A Very Illegal Apartment Building Gets a Second Life
On the 700 block of Morton Street NW, a stretch of modest rowhouses, one building stands out. Set back from the street and reaching far higher than its neighbors, 723 Morton St. looks like it doesn't belong.
That's because it doesn't. The developer of the property received permits in 2004 for electrical, mechanical, and plumbing and gas work, according to property records. Instead, he erected a four-story, eight-apartment building. Not only did he not have a permit for that construction, but one would never have been granted: The scope of the building far exceeds the area's R-4 (single-family residential) zoning.
The developer in question is Dixon Oladele, who has a bit of a reputation for this sort of thing. In 2005, Oladele was arrested and charged with 296 criminal violations for building a single-family home on 56th Street NE without permits. (The number of charges sounds worse than it was—294 of them were for each of the 294 days that construction occurred without a permit.) At the time, Oladele had already received 39 citations and paid more than $200,000 in fines to the city since 2000. Then-City Administrator (and potential 2014 mayoral candidate) Robert Bobb told the Washington Post that Oladele was "one of the worst offenders" of housing regulations in the District.
Evidently, Oladele's 2005 arrest didn't change his ways. City records show several recent foreclosures on his projects, including one this April for falling more than $75,000 behind on his mortgage payments.
For the Morton Street project, a man named Lenan Cappel made Oladele a loan to build on the property. When Oladele ran afoul of city regulators and failed to pay back the loan, Cappel foreclosed on him and took control of the property, Cappel says.
The problem was that Cappel now owned an unfinished building he couldn't legally finish. He was left with essentially three options:
- Raze the building and start anew (very expensive, means forfeiting the money already invested)
- Try to get the zoning changed so an eight-apartment building complies (a longshot)
- Convert the building to one that conforms to the existing zoning rules (a logistical challenge)
Cappel went with Option 3. That meant turning an eight-unit building into a two-unit one. So the Florida resident came back to D.C. and got to work converting each of the two four-unit stacks into a single, four-story unit.
The current, half-built structure includes an outdoor staircase between the two vertical, four-apartment halves. That staircase will remain—it's too difficult to remove it. But Cappel has to provide internal connectivity within the two new apartments, so residents won't have to go outside to trek down to the bathroom. Hence new stairs between all the floors:
And a separate kitchen is no longer needed on each floor, which means removing some of the pipes:
The four-story apartments may be tricky to build—and to pitch to potential tenants—but Cappel is banking on their being more profitable than tearing the whole structure down and starting from scratch.
Reached by phone, Oladele declines to comment, saying only, "Talking to me is of no value to you. You’re going to open old wounds. I don’t want to open old wounds.”
Photos by Aaron Wiener