Preserving History and Housing in Shaw: The Story of the Whitelaw Hotel

This is the fourth story featured in our new publication, Preservation Works: LISC DC’s Role in Preserving Quality Affordable Housing.   It illustrates one of many outcomes associated with housing preservation through reinvestment in aging housing stock.

The trajectory of the Whitelaw Hotel reflects many of the broader changes in the District of Columbia over the past decades.

The building, on 13th and T Streets NW, was the city’s first luxury hotel for African Americans. Built in 1919, the hotel served as anchor institution for culture in the area—“financed and built by and for blacks.”

Famous musicians, such as Duke Ellington, frequented the hotel, and the space was used as a community gathering place.

 

 

Yet with the beginnings of desegregation in the 1960’s, the hotel lost some of its clientele and fell into despair after the 1968 riots. In 1977, the city ordered the building closed, and a fire destroyed the roof and upper floors. The building would remain vacant for the following 14 years.  As neighborhood conditions improved over time, some for-profit developers looked into renovating the building. However, the renovation of the Whitelaw posed a particular challenge; the old structure suffered significant damage, and the hotel’s history required the careful restoration of expensive, historical features. The redevelopment required a significant subsidy.

At the time, only Manna had the capability to tackle the project. LISC DC, recognizing the potential of the building in supporting revitalization efforts in the area, played a significant role in the original redevelopment of the hotel. Through our partner, NEF, we syndicated the tax credits ($1,985,000) for the project, which was the first LIHTC project sponsored by a non-profit organization in the District of Columbia. We also provided a $250,000 bridge loan. Manna relied on LIHTC and the city’s purchase of the land through the Land Acquisition for Housing Development Opportunities (LAHDO) program, along with other sources, to redevelop the building into 35 units of affordable housing. The restoration of the Whitelaw would become Manna’s signature project, according to George Rothman (former CEO of Manna), because of “the Whitelaw’s history, the meaning it has in the community, and the impact it had on the area.” Thirty-five families moved into the building in 1992.

In the winter of 2007-2008, the federal affordability restrictions and benefits associated with LIHTC expired. Seeking to preserve the affordability of these units, Manna needed to refinance the building. Repairs were also necessary to maintain quality of the units. According to Rothman, “We found a syndicator, and a bank, and the bank knew about Whitelaw and how important it was. It was only difficult from a logistical and construction standpoint, because we did not want to evacuate the building. There was a relative ease to getting financing…people wanted this to happen.”

We again supported Manna throughout the preservation of the Whitelaw, providing a $140,000 loan in 1999 to help stabilize the project, and then extending it throughout the later refinancing. Rothman commented on the partnership between LISC DC and Manna, “Generally, I always characterize LISC DC as Manna’s best partner—best and most frequent partner. LISC has been involved in more deals than anyone else, and the office has been very cooperative, stable. ”

The Whitelaw common space is rented out to community groups for non-profit or community events—returning the building to its original functions as a community gathering space. Today, in so many ways, Shaw is not the neighborhood that it was when the Whitelaw was originally opened. There is much to be said about the improvements in this neighborhood, but we must acknowledge that these changes have led to an affordability crisis in Shaw. The Whitelaw, however, will remain as a stable source of affordable housing into the foreseeable future.

Read more about LISC DC’s Role in preserving quality affordable housing here.