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Look inside a historic Columbia Heights ďabandominium"

Anacostia isn't the only place in DC with "abandominiums." Canvassing 13th Street NW in Columbia Heights for information on a forgotten murder, I found an unlocked front door to the Warner Apartments, one of DC's most historic abandominiums.


The Warner Apartments at 2618-2622 13th Street NW are abandoned. All photos by the author.

Within minutes a friend and I were on the roof of this Colonial Revival-style apartment building on the 2600 block of 13th Street NW. We looked over a neighborhood that, in less than 10 years, has been transformed from one of the deepest gang and crew-affiliated areas of the nation's capital to a landing pad for DC's newest arrivals.


View from the roof of 2618 13th Street NW.

Formerly known as the Alden, Babcock, and Calvert Apartments, completed in the 1920s, the Warner Apartments at 2618-2622 13th Street NW were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

In late 1987, the Warner was the first of a dozen renovated apartment buildings to be completed as part of the city's "$15 million plan to reclaim vacant, privately owned, disintegrating apartment buildings and turn them into housing for low-income District residents," according to the Washington Post in November of that year. "By the time the last group of tenants left four years ago, a succession of landlords, tenants and city authorities had managed to reduce the once-graceful red-brick structure in Columbia Heights to an uninhabitable mess," said the article.

In February 1987 developer Joseph G. Kisha, in partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), acquired a "Rental Rehabilitation Loan Program Leasehold Deed of Trust, wherein the parties acknowledged" Kisha's "indebtedness to the District of Columbia government for a $220,000 interest free loan to finance the purchase and rehabilitation of the housing accommodation as rental units for low to moderate income," according to records of the Office of the Tenant Advocate.

On October 28, 1987, Kisha closed on the property for $413,872. Of that total, $176,220 came from the Rental Rehabilitation Loan Program, $159,000 from the Land Acquisition for Development Opportunities Program, and a guarantee of a forthcoming $78,652 from DHCD.

Wasting no time, the next day Kisha filed a Claim of Exemption Form with the Rental Accommodation and Conversion Division within the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, asserting that the apartments were "exempt from the rent control provision of the Rental Housing Act because the rental units were owned or subsidized by the District government."

Along with the city subsidized mortgage, Kisha argued that the property was additionally exempt from rent control because in 1984, when his company first expressed interest in its purchase, it was vacant and had been vacant up until the time he requested the exemption from rent control. The city agreed and approved his exemption. All 44 of the Warner's renovated units would go to low-income residents receiving federal rental assistance.

According to the November 1987 Post article, Kisha had concerns that "not enough attention ha[d] been directed at the time when the initial rent subsidies expire." He told the Post he and his business partner planned to own the Warner for fifteen years, but when the rent subsidies ran out, he was quoted as saying, "I don't know what happens then."

Fast forward to August 2006, less than twenty years after the Warner Apartments reopened, Kisha and his 2620 Limited Partnership was petitioned by the 2620 13th Street NW Tenants Association, who alleged that the Rental Housing Act of 1985 had been violated. Rents increased even though the units did not comply with housing regulations, tenants received "substantially" reduced services, and, the association argued, the property was not registered with the Rental Accommodation and Conversion Division.

Kisha sought to have the case dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that the Association's complaints were based on the rent stabilization provision of the Rental Housing Act, from which the Warner was exempted.

In late July 2009 Wanda R. Tucker, an Administrative Law Judge, issued a Final Order in the nearly three year old dispute. The Tenant Association's petition was "dismissed with prejudice," meaning the Tenant Association would be barred from bringing a future action on the same claim.

By December 2010 only four units remained occupied. Following the protocol of the 1980 Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act, the remaining tenants were given the opportunity to purchase all three buildings. The asking price was $5,050,000. The tenants were prohibited from waiving their right to receive the Offer of Sale while their failure to purchase the buildings ensured their eventual eviction.

Last December the 2620 Limited Partnership sold the three buildings and got their money. New York-based Aria Partners, LLC, purchased the property for $5,018,000, a price representing more than $114,000 per unit. In press releases Aria pledged to "substantially renovate the building[s] to [their] historic standard while preserving 20% of the units as affordable."

Inside building "A"

Upon entering building "A," (2618 13th Street NW) a friend and I were greeted by two fire extinguishers coated in a thick layer of dust. Some loose construction materials lay in the corner of the vestibule. I step up the stairs into the hallway, a door to units on my right and left.

I shout out, "Uptown reporter in here!" The sound ricochets through the stairwell, down to the basement and up to the fourth floor.


Front door of 2618 13th Street NW.

I don't hear anything or anyone, neither does my friend. A solitary light bulb, in a no frills hallway chandelier overhead, gleams through the desolate dwelling.

The door on the left is unlocked, opening into a unit with three windows that overlook 13th Street NW. To the right is the intersection with Euclid Street NW. "There goes MPD," says my friend, "Rickey," as the police cruise south on 13th Street NW.


Inside a first floor unit of 2618 13th Street NW.

"Rickey," in his early 50's, grew up on nearby Sherman Avenue NW. He has fond neighborhood memories of "just trying to stay alive despite my best efforts not to." Although he now lives "on that southside" his "heart is always with the uptown."

He says, "I might be too street to tweet but I'm up on the only news that really matters; that corner news of what's happening now."

Rickey claims "everyone knows you've always been able to get high here whether it's vacant or when they got people. This place has never really been run right; it's always been a problem."

As we walk through the hallways and creep into deserted units, we're careful to watch our steps on the wood floors going to pieces. The non-bearing walls have all been knocked down, and drywall accumulates in piles in many of the units.


Watch your step! Holes in the floor of 2618 13th Street NW.

With scant evidence of squatters on the first and second floor, we discover verification on a third floor unit overlooking 13th Street that someone has been here within the past week. "Yep. If I was still getting high this is right where I'd do it. That's what they were doing," says Rickey.


View from the 3rd floor of 2618 13th Street NW.

There are a couple different newspapers scattered about from the same day last week, some cigar guts, and discarded wrappers for Black & Milds and cigarillos, used to roll up weed.

"To a lot of folks this place is too hot," Rickey says as we look down to the street below. "All these new people walking around, acting like ain't nothing wrong in the world. You better watch your back if you dip in here, these people will call the police on you quick, fast, and in a hurry."

Rickey pulls out a cigarette, lights it, and laments, "You know when I was coming up, yeah, there was a lot of guns and knives, and all those drugs around but it was different. The way it feels now, it doesn't feel real anymore."

A metal grate blocks the stairwell to the roof, but it's not locked. We pass boxes full of binders chronicling years' worth of work orders as we walk up the staircase.


Work orders for 2618 13th Street NW.

We're now on the roof. I snap a quick picture. We head back downstairs but not before Rickey, with a fresh cigarette dangling from his mouth, says, "I know some folks in the market for an abandominium, I'll make sure to spread the word if they don't know already."

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

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Will this be a reoccurring series? I'd like to give a couple places for you to look into.

by Interested reader on Mar 27, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

Another find in what's becoming a remarkable series. It's stunningly beautiful facade, so it's tragic to see the utter shambles inside. With a $5 mil investment, I have to think there will be considerable work to follow.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 27, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

This is certainly a problem for the neighborhood, but you really can't call a building that someone just paid $5 million for "abandoned."

This belongs more in the category of negligent landlords than abandoned buildings.

by Ben Ross on Mar 27, 2012 6:45 pm • linkreport

great article...I hope this building gets the owners and tenants it deserves. I guess I'm one of the 'new people' who is making this building 'too hot to get high in'!

by renegade09 on Mar 27, 2012 7:00 pm • linkreport

Another fascinating piece, John. That is an absolutely gorgeous building, and in such a nice neighborhood. I hope this piece helps something positive happen to it.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 27, 2012 8:49 pm • linkreport

Great piece ... but shouldn't you have gotten the owners' permission to enter? I mean you could have encountered 'who knows what' in terms of security measures. (I'm thinking guard dogs for instance.) Also, doesn't publishing this story open you up to trespassing charges?

The other benefit of actually getting the owners' permission to be on their property would have been the opportunity talking to them would have brought you in terms of getting 'the rest of the story' as for what is planned here.

I do find it interesting though how in your viewpoint 'uninhabited' equals 'abandoned'. Would a farmer's field in wintertime similarly be viewed as abandoned?

by Lance on Mar 27, 2012 9:59 pm • linkreport

This is a fascinating and well-written post John. You inspire me to do a little more guerilla research. So adventurous. I do hope the building gets a second life with some investment.

by Ghosts of DC on Mar 27, 2012 11:28 pm • linkreport

"Would a farmer's field in wintertime similarly be viewed as abandoned?"
There is no way that Lance isn't some insane for of performance art. I don't know how else to explain quotes like that.

by jae on Mar 28, 2012 5:50 am • linkreport

This post was interesting, but made me uncomfortable for two reasons -- the fact that it was based on a break-in (which among other things deprived the reader of a chance to hear the owner's perspective); plus the observations of "Rickey," which don't accomplish anything beyond making the story feel like a cheap Pelecanos knock-off.

by Sluggo on Mar 28, 2012 6:58 am • linkreport

To Sluggo and Lance: This is no Breaking and Entering or Trespassing if the door is wide open, unlocked. It's better this story tells it then somebody gets thrown off the roof or somebody ignite the place. If door is locked there's no story. And Pelecanos is make believe. That's a significant difference. When they start screening that 20% to move in I'm first on the list.

14th&Euclid

by Hallow Tip Mindset on Mar 28, 2012 7:17 am • linkreport

@Jae, Maybe you missed the part in the story where it says the building recently sold for over $5M? It can take years for a developer to get to the point where they are ready to actually begin working at the site itself. (I.e., there're designs to be done, financing and backers to be obtained and finally permits to be had. Those permits alone can take months if not years for a project of this size.) It's not that the building is abandoned ... no more than the farmer's field is abandoned during the winter when it is between crops. It's between residents ... as it gets prepared to be redeveloped.

Still, I find it interesting that the author would characterize this period of its rehabilitation as 'abandoned'. There's probably more activity going on with regards to this building's future now than there's been in decades. That's hardly a sign of an abandoned building.

by Lance on Mar 28, 2012 8:36 am • linkreport

This is no Breaking and Entering or Trespassing if the door is wide open, unlocked.

This is what must be parody. You don't just go walking through neighborhoods checking all the doors to see if they're unlocked and then treat yourself and a friend to a tour if you happen to find one that is, right?

It makes a great story. But let's not suggest that it wouldn't have been better to contact the owner, at least to say "hey, did you know the building is unlocked and a haven for criminal activity."

by Arl Fan on Mar 28, 2012 8:48 am • linkreport

This is what gets called out on the Prince of Petworth Blog as a "horse's ass award winner." THey should just sell it to a developer and turn it into condominiums or apartments already.

by MrTinDC on Mar 28, 2012 8:49 am • linkreport

At Arl Fan: The owner should know now.

I live around the corner and have no problem with this story or the methods.

14th&Euclid

by Hallow Tip Mindset on Mar 28, 2012 9:10 am • linkreport

John this really is a super article and series!

by HogWash on Mar 28, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

It is not trespassing just because the door is unlocked? How about the "No Trespassing" sign?

If you tripped and broke a leg you would sue the owner.

by beatbox on Mar 28, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

Let me guess, "Ricky is your fictional "Lazlo".

by beatbox on Mar 28, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by JohnnyDC on Mar 28, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

@Beatbox

I was on the 2600 block of 13th Street NW last Saturday evening to ask people about a shooting that happened on that street seven years previous. My friend was with me just in case it got a little tense. We soon observed that the Warner was vacant. He saw the door to Building A was unlocked. We went in.

In previous posts for GGW as well as writing for other publications from the Washington Times to Capital Community News to others I have often interviewed/quoted individuals where, at their request, I have used an alias or other name. For example, at The Washington Times I wrote a story about a former member of Mara Salvatrucha. For many reasons, I did not use his real name, instead, it was "Jerry" in the story.

For this story, my friend whose real name is not "Rickey" asked that I use an alias for many reasons. Our intention that night was to gather information about a young man's life who has been largely forgotten. It was not to take a tour of one of the places of Rickey's old stomping grounds.

We entered at our own risk.

by John Muller on Mar 28, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] He noticed an abandoned place and he and a friend checked it out. Was it open? Yes
is it owned by someone else ? Yes
However, if the owner cared about his or her property they would have had a violaters trespassing sign. Its a great story [deleted for violating the comment policy]. And in addition , nothing was stolen because their isn't anything to steal. the point that the author was making was basically about developers who promise the DC government the world in order to get grant money and then they fall short, the projects are abandoned and money is missing >>>>>> Duh!

by SwtP on Mar 28, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

This shooting seven years ago is undoubtedly the tragic shooting of 9 year old Dante Manning who lived in the Warner Apartment building. I lived on that corner back then and it was terrible. The last I heard, there was a huge reward for anyone who had information leading to an arrest, but there were still no leads. I have wondered for years whether or not there had been any progress in the case. I wonder if the author of this article has any updates on this?

by JasonfromStPaul on Mar 29, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

@JasonfromStPaul

I have some information on Donte Manning's tragic case that should be published next week. If you are interested in speaking please give me a call at 202.236.3413 or email at jmuller@ggwash.org.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks for your comment.

by John Muller on Mar 29, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport


Donte's death speaks not only to a tragic crime but the under belly of gentrification and politics in the Ward. At the time the goal of real estate interests and the Council Member was to push out the tenants and to force the owner to sale. Although this was a hotspot in need of sustained police attention, MPD under pressure from CM Graham moved the HotSpot designation from this area to another to shift police protection from the Warner to a recently opened condo building. After police raided the Warner they shift operations to the new condo, this is when Donte was shot and killed as well as MPD staged a show of force parade up and down U St. and 18th St.

The pattern at the time was to neglect such properties/areas use fines and enforcement actions to force out the tenants, force the onwers to sale to a friend of the Council Member under nuisance property laws.

This would be a very good story to tell, if we have the courage to tell the entire story. This property and many others and the people they housed have many stories to tell.

by W Jordan on Mar 29, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport

He noticed an abandoned place and he and a friend checked it out. Was it open? Yes
is it owned by someone else ? Yes
However, if the owner cared about his or her property they would have had a violators trespassing sign. Its a great story [deleted for violating the comment policy]. And in addition , nothing was stolen because their isn't anything to steal. the point that the author was making was basically about developers who promise the DC government the world in order to get grant money and then they fall short, the projects are abandoned and money is missing

by SwP on Mar 29, 2012 10:44 pm • linkreport

With a landlord that seems to be a classic slumlord, why did the District stand by and allow this kind of waste? Even if he were fighting with the tenants on the rent control issue, the building looked like a sty because the DC government stood by, even while giving lots of soft money to the landlord. Did DC get a share of the profits or just their original principal back? or even that?

by Bonnie on Apr 4, 2012 7:07 pm • linkreport

I have been working as an organizer with the remaining 4 families at this building for the past couple years. (Unfortunately, I did not get involved until most residents had been pushed out by Joe Kisha.) We successfully organized to get DHCD to put pressure on Kisha to sell the buildings so that tenants could exercise their rights under DC's tenant purchase laws.

The residents did in fact exercise their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). Through TOPA they selected a new purchaser and negotiated a deal which will preserve 20% of the building as affordable housing and will include a full renovation of the building in compliance with the historic codes. The building is currently undergoing this rehab which is why you found it gutted. 2 of the families decided to move after the sale and took a generous relocation packages because they did not want to live through the renovations and continue to live in the poor conditions. 2 of the families decided to stay and continue to live in the property (not in building A). They have a contract for affordable rents and renovations equal to those in all of the other units.

Unfortunately, due cuts to the Housing Production Trust Fund the tenants could not purchase themselves or keep this building 100% affordable housing. So, while the deal worked for the remaining residents it is a significant loss of subsidized (through the DHCD ground lease) affordable housing in Columbia Heights.

This story was clearly done of the fly. It would not have taken much work to find out the buildings continue to be occupied. And it's hugely irresponsible to suggest that people use the buildings for illicit activities. These buildings are HOME for the remaining residents.

Some of the 4 families who remained at the building are family of Donte and everyone remembers him and his family as do others in the neighborhood. This could be a very interesting story about the neighborhood and real people who have first hand experience of Columbia Heights over the last few decades. The story would be well served if you interviewed the families who continue to reside at the ABC buildings (the Warner).

by Farah Fosse on Apr 4, 2012 7:57 pm • linkreport

Farah: Thanks for your comment. My friend and I waited outside of the buildings for a while and didn't see any signs of the two families that you say are still living in either buildings B or C, except for the trash/recycling bins outside of Building C - which we weren't sure if that was hard evidence of folks living there since they were empty. The electronic call boxes on all of the buildings were without power and did not work so we couldn't call up. We banged/knocked on the doors for Buildings B & C to no answer. I found your information on the web and will reach out unless you reach out to me first at 202.236.3413 / jmuller@ggwash.org. Look forward to it.

by John Muller on Apr 4, 2012 8:10 pm • linkreport

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