Vernard Gray (Courtesy photo)
Vernard Gray (Courtesy photo)

In one of its numerous overtures to the District’s creative class, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s cultural plan tasks the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Housing Finance Agency (HFA) with increasing affordable housing opportunities for artists and business owners.

Some artists have since followed up on that priority, contacting DHCD and their elected officials about what’s estimated to be more than 60 vacant lots in Wards 7 and 8, some of which will be up for grabs in an upcoming online auction.

In their endeavor lies the hope for discussion about how that space could best meet the needs of musicians, actors and dancers.

“I’m significantly operating on the music side of the business and know there are few practice and performance spaces east of the Anacostia River,” said Vernard Gray, jazz programmer and organizer of the East River Jazz Festival.

Gray recounted several failed attempts in past years to secure practice space from local churches. For the longest time, he said, Francis Gregory Library in Southeast counted as one of his few options east of the Anacostia River.

Gray, a jazz programmer and Black Artists DC member, reminisced on his stewardship of the MIYA Gallery, based downtown between 1976 and 2001, and leadership in the Lansburgh Cultural Center. He expressed a desire for similar, affordable and accessible accommodations in Wards 7 and 8 for upcoming creatives, beyond what THEARC, Anacostia Playhouse and the state-of-the-art recording studio in the Deanwood Recreation Center provide.

Since 2017, more than 30 vacant spaces, including some located in the Bellevue and Deanwood neighborhoods, have been sold as part of the Vacant to Vibrant DC initiative. An online auction, scheduled to take place between May 10-15, will feature 10 properties.

Gray’s email to local officials and agencies in advance of the event includes suggestions to help the creative community. This week, he suggested to Bowser the creation of a community land trust to be managed by the Ward 7 & 8 Creative Spaces Working Group.

During the latter part of last month, Gray sent an email through DHCD’s web portal asking for, in lieu of auctions, the assembly of a working group comprised of cultural artists from Wards 7 and 8, their council members, the mayor and representatives from DCHD and HFA.

DHCD’s media relations department didn’t immediately return requests for comment about the more than 60 vacant lots up for auction or Gray’s outreach.

Bowser released her 224-page cultural plan last month amid what the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development once described as the precipice of a development boom in Wards 7 and 8.

In recent years, as new coffee shops, sit-down restaurants and other venues appeared in parts of the region, longtime residents, through their advisory neighborhood commissions, nonprofits and community groups, attempted to maintain their foothold in their communities.

For instance, Amanda Stephenson, an entrepreneur, artist and community health advocate, has vied for available land space east of the Anacostia River. Since 2017, she has been in pursuit of a lot to convert into a space that serves the artistic, health and affordable-housing needs of community members.

The endeavor she describes builds food hubs, retail and affordable housing made out of shipping containers on property, either privately or District-owned, and sold to Ward 7 and 8 artists, residents and business owners in a special deal.

This project, she said, would build on previous ventures at Poplar Point four years ago.

“It’s still a process and something to overcome,” said Stephenson, owner of the Fresh Food Factory Market on Good Hope Road in Southeast. “Are there set-asides for small businesses and affordable housing? We should be thinking about owning.

“The increase in residential and commercial rent and taxes has focus some residents out,” Stephenson said. “There is plenty of available lots to activate. Why not have a store, a market, art studio and houses made of used shipping containers? There are areas with so much to be desired and so much land underdeveloped in Wards 7 and 8. We have to use the underutilized spaces.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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