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The co-founder of Helpful Investing, a redevelopment company that focuses on distressed single-family homes in the District, says his firm is assessing what went wrong two weeks ago when a property it owns partially collapsed and damaged a neighbor’s belongings. On the afternoon of May 18, what remained of the rear left wall of the rowhouse at 1212 I St. NE abruptly came tumbling down while the contracting firm hired by an affiliate of Helpful Investing was in the midst of demolition work. The company is converting the building into condominiums. A resident reported the incident on Twitter:
The following day, more of the structure came apart, this time toward the front of the house. The falling materials broke the next-door neighbor’s lawn chair and buried a kiddie pool in their yard. No one was injured. (The neighbor declined to comment about the incident.) Before the wall fell down, the contracting firm had removed a former rear addition to the property.
D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had inspected the property the day before the collapse, after a resident contacted the agency about conditions on the site, according to the contractor and DCRA’s Twitter account. The agency ultimately posted a stop-work order on the property on the Friday of that week, and oversaw a clean-up and complete raze that Saturday.
While additional risks to the surrounding neighbors have been mitigated, the incident is one of only a handful of partial building collapses that DCRA sees each year, relative to the 40,000 to 50,000 building permits the agency issues annually. A DCRA spokesman says the department required the owner to take down the remainder of the structure “out of an abundance of caution.”
Both the developer, Marcus Thomas of Maryland-based Helpful Investing, and the contractor on the project say the event was an isolated incident that does not reflect their overall practices. They add that they acquired all the proper permits to do work at 1212 I St. NE, and that the structure was originally built almost a century ago. “The building didn’t fall for anything that we didn’t do,” Thomas says.
Founded a decade ago and specializing in quickly renovating decrepit properties in transitioning neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and parts of Northeast, Helpful Investing has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for its strange habit of coordinating tour buses full of people to visit its properties. Thomas says the company has completed nearly 50 projects in the area since it was established.
Many Helpful Investing properties resell for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what the company purchased them for, promising high returns to investors. For example, property records show that Helpful Investing bought 1212 I St. NE for $755,000 last fall. After the firm redevelops the property, two new condo units are set to list there for roughly $810,000 and $900,000 in turn.
“We target types of properties, not types of homeowners,” Thomas says, noting that the company plans to do better outreach to neighbors and commissioners. “It’s two different scenarios. The goal is to improve the area. It’s not to drive up prices, price people out, and things of that nature.”
Beyond the tour buses, neighbors have expressed befuddlement after seeing Helpful Investing signs outside of previously neglected properties. The signs read “We Buy Houses Any Condition CASH!!” Thomas says the company generally seeks to redevelop properties in under a year, but this doesn’t always occur because of regulatory roadblocks and other unexpected externalities.
Last week, a spokesperson for DCRA said the event at 1212 I St. NE was under investigation. Thomas says that a meeting with the neighbors to the right of the site and DCRA was scheduled for today. “We follow our [structural] engineer’s instructions to the T,” he adds.
“What a lot of people don’t understand in the city is these are not new places we deal with,” says Wayne Hostetter, operations director for Renovations & Designs, which is the contractor on the property. “The majority are over 80 years old—you have to deal with existing conditions and how things were back then.” Renovations & Designs operates in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia as well as in Florida and Illinois. It is currently working on about 30 projects across the region, including several Helpful Investing projects, and Hostetter says it always has contingency plans and insurance in place.
“We’re an open book,” Thomas concludes. “We’re always in problem-solving mode. We’d also like to be in problem-avoidance mode. We want to offer quality-assurance as well as quality-control.”