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If you’re looking for free housing in the District, you would typically do well to focus your search on abandoned homes in run-down neighborhoods, empty public-housing developments, and the odd industrial site. Sometimes, though, far more lavish locales are available.
The historic 1400 block of Swann Street NW, for example. It features Federal- and Victorian-style row houses, many with cast-iron staircases and detailed brickwork. A two-story home there with an English basement is worth up to nearly a million dollars.
But things weren’t looking so upscale on the night of Dec. 20. Three neighbors walked through the unlocked front door of a gutted home at 1404 Swann and found signs of construction—a roll of yellow caution tape, stacks of 2-by-4s, and an orange beverage cooler. They also found signs of less savory activity: a makeshift bed, scraps of tin foil, a sawed-off pen, a ripped-open package of personal lubricant, and four bottles filled with yellow liquid.
“I was not expecting to find someone living there,” says Charlie Gaynor, one of the neighbors who investigated the scene that night. “I just thought, Oh my gosh. Here’s someone else that could harm some other neighbor.”
Late on Dec. 9, a 39-year-old neighbor was mugged by a man who jumped out from the basement of 1447 Swann, another gutted building down the block. The victim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was walking home from a Christmas party in Columbia Heights. He fought back against his attacker.
“If I was completely sober I don’t think I would have fought like I did,” he says. “I screamed like a schoolgirl. I went ballistic.” The robber took off with around $650, and the resident went home with a black eye and an injured hand.
The mugging is one of several crimes Swann Street residents blame on “the blights,” as they refer to a number of fallow, vagrant-attracting houses on the block. The house at 1447 has been frozen mid-construction since last February, neighbors say. The properties at 1402 and 1404 haven’t been worked on since the summer, says the developer Lakritz/Adler.
Rather than “the blights,” the area’s homeless have a different nickname for the properties. “You know what we call those? Abandominiums,” says Willie Turner, who is homeless but spends a lot of time in the neighborhood. He has never lived on Swann Street, though. “I’m more of a bus-stop type of guy.”
Swann Street resident Susan Ross blames vagrants taking shelter at the houses for two break-ins at her house during the week of Dec. 12. During the second break-in, someone jimmied open her front window and stole all of the presents from under her Christmas tree, a computer, a digital camera, and more—for a grand total of about $6,000 in loot.
A few days later, Ross did a little vigilante home improvement. She was having work done to her home’s façade, so she sent her workers down the street to board up 1447. A black plastic tarp covers the front window, and crisscrossed planks of plywood block off the door to the basement apartment.
“We have been waiting for the District to do something about it,” she says. “Now the front is boarded up, but the whole back of the house is still gone.”
The owner of 1447 Swann, listed in property records as Brian Ortiz, could not be reached for comment. Lakritz/Adler purchased the two houses down the street for $1.5 million in August 2004 to convert them into an eight-unit condominium building.
“Wow, that’s shocking,” says Josh Adler, one of the firm’s managing members, when told of his property’s condition. “All the doors are supposed to be locked and barred.” He went to secure the property the night he learned of the problem.
Problems with squatters are common early in construction because the properties can’t be secured when they don’t have windows or doors yet, says Lt. Mike Smith, who oversees police patrols in the area. Buildings at 14th and Church Streets NW and at 9th and M Streets NW, he says, have been favorite locales in his patrol area for illicit activities.
Another neighbor, Ken Patterson, has been involved in a yearlong fight with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) over 1447 Swann. He believes that the building permit should never have been issued in the first place due to zoning violations. “This crime is just the damn icing on the cake,” he says. “Our neighbor got hurt, and we’re fed up.”
He also holds that the city has failed to keep developers accountable. “DCRA is not policing this neighborhood properly,” Patterson says. “They are contributing to this crime.”
Floyd May, a deputy administrator at the DCRA, says that responsibility falls on the owner to secure his or her property. If they fail to do so, the DCRA issues a notice of violation giving the owner five days to secure the building. If they do not respond, the DCRA will secure the property for them, he says.
“We’ve been involved in securing those properties,” says Linda Argo, a DCRA spokesperson. “If neighbors aren’t satisfied with the results, it’s not necessarily the result of us not securing [the properties].”
Adler says his property never would have disintegrated if not for dawdling contract negotiations. He has been trying to cut his lot loose since the summer because his company “wanted to focus on our bigger projects,” such as a retail development at 12th and U Streets NW, he says.
“It shouldn’t have been sitting without people working on it for as long as it’s been, but that wasn’t under our control,” Adler says. “We can’t do any work on it while it’s under contract to someone else.” Lakritz/Adler have been in talks since August with an interested buyer, but the other company has been having a tough time scraping together enough money to close the sale, he says.
Until “the blights” get cleaned up, Ross isn’t taking any chances: In preparation for a trip to Key West, she boarded up the front of her house with plywood, installed a security system, barred the front and back doors, and hired a couple to live in her home for 24-hour security while she is gone.
“With everything that’s going on,” she says, “I’m not taking any chances.”CP