- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

Anacostia and other traditionally underdeveloped areas in Southeast have seen more new home building than any other part of the District over the past three years.

Downtown-based William C. Smith & Co. has owned and managed properties there for 30 years, and has been developing and renovating apartments since the late 1980s.

With 550 employees and one-third of its business in Southeast, the real estate group has been engaged in project after project, as the country's economy continues to grow, and home ownership increases.

Desa Selay Ruffin, senior vice president, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Smith, shared the company's building and selling experiences in the area.

Question: Why is all of this development going on in Southeast how did this happen?

Answer: First of all, this is one of the few places in the city that has land available for development. There is open space, and also, because of the numbers of people that left the city and Wards 7 and 8 in particular, there are vacant apartment buildings that can be torn down to make way for new development.

Our new home community, the Townhomes at Oxon Creek, is being built on land that formerly had 400 units of vacant, boarded apartments. We tore this down to make way for the new town homes.

Q: What is William C. Smith's interest in building in the area?

A: We have been involved in this community for over 30 years, so our presence here is not new. We've been performing large-scale renovations of apartment communities in Southeast for over 10 years, investing millions of dollars, and still we had residents leaving.

When we started to ask why, we found that many were leaving, often leaving the city, to purchase their own home. Well, no one can object to home ownership, and we started thinking about how we could offer a broader spectrum of housing options.

The development of The Townhomes of Oxon Creek was done in part to provide greater housing options within our developments so that residents didn't have to leave when it was time to buy a home.

Q: What types of housing are you building?

A: We have built four different models of three-level town homes, ranging in size from 1,500 to 1,950 square feet. Most of the units have garages. These are very handsome units that have lots of windows and attractive architectural detailing.

They are also part of a larger community, the Villages of Parklands, which offers such amenities as a Splash park, the city's only interactive water recreational system, a shuttle bus system that provides transportation to the Anacostia Metro, two on-site day care facilities, playgrounds and more. So our purchasers buy not only a house, but they buy into a community as well.

We built town homes because we expected that most of our buyers would be first-time home buyers and town homes provide an affordable first step into home ownership. As this town house market proves itself, I expect that we will see the development of more single family detached communities in the future.

Q: What has been the response to the home construction in the area?

A: The market response to our town homes has been phenomenal much stronger than we could have ever anticipated. We started executing contracts in May of last year and in the course of a year have sold out of the first phase of development: 109 units.

The strength of the demand really shows that there was an untapped market in this community and that if you build a quality product that is attractive and well priced, you will sell.

Previously, people had to look to Prince George's to find new home communities of this scale there simply weren't options like this available in Southeast. Now, we see that when people are given the option to stay in the District and have the option of this type of quality, new-construction product, they choose to stay.

Q: There are a lot of commercial developments planned for the area. Will this help sell housing and encourage more development?

A: Generally, I think that housing tends to lead to more services and commercial development. But yes, there is a synergistic relationship between the two and more commercial development should make new housing options more appealing to potential purchasers.

Q: The $5,000 tax credit is now being made available for down payment, will this help the boom?

A: Yes, very much so. Anything that reduces the barrier to entry

for first-time home buyers increases the demand for new housing here and everywhere in the city. This should be very helpful to us and other developments in Southeast. There has been a real enthusiasm about the $5,000 credit, but until now, it's been more like icing on the cake. Now, people will be able to have access to these funds where they really need them at the closing table.

Q: What makes home development work in Southeast?

A: A couple of things: The availability of land at a reasonable cost, the predominance of rental housing, providing a market of potential purchasers that until recently have had few options in this part of the city, the availability of programs through the District as well as the $5,000 credit that have reduced the financial obstacles for first-time buyers, and low interest rates make home ownership more affordable for everyone.

We also invested in home ownership education for our buyers through the creation of a home buyers club, a home ownership education and training program for first-time buyers. What we found was that many people simply didn't realize that they could afford to purchase a home.

Q: Has the labor and construction supplies shortage affected you and how?

A: We have been impacted, as most people doing construction in the region have been, by the tightening of labor and supplies. This has slowed down our delivery schedule somewhat, but not substantially.

Q: How long do you think this development boom will last?

A: I really can't say how long this will go on for. Certainly it will go on for as long as it takes to tap the demand that is out there for new, for-sale product. No one really knows how deep this market is, but I predict that we will start to see more single-family detached product being built now that the town home developments are being seen as a success.

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