Karen Hilliard (center) joins other Talbert Terrace neighborhood residents in a short march on April 8 in support of protecting a beloved community green space. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Karen Hilliard (center) joins other Talbert Terrace neighborhood residents in a short march on April 8 in support of protecting a beloved community green space. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a condominium in the Talbert Terrace neighborhood. The name of the condominium is River East at Grandview.

Karen Hilliard, 68, has seen her southeast D.C. neighborhood change profoundly in the years since she first moved there as a 2-year-old. New condominiums have sprouted among the townhouses that have long made up the Talbert Terrace community in Ward 8. Hilliard’s new neighbors have trended younger, and the historically Black area has become far more racially mixed.

Kids from the neighborhood help out with the April 8 community cleanup, which doubled as a rally. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Kids from the neighborhood help out with the April 8 community cleanup, which doubled as a rally. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

But Hilliard said Talbert Terrace, despite all these changes, has managed to hold onto its spirit and “close-knit” community.

“There’s definitely been gentrification,” she said. “But the community is still the same, we still have that same bond. I think this is a unique neighborhood because everybody knows everyone.”

That sense of community has become particularly crucial in recent months, as a handful of neighbors—Hilliard included—have continued a decades-old fight to protect a cherished green space. The lot across from Hilliard’s home, used as a neighborhood park for decades, has recently become the site for a planned 18-unit development. 

“To have 60 homes and condos and no community space, no place where the kids can play, no gathering place outdoors? It seems like it would really hurt the community,” Hilliard said. “And it seems like they’re robbing us.”

‘We Played There Sunup to Sundown

The story of Lot 1103 is complicated, involving a 1970s racial bias lawsuit, a controversial D.C. property tax law, and an allegedly unscrupulous developer (which we’ll get to later in this storytelling series). But outside of the real estate complexities, the spot has served a simple but profound role in the collective life of the Talbert Terrace neighborhood, which sits just slightly west of historic Anacostia. 

“It’s sunny in the mornings, in the evenings it’s shady—so that’s when we were playing kickball, baseball, softball,” Hilliard recalled. 

She remembered more than one instance of a softball sailing straight through a nearby house’s window.

“The neighbor, he wasn’t even really angry. Just, whoever did it, their parents would pay for the window, and we’d move on til the next incident,” she said, laughing.

“We played there, sunup to sundown. Even at sundown, we were over there, catching ladybugs.”

Even once bug-catching lost its childhood appeal, Hilliard continued to spend time in the Talbert Terrace green space, just sitting, enjoying the shade. The property includes a steep hill, with a dropoff behind a line of trees. Hilliard recalls looking out over the city during winter, when the branches lay bare. 

The park sits on the same hill as nearby Talbert Street’s River East at Grandview. That condominium began crumbling due structural issues within months of its opening.

As a former president and current vice president of the Anacostia Homeowners and Residents Association, whose members come from homes on Talbert Terrace, Dexter Terrace and Talbert Street, Hilliard also helps organize a block party in the space every year. The summertime tradition began as far back as the late ‘60s, she said. 

The grassy clearing faces the street, with homes on one side and foliage on the other. Neighbors still keep the grass mowed, but the brush at the back edges of the lot has crept further into the space over time. For decades, the Anacostia Homeowners and Residents Association has taken charge of maintaining the space because the community itself owned the property. 

That officially changed in 2019. 

‘It’s Just Not Fair How The City Took It Back

It’s nearly impossible to follow the legal journey of Lot 1103 without diving deep into the weeds of D.C. property law and the city tax code. Jeff Epperson, a D.C.-area real estate developer who describes himself as “semi-retired,” said that paperwork confusion plays a major role in Talbert Terrace’s situation. 

Epperson, 61, owns a home in the neighborhood, which he’s rented out for decades. Over the years, he has lent his expertise to the residents’ fight to keep the green space. 

“I got involved here because I want to right a wrong,” Epperson said. “It just irritates me when people take advantage of others, and manipulate the process to do so.” 

The Anacostia Homeowners and Residents Association first came to own the lot in 1977. The neighborhood won its deed from a developer in a successful racial discrimination suit, and the District required him to give the land to the community. 

“Logically, the community did not have an entity to receive a piece of land, as no neighborhood would,” Epperson said. 

To solve that problem, another entity—the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, whose founder lived on Talbert Terrace at the time—held the land “in trust” for the neighborhood association. That was supposed to be a temporary measure, until the neighborhood organization could fill out the required paperwork. 

Unfortunately, something—it’s unclear what—went wrong in that next step, Epperson said. For decades, the ownership issue went unnoticed, mostly because the property taxes stayed low enough that the neighborhood could collectively pay them. 

But in the early 2000s, new laws enabled the city to charge much higher taxes on properties it designated “vacant” or “blighted.” Despite consistent use by the community, Lot 1103 received both designations, and annual taxes jumped from the low thousands to the hundreds of thousands. The neighborhood fell behind.

In 2016, the District sold the land in a “discount” tax sale to Rupsha 2011, LLC. A few years later, the company officially received the property’s deed from the city. Detailed plans for an 18-unit residential building have been submitted, though the permitting process remains in the works. 

For some communities, that would be the end of it. But in recent months, Talbert Terrace residents—longtime neighbors and newcomers alike—have poured hundreds of hours into research and mobilization. They’ve identified serious errors within the sale process and brought them to the attention of everyone they can think of. 

“Historically, we’ve seen that when development doesn’t include community, development happens and community is no longer there,” Ward 8 Council member Trayon White said. “In a close knit community like Talbert Terrace, they are engaged and organized about what they want to see happen. And so I support them in that.”

Talbert Terrace residents have seen a lot of change in their neighborhood over the decades. But these neighbors know that their vision for the future includes this safe place for their children to play.

“It should remain a part of the community,” Hilliard said. “And it’s just not fair how the city took it back.”

This article is the first in a series about this ongoing story.

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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1 Comment

  1. The crumbling development is River East at Grandview. It is not Grandview Estates. Grandview Estates is another community altogether that is not suffering those issues. Please correct. Thank you.

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