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Two weeks ago, Kenrick “Holy Joe” Joseph, a 42-year-old Trinidadian immigrant, was evicted from his spacious studio apartment on 16th Street NW. He hadn’t trashed the place: It was already trashed when he moved in. He hadn’t failed to pay the rent: There was no rent.
Holy Joe had been squatting at the former Antioch Law School building on 2633 16th St.—easily the most prestigious rent-free dwelling in the District. Constructed for a farm-equipment mogul in 1886, the mansion was designed by H.H. Richardson, the premier American architect of the 19th century. Holy Joe’s digs were the site of Washington’s swankiest turn-of-the-century social events, and the building passed from rich owner to rich owner until it finally ended up in the hands of Antioch, D.C.’s progressive law school. The building lost its last tenant in 1986 when Antioch folded, and it has been decaying ever since. It now amounts to a heap of crumbling plaster and broken stone, ringed by refuse tossed by fly dumpers and litterbugs.
But the days of trash and squalor may be coming to an end. Holy Joe’s eviction marked the beginning of a massive cleanup of the mansion and its grounds—a cleanup prompted by a new Department of Public Works (DPW) campaign dubbed “Clean It or Lien It.”
In an era when Washingtonians have come to expect the government to waste money, historic buildings to disintegrate, and trash to pile up on the streets, “Clean It or Lien It” is emerging as a very pleasant surprise. Under the program, DPW cleans abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and other sites neglected by absentee landlords. The agency then charges the landlord for two times the cost of the cleanup. If the landlord fails to pay the bill, the city places a lien on the property.
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The first two months of the program have been a smashing success, according to Leslie Hotaling, the DPW administrator in charge of “Clean It or Lien It.” DPW began cleaning in August after Mayor Marion Barry gave the department some seed money. Since then, Hotaling says, DPW has tidied 174 sites around the city at a total cost of $192,659. DPW has billed property owners $385,319 for the work. It’s a no-lose enterprise for the District government: The city is cleaner; the treasury is fuller; and municipal workers are cashing fatter paychecks—all at the expense of delinquent landlords.
“The program makes owners responsible for maintaining their properties,” says Hotaling. “And neighbors no longer have to put up with continuing eyesores and blights in their community.”
The old Antioch mansion is probably the most famous rotting structure in the city (except the Wilson/District Building), so it’s no surprise that it was an early target of DPW. The department posted a “Clean It or Lien It” sign at the Antioch building on Aug. 1 to rebuke its owners, the Eligate Partnership, for failing to clear a mess that had drawn three sanitation fines for rat harborage in July. “They did some work,” says Tom Day, a DPW inspector, “but they left all the debris in the alley—that’s unacceptable.”
On Sept. 12, DPW returned to the site and fined the owners again for the same violations. Jorge Urizar, a DPW sanitation inspector, told Eligate that DPW would order a sweep of the site if Eligate did not clean it by Sept. 18. Eligate missed the cleanup deadline but managed to evict the squatters and encircle the property with a chain-link fence to stop further dumping.
“The problem is that every time you clean it up, everybody uses it as a dump,” says Ali Qaragholi, president of Eligate. When told of DPW’s plans to clear the property and then bill him for the costs, Qaragholi says that Eligate will conduct its own cleanup.
Qaragholi hopes to put the whole mess behind him within a few months, when Eligate breaks ground on a condominium conversion project for the building. Designed to create 29 residential units, the project has already secured historic preservation approvals and is awaiting the issuance of building permits, Qaragholi says. The renovation will leave few traces of the building’s ornate interior but will preserve the facade, which is made of light-toned Ohio stone. This is a trade-off that local historic preservationists, who have bemoaned the steady deterioration of the building, will gladly accept. After all, any hopes of preserving the original masterpiece were dashed in 1923, when a local architect moved the building to its current location from its original site on K Street to make way for an office building.
So the only real loser in this story is Holy Joe. The squatter is searching for a new place as spacious as his Antioch room—which was the library in Richardson’s design. And he’s hoping to recover his VCR, TV, full-size bed, bookshelves, and bike before the cleanup crews get to them.