Dream City homesteading

Urban Homesteading program ad published in the Washington Post, March 12, 1977.

Urban Homesteading program ad published in the Washington Post, March 12, 1977.

The journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood drew the title of their 1994 book on recent Washington history, Dream City, from Charles Dickens’ 1842 description of the nation’s capital: “city of magnificent intentions.”

Through the years, District and federal leaders have struggled to solve the city’s housing ills by implementing policies and programs borne of magnificent intentions. Urban homesteading, which the city adopted in 1974 to address a large pool of abandoned housing and growing demand for affordable housing, was one of those dreams.

For a small number of District families who paid $1 for a home, it was a dream come true. Yet, for the distressed neighborhoods where the homes were located, it was a dream deferred. The program which hoped to spur contagious reinvestment failed in that respect.

Abandoned home in Northeast Washington, July 1974. Credit: The Washington Post.

Abandoned home in Northeast Washington, July 1974. Credit: The Washington Post.

It took another couple of decades for neighborhoods like Bloomingdale, Shaw, Trinidad, and Columbia Heights to see new money and new commitments to neighborhood upgrading.

The same home in Northeast Washington after rehabilitation in the urban homesteading program. Credit: The Washington Star.

The same home in Northeast Washington after rehabilitation in the urban homesteading program. Credit: The Washington Star.

On November 14, I’m presenting a paper in a panel I organized for the 2015 Conference on D.C. Historical Studies. The panel, “Housing Policies and Gentrification: Urban Homesteading to HOPE VI”, explores the public policy origins of gentrification. My paper on the District’s two homesteading programs between 1974 and 2001 joins papers by a geographer on Washington’s tax policies and a paper by a sociologist on HOPE VI in the District.

The same home in Northeast Washington photographed in 2015.

The same home in Northeast Washington photographed in 2015.

For a preview of my paper and an introduction to urban homesteading in Washington, click on over to Greater Greater Washington.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

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