Housing Complex

A Very Illegal Apartment Building Gets a Second Life

IMG_1219

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:

  1. Raze the building and start anew (very expensive, means forfeiting the money already invested)
  2. Try to get the zoning changed so an eight-apartment building complies (a longshot)
  3. 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:

IMG_1213

And a separate kitchen is no longer needed on each floor, which means removing some of the pipes:

IMG_1216

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

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Raze it.

  • ScottRoberts

    What say the nearby neighbors?

  • tntdc

    Doesn't this also exceed the height limit for R4 ?

  • Pingback: The Needle: Frank Gets Frank On Frank Underwood - City Desk

  • eric

    This area probably should be more than an R-4 area anyways. Need more density in that area.

  • Drez

    Raze it, and put a lean on Mr Dixon for the cost.
    City picks up the legal tab.

  • Drez

    Didn't this guy build an entire faulty subdivision in Ward 7?

  • tim

    Don't approve of skirting the laws. But come on here. Fine/arrest, do whatever with the owner. But, are we really going to ripe down perfectly good affordable housing in city with a housing shortage?

    Tear downs for greater density are how all the great cities of the world were built. You see stuff like this in Astoria Queens all the time. Which BTW one of the only affordable close in "middle class" areas left in the city.

  • GoldCoastKid

    is he going to turn them into codos? or just leave them as apartments?

  • Will

    By the location of that curb cut, it looks like the original intention was to have parking for 4 cars in front, which is a big departure from existing zoning and practice across the city. Hopefully he'll be made to close the curb ramp before he can get a CO. Just from the streetview, the curb ramp itself looks like it is really poorly designed.

  • ShawGuy

    I fail to understand why the city cannot just go and raze the project themselves and send them a bill for the cost. I understand that it sucks to lose your entire investment, but that's kinda what you deserve if you are so incredibly stupid as to invest in a real estate project and not spend three whole minutes making sure it has permits on the DCRA website. It's free, it's available to anyone 24 hours a day, and it's easy enough that a six year old could navigate it on an iPhone. If you put up a single cent without doing the most basic of due diligence, you DESERVE to lose your shirt.

    There was no permit. They built it anyway. If the city does not come raze the whole damn thing and tell them to start over from a pile of trash, then they are clearly proclaiming "just do whatever you want and we'll just forgive you later". And that, my friends, is very dangerous.

  • Crickey7

    The new owner has converted it into a conforming structure. The City can't raze it now. They could have before they approved the new permits, but that's water under the bridge.

  • gray

    What an eyesore!

  • Carol Casperson

    Dixon Oledele has many projects all over DC where he has broken the law and gotten away with it. If the city can't or won't control this type of behavior the citizens suffer. Maybe a little jail time would change Oledele's behavior but I doubt it.

  • Vinnie

    So...the owner who committed the bad act was foreclosed upon. The current owner brought the building into conformance with existing zoning. There's just two kinda weird apartments that need to be rented out.

    Sounds like a win-win here. The site is walking distance from both Howard U and the Petworth station. Seems like two good units to turn into group houses to me.

  • http://www.thelaunchproperty.com/ new launch Singapore

    I have observed that the main problem of illegal apartment conversions is a persistent and pervasive one that places many of our residents in danger and puts tremendous strains on community resources.

  • Rob

    How is this not razed? Who is getting a kickback to continually approve permits to a known crook?

  • James

    unbelievable -- how does DCRA know anything is to code behind the walls? So many obvious violations, it's shocking that permits were issued. The height, 8 electric meters still remain outside, outdoor staircase, cracks in the foundation, THE ROOF BLEW OFF last year...I smell a greased palm.

...