Collin Harris lost the wall to his house when the neighbor started digging too close.

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Collin Harris in front of his home

Does the D.C. government care if your house collapses? Not according to Collin Harris.

On Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 11:30 a.m., part of Collin Harris’ Florida Avenue NE home collapsed while he and his girlfriend were inside.

Right before, Harris was sitting in his downstairs dining room, doing some routine tax work for his government contracting company. He heard a shuuuh, shuuuuh noise, like the sound of falling sand, coming from the eastern wall of his house. He got up to inspect and within seconds called out to his girlfriend, Lia Mulugeta, who was already rushing downstairs.

Both Harris and Mulugeta dashed out the back door, unharmed. The man operating the Bobcat on the other side of the wall was also OK.

In fact, says Harris, he didn’t seem aware of what happened. He’d backed up toward the alley and was busying himself elsewhere on the construction site. Harris and Mulugeta tracked him down to let him know their home now included a hole big enough for a truck to drive through.

“He was literally flabbergasted and just stunned and astonished,” says Harris. “Police were on the scene within two minutes.”

The collapse, while shocking, did not come as a total surprise to Harris. For more than a year, he had noticed what he would describe as shady construction practices next door, the site of a planned four-floor, eight-unit apartment building. And for more than a year, he’d been contacting various D.C. agencies and offices about his concerns.

The correspondence—contained in a 63-page PDF document sent to Washington City Paper—hasn’t amounted to much. Harris and Mulugeta haven’t been able to enter their row house since early February. (Read how the Office of the Attorney General and the office of Councilmember Tommy Wells responded here.) 

Total damage at the home—classified as condemned—is $365,594.83, which is slightly more than the 2010 assessment, $363,890. They now reside in a rented home in Crestwood, paid for by their insurance.

The row house next to Harris’ was also damaged and deemed uninhabitable.

As reparation, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) says the property owner, Richard Cunningham, owes the city $4,544.44. This sum includes fines for not cleaning and securing the property. “We have determined that there was no ‘illegal construction’ at 1367 Florida Avenue [and] that the partial collapse was the result of the contractor not following acceptable excavating practices,” DCRA spokesperson Shana Kemp says in a written statement. No other investigation is planned.

When reached by phone, property owner Cunningham sounded upbeat. He said he was out of the country on a religious retreat but promised that construction would resume within a week when he got back. The problem, he stated, was that Harris’ house hadn’t been reinforced soon enough. Cunningham’s crews were planning on fortifying the structure because “the building was built so long ago, they didn’t have a foundation.”

Before that could be fixed, of course, the bricks came crumbling down. “We’re getting ready to pay the violation fees,” says Cunningham.

Neighbors wanting action began their back-and-forth with the D.C. government in late February 2008. At first, the concerns were relatively minor—contractors cut down two large trees and started gutting the row house without visible permits. A stop-work order was posted in early March but crews were back at it soon afterward.

By late March, Harris had stepped up his claims, writing a capital-letter-laden e-mail to DCRA director Linda Argo, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, as well as several other officials. It said, in part:

For several weeks now the site remains UNSECURED. RUSTY NAILS, OPEN TRENCHES, EXPOSED UTILITY WIRING and VAST AMOUNTS OF LITTER characterize the state of the work site.…The ILLEGAL TRENCHING is just one of a raft of violations.…Construction has taken place on Sundays, large trees have been taken down as have FENCES belonging to neighbors. There have been no measures taken to notify or protect adjoining properties.

Harris also reached out to the mayor’s staff and any other office he thought should know about what was going on next door. Plenty of pledges were offered in return.

Following a brief stop-work order in December 2008, DCRA representative Nicholas Majett did get back to him with this update: “The owner has the proper permits and is working within the scope of the permits.”

Roughly a month later, Harris’ wall collapsed.

His next-door neighbor, Alice Denton, 58, says she and her sister lived in two different hotels before moving to a temporary home near Union Station. When the wall collapsed, “it shifted our house, and it set off our burglar alarm,” says Denton.

Since then, Denton’s insurance company has said that repairs cannot be made until construction at Harris’ house takes place. His waiting game is also her waiting game.

According to ANC commissioner Bill Schultheiss, home collapses are not all that uncommon in the area. In the fall of 2007, he says construction crews ripped down most of 1222 Maryland Ave. NE but left the front façade. One windy day, it just “blew over.” Last winter, a collapse occurred in a brick house located at 642 15th St. NW. “The contractor was renovating it, and half the building collapsed while the guy was in it,” says Schultheiss.

In late March, Schultheiss drafted a letter on the matter, which was then approved by the ANC. In it, he asks DCRA for a “list of fines and enforcement action taken on the properties where buildings have collapsed.”

“We just want an answer of what’s happening to these contractors? Are they going to get fined? Are they under investigation for not being competent? They should have their licenses revoked!” he says.

The agency did not respond to the letter. When questioned, Kemp said DCRA was not investigating either the Maryland Avenue or the 15th Street collapse.

After what happened at Harris’ home, his insurance company requested he find out how the city intends to deal with the site. It won’t approve work on his house until that’s nailed down. In a letter to DCRA Program Analyst Heather Vargas, Harris writes:

“We cannot do building work until that issue is more clear.…Any word on what’s going on with 1367? Can the owner be advised to refill and shore up the site so that we can quickly rebuild??? Could a meeting be set up for next week at the site?”

He had no response for days. On Friday, April 10, City Paper sent a lengthy request for information to DCRA. By early evening, Harris received some short e-mails from the agency. One says: “Please provide me with three dates and times that are convenient for you and I will schedule a meeting.” The other let Harris know the property “has been secured and is safe.”

There’s nothing in the e-mails about when the four people shut out of their homes can get to work on returning to them. “Here I am sitting in front of a bill for the repair of my house, for almost $400,000,” says Harris. “This is unreal.”

Images by Darrow Montgomery; This column will appear in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper.