The William Syphax School, located at 1360 Half St., SW, Washington, D.C., was an historically black school built in 1901, and named for William Syphax (1825-1891), the first African-American member of the Congressionally established Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown. Mr. Syphax, the first President of the Board, denounced segregated schools and was a tireless advocate of equal standards of education.
After many years of use the school closed in the early 90's and conditions deteriorated. It became a center for drug use and distribution, adversely affecting the public housing residents living across the street, as well as neighbors on the two other sides of the building. The home values of long time residents in the neighborhood stagnated. This neighborhood had one of the lowest homeownership rates in the city and three public housing projects concentrated in a small area.
The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), the largest civic organization in the area, gained control of the school from the DC Public Schools and assigned its contract to Manna in 1998. The planning process was long and filled with obstacles. Manna worked with SWNA as well as with the James Creek Public Housing Resident Council, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the Fannie Mae Foundation, and the DC Historic Preservation Department to implement a community planning process in which community residents had come together in a charrette to create a new and better plan for the school property. The plan proposed preservation and rehabilitation of the original school building for residential use plus new homeownership housing, i.e. townhouses, surrounding the school.
To effect the community vision, multiple layers of financing were required. Manna first secured a large grant from DHCD in a highly competitive citywide RFP process. In fact, the Syphax Village proposal scored first out of approximately 70 in the entire city. In order to complete the deal Manna secured an additional grant s from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, Citibank, and the Fannie Mae Foundation, which was used for the earnest money deposit; plus smaller grants from other sources. Additionally, BB&T Bank provided construction financing and Local Initiatives Support Corporation provided a loan for acquisition and construction.
Construction and settlements at Syphax Village were completed in 2005. In total, 29 lower-income families became proud, first time homeowners and 12 workforce families moved into condos in the rehabbed Syphax School. The affordable townhomes sold for $118,000 - $135,000 and are three-bedroom, 1-1/2 bath, 1200 square feet homes with front porches and back yards. Manna created a mixed-income community by converting the school building into workforce loft condominiums which produced an internal subsidy to help finance the affordable townhomes.
The Syphax school is a high visibility, dominant structure in the neighborhood and its preservation and redevelopment not only provided affordable homeownership opportunities to 29 low-income, first time homebuyers, it also served as a catalyst to increase the tax base in the neighborhood while maintaining an important historical and cultural landmark. As a result, drug dealers are now gone from the property, their activities disrupted and forced out. Adjoining property values are no longer stagnating. And value has been added to the community because Manna built a large community room in the Syphax School which is used to host larger, neighborhood meetings about issues such as security and historic preservation. Most recently the residents of Syphax Village and the surrounding Southwest Waterfront neighborhood have welcomed the addition of the Nationals Baseball Park.
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