seriously misled. I cannot imagine that after living in and loving this house so long, the previous owners would have wanted this to happen.

I'd been meaning for some time to write up my thoughts on preservation in Shepherd Park, and how we might think about preservation in DC's neighborhoods outside of designated historic districts. Today, the issue seems more urgent. Even in designated historic districts, it is very difficult to prevent demolition by neglect. In or out of historic districts, what can be done to limit the chances that houses — and their owners — will reach the stage where they become prey for predatory developers?

When I moved to Shepherd Park, I began to read up on the neighborhood's history. I knew about its outstanding legacy of organizing to remain integrated and stable in the 1950s and '60s, when local synagogues and Neighbors, Inc. took a stand against blockbusting. What I had not appreciated, until I read the chapter on Shepherd Park in Washington at Home by the late Marvin Caplan and my neighbor Ralph Blessing, was how much of Neighbors, Inc.'s effort was focused on preserving the physical fabric of the neighborhood and preventing the decay of housing stock that inevitably followed blockbusting, by educating residents on the importance of home preservation and by holding the city to account for maintenance of infrastructure as the neighborhood's racial makeup changed.

As one neighbor put it in a discussion of this case on the Shepherd Park listserv, we organized to resist blockbusting then; this is house-busting. What can we do to stop this? Historic designation would be one approach, but we also have to act on a household-by-household, block-by-block level to ensure we have something left to designate, if and when residents decide to opt into the tools available under our preservation ordinance. We could use some attention from preservationists to preserving neighborhoods until designation, not just after. And that means supporting everyone who is a steward of an older house, at all life stages.

The beauty of Shepherd Park today, its house-proudness, the tendency of its people to stay in their homes as long as they possibly can — all these are the direct result of that organizing effort. The ability of residents to stay in their houses for 50+ years, with the support of their neighbors, is a huge quality-of-life asset for this neighborhood and others like it. Preserving smaller houses, as well as bringing new housing options to the neighborhood's edges, means that longtime residents have the option of staying in the neighborhood when they can no longer cope with large, multi-level houses. (Other elderly neighbors of mine were able to trade their large colonial for a one-level bungalow three blocks away when they could no longer handle stairs. And I bought my own one-level bungalow with the intention of aging in place in it, even though I'm only in middle age now.)

Practical preservation in such neighborhoods needs to support both people and houses through generational transitions like the one Shepherd Park is undergoing now. Though it is often impossible to intervene in the decay of an elderly person's house if they don't want to accept help, as many of us know from our own families, there are practical things that could be done to support preservation while supporting residents. A few that come to mind:

Aging-in-place villages — one is in the works for Shepherd Park and nearby neighborhoods — typically have as a core service helping the elderly to find approved and trustworthy home repair people. Such services could prioritize preservation by identifying for their members the tradespeople who will do right by a home from a preservation point of view. 

Decisions about the disposition of a house often need to be made very quickly and under conditions of stress, either by owners in circumstances of illness, injury, or loss, or by executors when an estate needs to be settled quickly. "Villages" and other neighborhood organizations (Citizens' Associations, ANCs) could limit the chances that sellers will turn to cash-for-houses outfits by providing information and resources to smooth that process and to help owners articulate their wishes for their houses in advance of a crisis.

Neighborhood and citywide preservation organizations need to be in on this conversation and on the scene with practical help. Within historic districts, preservation organizations should partner with neighborhood groups to be sure vulnerable residents have the information they need to make decisions that are right both for themselves and for the preservation of the neighborhood. The same thing needs to happen outside designated historic districts, because if we lose our housing stock and neighborhood character at the moment of generational transfer, there will be nothing left to preserve when future residents come to see the historic value in their surroundings.

We need to make it easier for property owners to find the preservation-minded handyman, remodeler, architect, or real estate agent than the predatory one, and that means that those who value neighborhood preservation must be on the scene with the right information right when it is needed.

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