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Sixteen years after D.C. auctioned it off, 1414 A St. NE has raccoons, weeds, and still no residents.
Michael Woodson tried to buy the house next door in 1998. The two-story single-family home at 1414 A St. NE had fallen into disrepair, with weeds growing in the front yard, trash accumulating in the back, and raccoons taking up seasonal residence inside the boarded-up, burnt-out walls each fall. So when the house came up for sale at D.C.’s annual tax auction, Woodson jumped at the chance to win ownership of the property and merge its blotchy yard with his own carefully manicured one.
Woodson put in a bid. His offer was accepted, and he paid about $1,200 in back taxes due on the property. Then he waited out the six-month grace period for the tax-delinquent landlords to reclaim their property. For reasons that were never clear to him, his money was returned by the District government.
Woodson wasn’t the only bidder to be stymied. Ernestine Andrews had tried to acquire 1414 at a tax auction in 1997. Her bid, too, had been accepted. She, too, had paid the city the taxes owed on the place, but her money, too, had ultimately been returned.
And Harry Schnipper, a professional real estate broker and a neighbor on the 1400 block of A Street, has looked into acquiring the property as well. Over the past decade, he has tracked down the putative owner and talked to him about how to get his hands on the place. But like Woodson and Andrews, he’s never managed to walk away with a title deed.
The building is empty today—and empty it will stay. It’s just one of the 4,100 vacant buildings that blight the Washington residential landscape, according to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). These boarded-up, peeling eyesores have become a fact of Washington life. They persist in ugly defiance of boom, bust, and neighborly good will. They lodge in packs in decrepit neighborhoods, or, like 1414 A St., stubbornly resist gentrification in improving ones. Behind each one lies a story.
This year, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, 1414 A St. was again placed for sale at tax auction. And once again, it’s unlikely that any bidder will be able to acquire it, because the current owner does not have clear title to the property. Without clear title, a new owner can’t take over.
“This property could have been renovated and resold,” says Woodson. “We could have cleaned up the whole block. We actually have raccoons living in the house, pigeons, rats. I come over and take care of the yard because it’s right next to my house.”
At night, the 1400 block of A Street is lined with Lexus SUVs and Ford Explorers. Located behind the Car Barn luxury-apartment compound on Capitol Hill, the street has become increasingly prosperous in recent years. A row of weeping cherry trees stretches down the block, with a conspicuous gap at 1414, where the tree succumbed to neglect and had to be cut down.
Not all of the neighborhood’s blocks are quite that luxurious: Fifteenth Street, just around the corner, has a mixture of old-style hair salons, convenience-cum-liquor stores, and carefully maintained properties lush with blooming red-blossomed plants.
Viewed from roof level, the row of homes that includes the blighted property looks like a silver stream interrupted by a giant rock. Except that the rock is really the black chasm where the roof of 1414 A St. sinks down into the building, exposing the charred beams and walls beneath. The roof peels away from the walls of the building as it caves in; an empty plastic gas canister sits on the abandoned garage roof in back.
This was once the home of James Walter Jacobs. In 1984, after Jacobs passed away, the property, which had been in his family since 1957, was put up for bid at auction for nonpayment of 1981 property taxes. Randolph T. Oldes Sr., a District engineer and sometime mortician, bought the property for $931.37. In those days, the grace period during which owners or heirs could pay back taxes and redeem their property was two years. After that time elapsed, Oldes paid another $5,238.83 in taxes and fees. He thought the property was his, and he intended to resell it at a profit.
In December 1986, Oldes tried to sell the property to Elizabeth Jester for $42,500, according to records filed with the D.C. Recorder of Deeds. The deal fell through when Jester realized that Oldes would be unable to convey her clear title to the property and that her ownership could therefore be challenged in the future. Oldes had won tax title. But, according to his lawyer, Jeffrey Tuckfelt, Oldes did not yet own the property outright.
Oldes’ inability to sell his house can be traced back to Jacobs’ final days. Because Jacobs left no will to keep the property interest from fracturing among his heirs, interest in the house was split into ninths. And according to D.C.’s tax-auction laws, owners—in this case, all nine of them—must be formally notified of a delinquency before their property is given away. Oldes was able to acquire one-third of the interest in the property from three of Jacob’s relatives, but he still had only a partial interest in the property, in addition to the tax deed. That left six people who could contest his ownership, all of whom had to be located and informed of their right to do so.
“A partial interest in a single-family dwelling cannot be marketed very well, because it creates a conflict between various owners,” says Tuckfelt. In this situation, “as a practical matter, a purchaser of property at a tax sale cannot borrow against the property nor sell the property unless either the purchaser or the lender is willing to take a chance that the deed may later be invalidated.”
So Oldes was stuck trying to acquire the remaining interests to make the property saleable. One of the Jacobs heirs had meanwhile deeded his interest in the property to Brunetta Prather, who contested Oldes’ ownership in Superior Court in 1990. Prather was able to drag the case out for nearly half a decade. During that time, the property, which had already been burned by squatters, became infested with animals.
Oldes finally won the lawsuit in 1994, thereby achieving a four-ninths interest in the property. An owner of another ninth was tracked down in New York. But Tuckfelt says that even though that owner didn’t want to file a claim on the house, she was unwilling to give up her share.
By the mid-’90s, Oldes was running out of money to pay his lawyers. “I kept the taxes up, and I paid all whatever—maintenance, whatever, cutting the grass,” says Oldes, who is now retired. “Quite a bit of money went down the drain on that property. Everything I sank in it went down the drain, and the lawyers’ fees were astronomical, and I wound up having to sign it over to Kurt Berlin, the attorney who owns it now.”
In lieu of attorney’s fees, last July, Oldes deeded such title as he had to Barton Realty Corp., owned by Berlin, for a value of $23,000, according to tax records of the transaction at the Recorder of Deeds. That money bought a house so decrepit that it will need to be completely gutted before it can become a residence again.
Berlin worked with Tuckfelt on the Oldes litigation, shares a practice with him, and manages a number of properties, according to Tuckfelt. Now Berlin has delegated Tuckfelt to resolve the remaining fractured interests.
“Frankly, I just have to get to it, and it’s something I expect to do in the next couple of weeks,” says Tuckfelt. “At that point, the limitation will be to get notice of the new lawsuits to these other owners of fractional interest, and any of them may contest the validity of the sale. I doubt any will.”
Even in 1984, 1414 A St. was in need of some renovation to be habitable. Sixteen years later, according to Woodson, because of the collapsing roof, it has gone from being an eyesore to being a structural threat to its neighbors. And for many years, it was not even boarded up. “It was just wide open,” he says. “To get it boarded up was a major feat.”
“The property had fallen into ill times and been encroached by squatters who were ultimately ejected,” says Schnipper, remembering how it looked when he moved to A Street a decade ago. “They lit a fire one too many times and nearly burned themselves up.” Oldes was issued citations under D.C.’s “Clean It or Lien It” program, says Schnipper, and subsequently made slight improvements. (Schnipper can’t recall the year, and the Department of Public Works is unable to search records before 1997 because of a lack of computerization, according to spokesperson Linda Grant.)
Schnipper, a real estate developer, evaluated the property in 1995 and assessed it at a gross value of $27,500—plus an estimated $84,000 in repairs. But because Oldes had become so exhausted by the protracted lawsuit to clear the title—and had spent so much on it—he stopped paying taxes on the property, triggering the new rounds of tax auctions in 1997 and 1998.
Now a new dispute is looming. Tuckfelt believes that Berlin’s Barton Realty Corp. holds the troubled deed to the property. But Oldes also sold the property to Arthur Neal for a value of $30,000, according to tax records at the Recorder of Deeds, one month before the sale to Barton Realty last July. Neal then sold it to Ft. Washington, Md.-based Kingsway & Associates for $45,000. The DCRA believes Oldes still owns the property, and, stimulated by the Washington City Paper’s call, the agency has written a trash citation against the property, which it will send to Oldes. (Despite the sagging roof, the DCRA spokesperson says it does not consider the property a nuisance property, meaning it cannot be condemned.) And the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue records Kingsway & Associates as the owner.
Theo Myers, manager at Kingsway, confirms that his company bought the property from Neal and has already plowed more than $40,000 into it, including about $11,000 in taxes and liens owed on the property. He plans to convert the basement into an English-basement apartment and renovate the upper floors into a three-bath home. “I’m selling the property as we speak. My company bought it, and we’re going to sell it,” says Myers. “I got my lawyer involved.” Neal could not be reached for comment. And Oldes says that he signed the property over to Berlin.
Tuckfelt, meanwhile, is not going to give up the property without a fight. He’ll just add it to the list of litigation he needs to file on 1414 A St. Besides, he says, “There would still be title issues that need to be resolved because no matter who Mr. Oldes conveyed it to, no one would have any better title than the title Oldes had to convey.”
On Tuesday, the property was put up for bid at tax auction for nonpayment of $455.16 in 1999 taxes. And unless someone pays the taxes owed for the first half of 2000, the house will be put up for bid again in 2001. Henry Riley, director of real property tax at the Office of Tax and Revenue, says he’s never heard of a tax-auction title case dragging on this long. But, he says, it could conceivably drag on indefinitely. “The key would be in court,” he explains. “The cloud on the title is not a government issue—that’s a real estate issue.”
In the meantime, says Woodson, Kingsway & Associates has sent someone by to mow the lawn. CP