Meet Your Neighbors at James Creek and Syphax Gardens

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Christine Spencer, President, James Creek Residents Council receives the Brickie Good Neighbor Award

All along Half Street SW are hundreds of brick walk-up apartments and townhouses home to hundreds of DC residents. The street is the site for two public housing complexes: James Creek and Syphax Gardens, both owned and managed by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA), a federal independent agency.

By their exterior, the properties have subtle differences. Walking northbound from the 1500 block, visitors might notice three-story apartments transition to two-story units. The awnings flip colors, from Syphax’s primary blue to red for James Creek. Yet despite proximity and similar design, Syphax and James Creek were built over a decade apart.

James Creek: Built in 1942, James Creek was one of the Washington DC’s first public housing projects of the 20th century.

On the inside, the difference is stark. Syphax, according to DCHA, is in “extremely urgent” need of repair. The homes of James Creek, on the other hand, remain overall in good shape.

The Landlord
DCHA is an independent federal agency that is almost completely funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The agency controls 56 federally-owned parcels of land, managing over 8,000 affordable housing units. According to DCHA, more than 2,600 of these units are in “extremely urgent” condition, citing decades-old infrastructure and dwindling funds from the federal government.

DCHA is managed by an eleven-member board of commissioners, five of which are nominated by the Mayor. Two are appointed by the Metropolitan Central Labor Council and the Consortium of Legal Service Providers, and the remaining four are elected by the public housing community.

Earlier last fall, DCHA released a 20-year transformation plan calling for immediate repairs on 463 dilapidated units. Another 14 properties were slated by the agency for “modernization and/or redevelopment.” Neither the James Creek nor Syphax Gardens properties made that list.

Tenants qualify to rent at James Creek and Syphax based on income, age, disability and number of family members. They typically earn below 30 percent of the area’s Average Median Income (AMI). In DC, the AMI for a family of four is $110, 300.

James Creek at a Glance
James Creek Resident Council president Christine Spencer has served her community for nearly 15 years, though her record far precedes time on the council. She was encouraged to join the board by its former president, Phyllis Martin, whom she worked closely with on ad hoc outreach efforts.

“I remember her sending me to Ms. Martin’s house because her heat wasn’t on,” Spencer said. To Spencer, Martin’s and other board members’ compassion was infectious. “They were in the community, and they just loved their community.”

Spencer, now president for the last four years, manages resident affairs for 470 tenants in 239 townhomes. In all, the James Creek complex occupies 15.16 acres between M and O Streets SW. It was built in 1942 by the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA), a federal agency created by Congress in 1938 to redevelop the city’s notorious alley dwellings. The project was designed by Albert Cassell, a prominent African American architect and professor of Howard University.

There are 137 two-bedroom, 39 one-bedroom, 15 three-bedroom and 27-four-bedroom apartments. Seven units are five or six bedrooms. Six units are used for non-residential purposes. 15 units are vacant and in the process of being readied for re-occupancy.

The majority of James Creek residents are either disabled adults or children, totaling 56 percent of the community. 15 percent of residents are single. An additional 10 percent are seniors.

Under Spencer’s direction, the James Creek Resident Council organizes weekly meals, supply drives and holiday events, relays resident feedback to city and housing officials and facilitates community rehabilitation programs. In the last month, Spencer founded Mother’s Voice, a monthly healing session for members of the community to discuss and process violence in their neighborhood.

“They share their thoughts, they ask questions,” Spencer said of participants who attended the inaugural session. “They just open it. It’s like a healing process. You can actually open up.”

Spencer’s work earned her a Brickie Award in 2019, a distinction awarded by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen to celebrate service and good works in the area.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of is the food bank,” said Spencer. “But Thanksgiving shines more because we put our heart and soul into that Thanksgiving.”

“James Creek is home to me,” she added. “I moved here when I was like 6 or 7. I raised my kids here. Out of anywhere in the city, I would prefer to be right here.”

In the last two years, DCHA has spent $270,000 on regular maintenance in James Creek. In a statement to The Hill Rag, DCHA said it has also pledged an additional $10.8 million to the property for building and systems improvements over the next five years.

Syphax Gardens at a Glance
Southwest DC was notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for its alley dwellings, which prompted Congress to create the DC Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) in 1945. By 1953, the RLA had seized much of this property through eminent domain for large-scale redevelopment. Whole swaths of Southwest were demolished in just a year, displacing 1,500 businesses and 23,000 residents from more than 560 acres of land.

Syphax Gardens: Syphax Gardens is located just two blocks away from James Creek, yet the properties are distinctly different.

Syphax Gardens was built between 1958 and 1960 by the National Capital Housing Authority, the federal agency then responsible for building and maintaining public housing in the District. It came to house thousands of low-income residents displaced by federal urban renewal.

Syphax is located to the west of Nationals Park across South Capitol Street SE. It spans 3.95 acres between Half and P Streets SW. Distinguished by modernist design, the development comprises 174 units and is home to 310 residents. A quarter of them are considered disabled. A third are children. Eight percent are seniors. 13 percent are single.

Syphax has 141 two bedrooms apartments that average 775 square feet each. The remaining 33 three-bedroom units average 980 square feet each. Aside from window replacements, there have been no significant exterior renovations. 24 units are currently unoccupied. DCHA plans to fill these with new tenants. Six units are in use as resident council offices and service units.

Syphax is an ongoing beneficiary of the DCHA Rehabilitation & Maintenance Fund, an initiative funded by the DC Council to subsidize ongoing maintenance projects in public housing. DCHA states it has invested $400,000 in the past two years in regular maintenance.

Syphax is also slated to receive $10.4 million over the next five years, per a DCHA statement to The Hill Rag.

For more information on the DC Public Housing Authority, visit dchousing.org.