Broken Window Theories

Dorothy Brizill has been a nuisance to District bureaucrats for years. She single-handedly pinpoints waste, corruption, and mismanagement in D.C. government with her Fodor's knowledge of the bureaucracy, tenacious research skills, and documents acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests. As executive director of DCWatch and other civic organizations, the 55-year-old firebrand:

* Has been a nuisance to economic-development officials, whom she has slammed for sluggishness and aloofness in disposing of vacant and abandoned properties in and around Columbia Heights' 14th Street corridor.

* Has been a nuisance to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey, whom she has criticized for lack of management and personnel reforms.

* Has been a nuisance to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, whom she has dogged with inquiries about ethics violations and improper campaign financing. Two years ago, Brizill's complaints to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance regarding Williams' involvement of city workers in a school-board referendum resulted in a rebuke of the mayor, which was upheld by the Board of Elections and Ethics.

Recently, though, city officials have cited Brizill for being a nuisance to her own neighbors: A few weeks ago, D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) placed the good-government watchdog's home on its list of vacant and abandoned properties.

It's hard to fault city inspectors for the citation. The three-story brick house on the 1300 block of Girard Street NW has a weathered look years beyond WASPy understatement. The wooden planks of the porch are worn and look as if they barely support the weight of the plastic trash can near the front door. The wooden banister on the porch perimeter is like a mouth in serious need of dentures.

The house hasn't been painted in years, and each floor of brick sports a distinct color: worn red on the first, brighter red on the second, more of an orange tone toward the top. There are gaps between brick and mortar. Garbage bags of varying colors and composition rattle through the broken window panes. In panes lucky enough to have glass, battered shades show through. The roof hosts a smattering of slate tiles.

Columbia Heights neighbors, almost all of whom know of Brizill and her civic activism, snicker that the DCRA made an understandable mistake. "With all due respect to the process, it does look abandoned," comments Todd Mosley, a Ward 1 activist who owns a row house across the street. "Windows absent glass and flapping trash bags visually confirms an abandoned house."

Brizill and her husband, Gary Imhoff, who administers the D.C.-oriented e-newsletter themail, confirm that they sleep, eat, and work in the airy house. Records at the city's Office of Tax and Revenue corroborate that claim: Brizill and Imhoff receive a homestead exemption for their home, assessed for 2003 at $149,650. They explain that they are slowly working to restore the mansion-size house to its historic character. "I have 52 windows," Brizill explains to LL. Authenticity has a high price tag, and it's not too affordable on a government watchdog's earnings. "The cheapest estimate for new windows is $35,000. I have a slate roof--the estimate to fix that is $50[,000] to $65,000. I even have plaster walls mixed with horsehair," Brizill adds.

"A number of [Brizill's] neighbors have complained to me because of the condition of her house," says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who represents the neighborhood. "A new neighbor was generally concerned and wondered whether we should have social services intervene."

Last month, Brizill received a violation notice that grass in her back yard exceeded the city's mandated 4-inch height limit. "I have a lawn mower that won't cut when the grass is wet," she explains, citing a stretch of rainy days. A fine-print reader of bureaucratese, Brizill noticed that the citation was specifically for vacant and abandoned properties. When she called DCRA Director David A. Clark's office, Brizill learned that her home had been classified as abandoned.

As it turns out, an anonymous tipster had called in to the agency, landing the property on the abandoned list.

According to the city's policy, when a property is reported as abandoned, responsibility is placed on the owner to disprove the claim. "For us, it is less trouble than [for] most people, because of Dorothy's knowledge of how city government works," says Imhoff. "We knew our house wasn't vacant and abandoned. Even if the government turned out to be really obnoxious, we'd get a lawyer."

Asks Brizill: "Do you really need someone to go around with a ruler to measure the length of grass? Is that all that the [DCRA] needs to fix? Is that what you're spending your money on?"

In her years as an activist, Brizill has often carped at the very issue that she now confronts in her own front yard: abandoned properties. Time and again, Brizill has called on authorities to do exactly what they did to her own house.

However, when she's the target of the city's cleanup crusade, she manages to find fault with it. Both she and Imhoff say that the mayor's efforts to develop vacant and abandoned properties have had a pernicious impact on historic neighborhoods. The nuisance-property sweep, they say, has made homes like theirs prey for money-hungry developers.

A day before the citation appeared, Brizill claims, one such developer called her at home and expressed interest in buying the property. And a few days later, the same developer rang again to ask, "Now are you interested in selling?"

Brizill declines to name the developer.

Brizill says that she has heard similar stories from homeowners in other neighborhoods targeted by the Williams administration, such as U Street-Cardozo, Shaw, and LeDroit Park. In one case, Brizill says, a developer threatened a homeowner to "either sell or I'm going to somehow get your house."

Those anecdotes are the work of the hot real estate market that began a few years ago. In Columbia Heights, the dynamic has brought new retail development as well as the renovation of myriad properties that once looked like the Brizill-Imhoff manse. "Ten or 15 years ago, their house wouldn't have stuck out. Now it does," comments another Girard Street neighbor.

On Tuesday, the DCRA told LL that it had removed the house from its list of abandoned properties after receiving proof of residence.

The withdrawal saves Brizill and Imhoff more hassles from downtown, but it won't get their property on the Columbia Heights house-and-garden tour anytime soon. "At some point, community development begins at home," says Mosley.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

* Scaring off any sane adversary with his $1.1 million spring war chest, Mayor Williams has significantly slowed down his campaign fundraising. On June 10, Williams reported raising $116,500 since the required March 10 filing, leaving his campaign currently with $1.2 million cash on hand.

D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp, who doesn't even have a marginal challenger a la Faith to beat back, raised $49,000 this reporting period, bringing her pot of gold to nearly $224,000. At this rate, Cropp could hand out a brochure with a dollar tucked inside to every D.C. voter who shows up at the polls. Law firms such as Ashcraft & Gerel and Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot contributed handsomely to Cropp's re-election efforts.

Republican incumbent David Catania has bested all at-large candidates this campaign season, with $257,000 raised so far. Catania will spend much of that moola fighting off a general-election challenge from Ward 8 resident Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, who announced last Friday that he will run for the at-large seat as an independent. Democratic incumbent Phil Mendelson reports raising $96,000, with Ward 4 Democratic challenger Beverly Wilbourn collecting a little more than $61,000.

In the ward races, Ward 1 Councilmember Graham collected more than almost all the ward-specific council candidates combined: He reports $169,000 cash on hand. Challenger Dee Hunter will need to spend his $15,000 in contributions wisely.

Ward 3 incumbent Kathy Patterson has raised $45,000, and challenger Erik Gaull has collected a little under $11,000. Gaull received a $100 contribution from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. has raised $100,000, and challenger Harry Thomas Jr. reports a little less than $3,000.

In Ward 6, incumbent Sharon Ambrose has collected $88,000, and challenger Keith Andrew Perry has raised $17,000.

* Dwight E. Singleton planned to kick off his campaign for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council last Friday at 3 p.m. When LL sat down at the Peoples Congregational Church auditorium around 3:10 p.m., custodial workers were already packing up chairs.

Had Singleton delivered the quickest campaign address in D.C. political history?

LL knew the multisyllabic orator better than that: In fact, the candidate had instructed workers to remove three rows of chairs so that the intimate crowd of 13 would look larger on Channel 4. He had more trouble stage-managing how he sounded on camera: "Whenever there is a needed youth that needs a summer job, that is another need that has needs behind it," Singleton opined at one point. No wonder campaign manager Joe Louis Ruffin, who handled Harold Brazil's at-large campaign in 2000, spent most of Singleton's speech staring at the church ceiling.

The current District 2 representative on the D.C. Board of Education said he would be an even better advocate for the school system on the D.C. Council. Perhaps because he has such a hard time articulating his triumphs as a school-board member. "I concur with people who are critical of our school system," the candidate announced moments later.

* Yellow police tape cordoned off O Street NW near 7th and local politicos handed out fliers the evening of June 5, but this particular community gathering offered no chicken shish kebabs or moonbounces: Instead, the street partially closed to traffic was the site of the first outdoor meeting of Shaw's advisory neighborhood commission.

As No. 70 Metrobuses belched exhaust and cars occasionally blew their horns, chair "Mahdi" Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. shouted into his megaphone for a reading of the minutes from last month's meeting, held in the dining room of a Chinatown restaurant.

LL's suggestion for next month's assembly? The platform of the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. Or better yet, on the Green Line itself.

Only three of six commissioners bothered to show up at 6:30 p.m. for Thorpe's ANC alfresco--not quite enough for a quorum to conduct actual business--so the chair soon called for backup. About an hour into the meeting, a gold Volvo sedan pulled up behind the grassroots pols: In the front passenger seat sat Commissioner Lawrence Thomas.

With his window rolled down, Thomas remained in the car and weighed in on commission matters, which included voting to oppose a zoning variance for a three-unit apartment building. CP

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