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On Monday, Laura Seldman returned to her abandoned-looking house at 1922 3rd Street NW for the first time in months. Things were not quite as she’d remembered—some of the windows were broken, and someone had even installed vegetable beds in the big lot behind the house. A girl crossed through the front yard, passing through the chain link fence on the outside.
“Is this a shortcut now?” Seldman says, exasperated. “I guess so.”
After four months under contract on the graceful, 140-year-old house, Seldman is in selling mode again. Walking through the 11 tiny rooms, breathing lightly to avoid inhaling too much of the moldy air and passing by gaping holes in the ceiling, she effuses cheerily about the building’s sturdy bones.
“Solid as a rock,” she says, banging on the wall. “They built this to last.”
Until two weeks ago, Seldman, 63, had a viable buyer: Community Three Development, a local company that has completed several well-regarded historic renovations in the District. Grant Epstein, the company’s president, wanted to completely renovate the existing house and build a new town house on the grounds surrounding it, for a total of 14 high-end units. But community support was shaky, and a recent staff report from the city’s Historic Preservation Office indicated that, contrary to the developer’s original intention, he would likely have to seek a zoning variance in order for his ambitious plan to work. Epstein bailed, withdrawing the application and leaving Seldman and her husband in the lurch.
For the Seldmans, it’s only the latest installment in a 10-year tale of woe at the Ledroit Park address. Looking at the house from the yard, she fights back tears. “I have just been so mistreated,” she says. “And it has really been a nightmare.”
The couple’s long entanglement with the brick money pit began in 2000. Her husband, Neil Seldman, president of a local economic development nonprofit, became interested in a project to help Vietnam veterans rehab and live in the house on 3rd Street NW and invested some money. But the well-intentioned enterprise wasn’t all that it seemed.
“It turns out that the person he was working with was a con man,” his wife explains.
Unbeknownst to the Seldmans at the time, Lebon Bruce Walker, who had acquired the deed to the property in 1999, had been convicted in 1993 for conspiracy and nine counts of felony theft in connection to alleged real estate scams in Montgomery County, court records show. To finance the Ledroit project, Walker had taken out a mortgage with a bank and a second mortgage with the Seldmans. He was supposed to make payments with the proceeds from the rental units. Then he disappeared, she says—picked up on a parole violation, it turns out. The Seldmans were stuck with paying two mortgages to keep the house from going into foreclosure.
Property records show the Seldmans fully acquired the deed to the house in 2002. But as soon as he was released from jail, Walker sued them for ownership in D.C. Superior Court. After five separate lawsuits—one still on appeal—the Seldmans were awarded “hundreds of thousands” in damages, she says. But Walker has yet to hand over a dime.
In the intervening years, the Seldmans have tried to sell the house, losing buyer after buyer. In 2005, for instance, they forcibly evicted the tenants living in the house (some of whom had never paid rent, she says) in preparation for a sale. The prospective buyer was himself attempting to flip it to another purchaser. Both buyers ended up backing out. Then, in 2006, the city condemned the house, requiring the Seldmans to make roof repairs. The couple sank $10,000 into improvements in the main house, she says, only to later realize that the city was referring to the roof on the adjacent carriage house. That replacement cost another $75,000.
Legal bills piled up, to the tune of $400,000, Seldman says.
The notice of condemnation was finally reversed in April 2009, and Seldman started working on selling the property again, listing it at $895,000. She had four serious offers, but by then, amid widespread economic uncertainty, nobody could get a mortgage—even a tenured Howard University professor, she adds.
Grant Epstein, on the other hand, offered to pay the full list price in cash. But to finance the detailed historic renovation, Epstein explained he would need to use some of the extra land for a new townhouse, creating enough units to repay his projected $6 million investment. Members of the Ledroit Park Civic Association and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission expressed concerns about the project’s size and scarce parking. At a subsequent meeting with community members, Epstein scaled back the design to 12 units, reducing the size of the townhouse by 40 percent.
“I only do things that I feel are the right thing,” Epstein tells Housing Complex. “We’re not out there to overshadow people and be the big person that just gets his way.”
Some in the community were supportive, he says, but they simply weren’t as vocal. Epstein says ANC Commissioner Myla Moss was the project’s primary opponent.
Moss protested the new townhouse particularly because the land at nearby Gage-Eckington Park will eventually be put to residential use, as well—but also for the sake of the neighbors who live directly adjacent to the property, she says.
“I respond to the people,” Moss tells Housing Complex. “I am not out to kill Grant Epstein’s project. But I’m also not out to make Grant Epstein a jillionaire at the expense of the birthplace of the black intelligentsia.”
All the pressures—the neighbors, the city, even the Seldmans, Epstein says—were too much for the developer to handle.
“We want to see something sensitively done on that site, whether it’s us or not,” he says. “But if you’ve got an owner who is not involved in the process, and I would believe a misrepresentation of what the community is saying, throw that in with historic preservation and zoning—a process that I think is reasonable—and you’ve got a problem.” Sighing in frustration, he finishes, “In this case, it just doesn’t seem to work.”
As Seldman toured her beleaguered property on Monday, several neighbors were watching from across the street. “I am extremely glad that the sale didn’t go through,” says Rodney Cunningham, 67, who’s had a view of the house’s backyard since 1945. Epstein’s plan was too dense for the lot, he says, and “would totally change the air flow in the area. It would become almost like a wind tunnel.”
The Seldman’s next-door neighbor, Joyce Thompson, adds, “Grant needs to find another area rather than clutter this one up with town houses.”
For Seldman, it’s back to the listings. She’s hired a realtor. Current asking price: $950,000. “We just want to get out of it. We want to get out of it and move on and live our lives,” she says.
Until then, the lot remains an albatross.
“I always thought that you do the right thing, and that comes back to you in life,” says Seldman. “Even the community is against me, the owner, right now. Somehow they feel that this is a blight on the neighborhood, because it hasn’t been developed yet. I keep the grass cut. I have exterminators. I’ve done all the repairs. We’re keeping the house in shape for the person who wants to do a wonderful renovation.”