Black Homeownership in DCCommunityHomeownership

Longtime Black Homeowners Feel Pressured to Sell Houses

Lovell Walls is a third-generation Washingtonian.

His maternal grandparents, Ada and John Wesley Bailey, bought an 18-year-old house on what is now Grant Street NE in 1939. They bought four plots of land at $10 each, public records show, and probably spent a few thousand dollars on the house, Walls said.

Today, Walls calls this house in Ward 7 his home. Its value is assessed by the District at more than $430,000. Real estate site RedFin estimates its worth at close to $500,000.

The District is experiencing the hottest housing market in recorded history and the median price of homes city-wide reached $700,000 this summer.

But this hot market comes at another price: Longtime Black Washingtonians say they’re getting pushed out of their city. In 1957, Washington, D.C., became the country’s first predominantly Black major city, earning the nickname “Chocolate City.” After years of gentrification, recently released Census numbers show that there are now more white District residents than Black.

Today, residents in Wards 7 and 8 — the areas with the city’s most Black residents — are getting offers left and right to buy their homes.

Walls, an auditor in the District’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, receives weekly phone calls, postcards, text messages and flyers from local investors, house flippers and developers asking to buy his property. Investors may not renovate houses and instead sell them to interested parties as-is, while flippers and developers will revamp homes to sell them at a larger profit. Developers often expand and add additions to homes, increasing their value all the more.

Since Walls began keeping track in 2018, he said he’s gotten more than 80 mailers, dozens of phone calls and constant texts, including a few in-person visits from interested investors.

He’s one of many District residents getting bombarded with offers to buy his house in “as-is condition” through a quick cash sale.

“No amount of money would get me to sell this house,” Walls said. “I don’t even engage in conversations with these people to know how much they’d offer but neighbors and friends who’ve talked to these guys say that they offer pennies on the dollar, a fraction of what the house is worth.”

Walls wants to pass the house down to his sons, who would be fourth-generation Black homeowners in a neighborhood where the Black population dropped from 98% to 88% over the past decade, according to Census data.

“I grew up coming to this house on the weekends, mowing the lawn and taking my grandmother out grocery shopping,” Walls said. “The neighborhood was 95%, 98% Black. We all knew each other.”

Walls’ mother, Gwendolyn, took over the property after his grandmother died in the 1980s. She rented out the home, but after issues with tenants, she wanted to get it off her hands. Walls jumped at the opportunity and moved into the house in 1990 to make renovations, which included turning the four plots of land into one. He bought the house with his wife in 1998.

AS HOME VALUES INCREASE, IS THAT ALWAYS A GOOD THING?

Walls began getting requests to buy the house as soon as he moved in but they’ve become more frequent in the past few years.

“Wards 7 and 8 aren’t cheap but investors see the ability to make more profit than if they were to buy property west of [Rock Creek Park] and spend millions,” said Ericka S. Black, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who bought property in Walls’ neighborhood in 2011. The area has more yard space than most places in the city, she said, allowing investors to expand properties and increase profits when they sell.

A hot real estate market can put stress on residents whose incomes are fixed or aren’t keeping up with increased taxes and other pressures.

Walls said he successfully appealed his property taxes, with Black’s help, a few years ago. When the city increased his assessment value by tens of thousands of dollars, his taxes increased by about $1,200 too, he said. Black helped him navigate the appeals process and avoid the tax increase.

“Why should I be penalized for keeping my property livable and up to standards? For the benefit of other people?” said Walls, who attributes the assessment value increase to beautification in his neighborhood.

Black, who has successfully appealed her own property taxes, too, wants District residents to know they can appeal their tax assessment annually: “It’s a tedious process, but it could be worth it for so many residents.” Telling others about the appeals process is one of the ways she works to retain the city’s Black homeownership and keep housing affordable, she said.

But when you’re struggling, it can be hard to think about your house as a long-term investment, said Sunya Musawwir, a homeowner in Ward 7. It’s sometimes more appealing to get quick cash.

Musawwir, who has owned property in Ward 7 for more than 25 years and grew up in Ward 8, said she also gets offers from buyers on a weekly basis. She’s not interested in selling her home, hoping to let its market value rise with time.

“[Investors] offer $300,000 or $400,000, … and you’ll think that’s a lot of money, especially when you’re facing hard times, so you’ll take it. Then you turn around, and the person who put the house on the market sold it for $500,000,” Musawwir said. “That’s happened to people I know.”

Musawwir bought her home for less than $80,000 in 1994. Today, its assessed value is more than double that.

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