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A stretch of three empty rowhouses on an otherwise charming street in Northwest has caused consternation among neighbors, who have observed shabby conditions and attendant squatters after an investment group acquired the buildings last year and hit snags in redevelopment plans.
Located mid-block on 21st Street NW between Massachusetts Avenue and P Street, the vacant properties are within view of the Beaux Arts-style mansion housing the Indonesian Embassy, and also the stately Fairfax at Embassy Row Hotel. Dupont Circle residents say they find the situation both unusual and enervating for the well-established neighborhood, where the real estate market is reliable, though not as hot as some areas farther east. The homes were constructed at the turn of the 19th century, according to D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office. They are each three stories and contain basement units.
The northernmost two have stoops. Those, and possibly the buildings’ vestibules, have been intermittently occupied in recent months by homeless people, neighbors say. One in particular, described as a middle-aged black man about six feet tall and with short hair, has allegedly exposed himself and discarded liquor bottles out front. The man wasn’t there during visits to the block this week, but an empty bottle of E&J Brandy lay atop an old Express newspaper outside one of the rowhouses. Residents say the man seems to suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.
Three District-wide issues coalesce at the strip of houses in question: constraints on private development in historic neighborhoods, accountability for monitoring underutilized land, and homelessness.
Officially, there are some 1,300 vacant properties that have been identified across D.C., many in the city’s poorest enclaves. But because some property owners manage to elude enforcement, there are no doubt more.
“I feel like there’s so many people whose jobs it should be, if this person is truly in crisis,” says Jonathan Padget, who has owned a condominium in Dupont for eight years. “There’s a lot of single homeless men and women in the neighborhood who are familiar faces in bad situations. They’re not getting connected to the services they need, and this [man] is one of those people.”
Last month, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs installed wooden boards on the two buildings’ stoops after its inspectors discovered upkeep issues and the owner did not satisfactorily address them. A Nov. 4 inspection report for the middle rowhouse revealed the following violations: “Excessive trash, debris, and unsecured vacant property. Hazard to human life”; “excessive vegetative growth”; and that “the presence of graffiti immediately endangers the surrounding community.” (Not mentioned: a jettisoned blue vacuum cleaner seen on the site this week.)
“We can cite vacant properties for specific issues such as being open and accessible, but to the extent that a structure is visibly or aesthetically unappealing, we’re limited in what the law allows us to do,” a spokesman for DCRA explains. “Our obligation is to make sure it’s safe and secure.”
Although the agency did not conduct work inside the properties and has not to date issued infraction notices levying fines on the owner, the cases remain open, the spokesman notes.
Jeff Fabrikant, who lives in the building between the properties and the Fairfax, says the grounds look less unkempt than they were when the homeless man “was living there full time,” but adds that the man “still goes there and hangs out in the front and drinks,” typically at night.
The investment group, registered as 21 Dupont Condos LLC and based in St. Petersburg, Florida, bought 1508–1512 21st St. NW in September 2015 for at least $6.5 million, public records show. The intent was to convert the buildings into a “boutique luxury condo project” featuring 15 to 20 units, investor Jud Allen told District real estate blog UrbanTurf at the time. A Historic Preservation Office report evaluating the proposal indicates that the group wanted to “restore the historic façade at 1508,” completely refurbish all interiors, “combine [the] lots at 1510 and 1512 to connect floors on the interior,” add a set-back story to 1508, and build a five-story rear addition on 1510 and 1512.
Local neighborhood commissioners took issue with the proposed height increase, stating in a February resolution that there was “significant concern from neighbors” about the anticipated visibility of the new additions “from the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 21st Street.” Historic preservation officials ultimately agreed with them, recommending that the group remove the fifth story on 1510 and 1512 from the plans.
Padget posits that these determinations created “obstacles” to making the buildings habitable again. “Who’s so concerned about street ‘visibility’ but not about vacant buildings and squatters at risk of hypothermia?” he says. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m certainly sensitive to concerns about development, but I don’t think these positions by [local officials] were beneficial.”
For others in the area, the onus to render the houses useful rests squarely with the developer. “They should be taking care of their properties and not make the neighborhood and city take care of issues for them,” says ANC 2B Commissioner Daniel Warwick, whose single-member district includes the site. Even if these were relisted, he contends, “it’s still their responsibility to maintain it.”
Turns out, they aren’t for sale. “We are not actively marketing the property at this time and expect to finalize our development plans and be under construction in early 2017,” site investor Jeff Neal writes in an email. “We are aware of the issues with the ‘squatter’ on the property and have sent contractors to the site a number of times to remove trash and board-up doors and windows. Every time we’ve been made aware—either by our own inspection or by contact from neighbors—of a ‘relapse,’ we’ve responded promptly.” Neal declined to comment further.
Peter O., a resident in his twenties who has rented an apartment around the block from the site for more than a year and requested that his last name not be used, says he has never seen the properties clean over the past several months. Instead, he recalls garbage, bottles, and bags strewn asunder. He adds that he has witnessed people on the stoops “in various states of dress” and consciousness, and corroborates Padget’s descriptions of the seemingly homeless few who “set up shop” there.
“Besides the whole safety implications, it’s kind of an eyesore on the neighborhood,” he says. “You can go three or five blocks in literally any direction—you won’t see anything like that.”