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COVER STORYMarch 10, 2006

Slum Pickin’s

Man buys former crack house. Crackhead stops by, bakes chicken.

By Ryan Grim

About a decade ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the District of Columbia took aim at what law-enforcement officials call “nuisance properties”—crack houses or boarded-up buildings that attract crime. Ever since, it has teamed up with D.C. agencies—the police department and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, for starters—to oust the tenants/squatters who have made such properties neighborhood eyesores. The USAO now feels sufficiently confident in the program to post a list of “Nuisance Property Success Stories” on its Web site, an inventory that now features 28 properties. The distinction comes with a vague blurb describing what the nuisance was, how the USAO got rid of it, and how much better off the neighborhood is now. Interviews with the actual people involved—the tenants, the addicts, the cops, the landlords—reveal that there is much more to the stories. Or sometimes much less.

1423 Parkwood Place NW

Columbia Heights

U.S. Attorney Says: Crack house was shut down.

Neighbors Say: Crackheads are still around.

At 1423 Parkwood Place, a disabled elderly man allowed his grandchildren to sell drugs from the property, says the USAO. A nearby resident of 33 years says that she often saw young men hanging out in the front yard and that the property was known as a crack house. In order to clear the house out, the city found the elderly man a new home and “ensure[d] that he had proper care.”

Property records show that the place sold for $35,000 in February 2002. Two-and-a-half years later—after it had been flipped through a chain of speculators—27-year-old Seth Whitaker, a San Francisco Bay area native and 2001 Georgetown grad, bought it for $395,000. Whitaker says the investment was worth it and that he values the spirit that comes with buying a former crack house. He was told by a neighbor that as many as 40 people were living in the property at one point; there was no stove, so tenants used an indoor barrel grill instead.

The indoor grilling continued after Whitaker moved in. Early one morning in mid-2005, he awoke to a sharp burning smell and went downstairs to check it out. Through the smoke, he made out a figure in his living room. “There’s a dude right where I’m sitting now,” recalls Whitaker from his plush couch. “He was black, had on nice pants, a nice shirt, and I thought, Dammit, this must be one of Victor’s friends,” thinking that his roommate had let somebody sleep over without telling him first. Whitaker walked past the sleeping man to the oven and found the source of the smoke. “He was cooking one of my chickens from the freezer,” he says. Whitaker turned off the oven and went back to bed.

When he came down again at 9:30 a.m. to leave for his job at National Public Radio, the man was still there. He woke him up, got him a glass of water, and asked him if he knew Victor. The man mumbled a few different names, and that’s when it dawned on Whitaker: The man was part of the house’s history. “This guy was just high and thought his friends still lived here. So he came in, helped himself to some chicken, and passed out,” Whitaker says. “In a way, it makes me think, Wow, this is a nice place. It made me proud to live here. This is a real community.”

1434 Swann St. NW

Logan Circle

U.S. Attorney Says: A crack house is gone.

Neighbors Say: Bring back the crack house.

Under the stewardship of nine people who inherited 1434 Swann St., the house became a one-stop shopping center for drugs and prostitution, according to neighbors and the USAO. After years of being pressured by the feds, the owners sold the building in July 2003. Records show it went to Patrick Oberman that month for $575,000.

Susan Ross, a 60-year-old actress who lives across the street, says that the crack house must have been a lucrative business. “Plastic went up [around the gutted building] a month ago, which is the only thing that stopped people coming by and ringing the bell,” she says.

The thing about a crack house is, you don’t really miss it until it’s gone. When Ross bought her home three years ago, there wasn’t a lot of crime on the block, she says, “because people knew it was a crack house and didn’t mess with it. [N]obody ever got robbed or mugged. We’d hear shouting and profanity and all that from across the street, but we never got robbed. Now people are getting robbed in alleys, and there are break-ins all the time.”

El Salvadoreño, 3548 14th St. NW

Columbia Heights

U.S. Attorney Says: “You took your life into your hands when you went in that place.”

Neighbors Say: New bouncer keeps people in line.

After a long, hard day of thuggin’, even the baddest of motherfuckers can use a cold one to take the edge off. A few years ago, that thug—regardless of age—had a barstool waiting at El Salvadoreño, a spot that was until recently the gravitational center of mayhem in its neighborhood. “One or two years ago, [the owner] let in everybody,” says Jose Solloso, who runs a restaurant and carryout on the same block as El Salvadoreño. “He didn’t care.” Co-owner Celestino Amaya is frank about his former liberalism. “If somebody wanted to come in, they could come in,” he says.

The open door often led to a chaotic environment, say cops and neighbors. “I’d see the Spanish come out of there and stab each other, and then the paramedics would come and take them away, and next weekend they’d stab somebody else,” says an elderly resident who lives on Parkwood Place NW, across from the bar.

“There were brawls every weekend,” says a local cop who has worked the neighborhood for three years. “You’d go in to break up a fight, and you’d come out and your vest will be cut up.”

In 2004, the USAO decided to take exception to Amaya’s free-flowing policy. Community Prosecutor Andy Lopez requested an investigation of El Salvadoreño by the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). The investigation turned up numerous violations, which the USAO forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General for prosecution. ABRA suspended the bar’s license for five days in December 2004, fined it $2,000, and required a written security plan. Amaya estimates the shutdown cost at least $13,000. The plan put together included an indoor camera, but the most significant change, he says, came about thanks to the bouncer he now puts at the door. “I tell him, if somebody is high or drinking, no way. If it’s after 10 [p.m.], they must be 21,” he says. The calming of the inside of the bar, says Amaya, has also quieted the corner outside it and, in turn, has ratcheted down the violence in the neighborhood. The USAO agrees.

The Parkwood Place resident says that the number of people lingering and fighting outside El Salvadoreño has diminished. But the quiet in front of her house has cost her out back. “A bunch of Spanish guys hang out by the gas station, and they come and use my backyard as a bathroom,” she says, mimicking how the men creep close to her wall and relieve themselves.

707 7th St. NE

Capitol Hill

U.S. Attorney Says: Rooming house was a blight on the block and a drug haven.

Neighbors Say: People in the rooming house were nice; new people are nice, too.

When John Weimer and his wife, Kristine Weimer, were looking to buy a home, they wanted something in a place that felt like a real neighborhood. “If we wanted to move to a community with less diversity, we could have gone to Bethesda,” he says. Instead, they found the perfect fixer-upper just south of H Street NE, on the 700 block of 7th Street. “When I tell people at work”—at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring—“that we’re fixing up a house in Northeast, they say, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ and I say, ‘I just came from São Paolo,’ ” where he was working for a U.S. media company.

The home didn’t give itself up easily. Sara Jervey’s parents had owned the place since 1953, and they died in the late ’90s. However, they didn’t leave it to Jervey, even though she’d been living in it since she was 12 years old. Instead, says Weimer, they left it to Jervey’s daughter, who was in poor health and living outside of the District.

Jervey nonetheless shared the place with her husband, Leroy Hutchinson, and multiple other occupants in what the USAO called an illegal rooming house. “Let’s just say she was profiting from the real estate,” says Weimer.

Kevin “K.C.” Carter, a postal worker who occasionally works the route, says he remembers the house being crowded. “I just saw a lot of people in there,” he says. “They got a lot of mail.” The USAO says that more than mail was coming into the house. A raid in May 2004 led to the seizure of a bag of heroin and a crack pipe.

The feds then figured out that the house was in probate and contacted the executor of the will, leading to the sale of the building. But when the Weimers settled in late 2004 and went to check on their new home, they found they had a boarder. Jervey hadn’t packed and was sleeping upstairs. The new owners asked her if she had a place to go. She said she did, says Weimer, but he didn’t believe her. Eventually, her cousin convinced her to leave. “She moved out peacefully. Painfully but peacefully,” Weimer says. Jervey couldn’t be reached for this article; according to her cousin, she has since moved to Philadelphia but was in Columbia, S.C., in late February. “I can’t keep up with her,” says the cousin.

“I think my wife and I fit the stereotype of gentrifiers, and it’s not a stereotype we like,” says Weimer, a former editor for a cluster of newspapers in Texas. “I don’t feel particularly good about [buying the property], especially about displacing someone who might not have had any place to go.”

1631 Euclid St. NW, Apt. 302

Adams Morgan

U.S. Attorney Says: Drug factory was being run out of an apartment.

Neighbors Say: Good riddance.

It doesn’t take a building-wide effort to qualify as a nuisance property. The Ritz, a five-story building on Euclid Street NW, made the grade because of just one unit. “Maybe like five or six years ago, they had drugs, people selling drugs in the building—in the hallways, standing out front here,” says Eleanor Triplett, a tenant at the Ritz for 19 years, pointing to the building’s door. Residents knew that much of the trafficking routed through Apartment 302. They brought it to the attention of their building management, Jubilee Housing, a nonprofit that owns and manages seven properties in the Adams Morgan area.

The USAO claims that 302 was “being used to prepare and package drugs sold in the surrounding neighborhood.” D.C. police attempted to make an undercover buy at the unit but failed. The cops lucked out, though, when the tenant, the USAO claims, threatened a maintenance worker. The tenant was charged and convicted in association with the run-in. The conviction enabled Jubilee to evict her in spring 2005.

Jim Knight, Jubilee’s executive director, says that the problems inside and outside the building were connected. “There was a group of primarily youth that used to hang around the corner of Mozart and Euclid and seemed to be involved in the drug market. That group would drift into the property when it could,” he says. Though Knight won’t specifically discuss Apartment 302, citing privacy laws, he confirms that the USAO’s account is generally true.

Triplett and Knight say that direct negotiations were held with some of the people hanging out on the corner who were believed to be part of the problem. “We did have conversations with the folks, but I think it bears mentioning that it’s hard to know who’s involved in the negativity and who isn’t,” he says. “Residents and other supporters also reached out to the people on the corner.”

Knight says he poured money into the building as well. “We invested in new security and surveillance equipment and put a staff member in the building at all times,” he says. These changes, combined with the cooperation from authorities, have abated the problem. “That was a very positive experience,” says Knight. “Law enforcement did an excellent job and worked well with the staff and residents.”

Triplett says that while the open market has been shut down, people are still getting high. “It was not fully a success. Drugs are still in the building. There is people in here that do do it,” she says.

If that’s the case, the users will soon be getting off in much nicer digs. Jubilee is planning a full-scale renovation of the Ritz for fall 2006. Ritz residents will stay in other buildings while the work is done. They’ll return to a “near-gut rehab,” says Knight, complete with new heating, central air conditioning, a technology center, a community room, and an all-purpose classroom.

Rick’s Billiards, 624 T St. NW


U.S. Attorney Says: Pool hall offered more than billiards.

Neighbors Say: It was just a damn pool hall.

The USAO went after Rick’s Billiards in the late ’90s as gentrification swept the U Street corridor. For years, the prosecutors say, the pool hall had acted as an open market for heroin. In 1999, police searched the joint, arrested three people, and seized heroin from inside the building, according to the USAO. The office then threatened owner Lewis “Rick” Dixon with a civil suit under a nuisance-abatement statute, and, according to the USAO, he “promptly sold the property.”

But that isn’t true. Dixon didn’t promptly sell anything but rather closed Rick’s and leased the space in 2002 to Concei da Silva. An anarchist from Angola and a former child soldier in that nation’s civil war, da Silva opened a bar and restaurant, Café Mawonaj, referred to by the lefty activist community as a “liberated space.” Dixon didn’t sell the property until Nov. 4, 2005, when Broadcast Residential Partners paid him $1.1 million for it.

The building’s structural effects were every bit as liberated as its denizens. Exposed wiring and thin wooden walls gave Café Mawonaj the feel of a tinderbox. “After [Broadcast] bought the building, the next thing we know, it’s burning,” says da Silva. It went up in flames on Nov. 20, 2005, though it remains intact in a photo on the Success Story Web site.

After the fire, Broadcast told da Silva that he had to find a new place to practice his ideology. “They told me I had to get out, that they wanted a new business here,” says da Silva. Broadcast’s Chip Ellis won’t go into the details of his talks with da Silva but says, “I don’t think that Café Mawonaj is coming back to the block.We think we’ve reached a settlement and they will be departing.” Either way, da Silva says neither Dixon nor his new landlord made any repairs in response to his complaints about the shoddy state of the property. He says he is currently suing Dixon.

On a Wednesday night in February, a woman and her niece are talking on the corner of 7th and T Streets, across from the boarded-up remains of Café Mawonaj. “You feel good now?” the aunt asks her niece.

“Nah, bitch, I ain’t got my narcotics.”

The women say they used to frequent Rick’s; the niece feels Dixon got railroaded by the feds. “He was a good man. If you were hungry, Rick would feed you,” she says. “The pool hall got people off the street. They took something away from us.” She argues that racial politics and gentrification drove out the pool hall. “I’ve been around for 40 years and they didn’t fix a bus stop,” she says. “Now that all the white people are around, they’re doing all kinds of things.”

700 block of Brandywine Street SE
900 block of Barnaby Street SE

Washington Highlands

U.S. Attorney Says: Drugs, crime, and slumlord are out; affordable homes are in.

Neighbors Say: Tenants are out; high-priced condos are in.

On Sunday, March 5, the Lynch family is packing its belongings into a U-Haul in front of its home on the 900 block of Barnaby Street SE. Just around the corner, Re/Max is hosting an open house, offering the Lynches’ apartment—after renovations—as a market-rate condo.

The departure of the Lynch family leaves fewer than a dozen of the apartments in this 81-unit complex still occupied by holdout tenants. Two blocks south, a similar migration has left the 700 block of Brandywine Street SE with only five occupied apartments. Most of the tenants who have left received government subsidies for their housing.

Last summer, this neighborhood was a child’s paradise, says Shaniqua Flakes, 13. “You couldn’t walk 10 feet without seeing a kid.”

The USAO had another view of the block. “These buildings were plagued by drug trafficking, prostitution and violent crime. Drug runners used the wall outside the building to stash drugs and guns and drug addicts used the vacant apartments to smoke their drugs and conduct sexual acts in exchange for more drugs or money,” reads its Web site.

What is happening in the neighborhood as a result of USAO involvement is nothing short of radical—a wholesale uprooting is under way and almost complete. Deep in Southeast, families who might have thought they were safe from the gentrification wave are being swept away by its ripples.

Yet this gentrification tale won’t have the same ending as it does in many other parts of the city. This time, high-income professionals won’t take the place of the departed, according to Re/Max’s Rod Davis, who is managing the condo sales. Instead, the units will be going to an overlooked sector of District residents that often gets lost among the granite-countertop yuppies and the recipients of public assistance. The black middle class, says Davis, will be moving into these condos.

Yet to say that market forces alone drove the condo-ification is giving the invisible hand too much credit. In this case, the USAO assumed the role of chief gentrifier; a brochure for the new condos calls the project “a triumph of public/private partnership.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Waid says that the head of the corporation that owned the properties, Dennis Garbis, offered to make repairs on the buildings but that she was worried that the work would drag on too long. In 2005, after intense pressure from the USAO, Garbis sold the Brandywine block to a developer for $6.1 million and the Barnaby block for $4.86 million. “I think he finally just got sick of me,” says Waid of Garbis.

The feds were excited about the sale. In July 2005, trumpets the office’s Web site, the owners invited local cops, the USAO, and “fellow neighbors” to a “Brandywine Street Block Party. This block party celebrated the new and exciting changes coming to the neighborhood now that the drug problem had been abated.”

If by “new and exciting changes” the office was referring to the coming exodus of longtime residents, the feds were prescient. “The new owner started moving people out in May and June,” says Yvannia Flakes, tenant-association president of the Brandywine buildings and mother of Shaniqua. She says that a lot of promises were made that summer. “One minute it was ‘Whatever you need help with.’ The next it’s ‘You’ve got to go.’ ” Flakes also says her landlord “tried to strong-arm us.”

One of those strong-armed out was Keturah Hodge, evicted for nonpayment of rent in December—she says she was withholding it to protest living conditions. Hodge has taken her son to live with relatives in Richmond and is now staying with a friend in Lincoln Park. “At first, I was gonna go to a shelter, but I thought, I can’t take my son there,” she says.

The USAO makes no secret of its involvement in emptying the buildings. “Our first priority was to get the people removed from the building who shouldn’t be there. Why are we putting people in slum landlord places?” asks Waid. About a third of the residents, she says, were placed in Garbis’ buildings on the 700 block by a program called Community Family Life Services (CFLS), which was receiving federal dollars to house formerly homeless families. Waid successfully encouraged CFLS to move its people elsewhere.

The USAO insists that the new condos will be affordable, but that depends on who’s doing the affording. “They’re affordable in the sense that they’re not that expensive, but not affordable by government standards,” says Davis. A cheat sheet handed out at the open house estimates the total monthly payment for a one-bedroom unit with parking at $1,429—two-thirds of Ward 8’s median monthly income.

Prospective buyers who stop by the open house indicate that a new class of resident is moving in. Most are from well outside the neighborhood and deep into a professional career; most, if not all, are African-American; a few are recent college grads. Andre Scott, 24, is a real-estate agent and a senior at Bowie State University. He’s considering reserving a unit and renting it out for a few years, with the hope that the developers will come through with their promise of a gated community. “I wouldn’t live here now,” he says. “The area is up and coming, but it’s not there yet.” CP