Greater Greater Washington

100-year old Anacostia abandominium houses crack addict

Don't be misled. The plywood that covers the front door and one of two front windows of 2010 14th Street SE, a 100-year old home in Historic Anacostia, belies the wide open rear entrance from which drug users come and go with impunity.


Front of 2010 14th Street SE. Photos by the author.

When George W. Thompson, who bought the house in 1969, died many years ago, his wife, Marie, was also dead. His will left the house to his daughter, who reportedly died soon thereafter. No one emerged to claim the house.

Until DC's Water and Sewer Authority filed a lien against Thompson in the fall of 2009, no one paid the house much mind except the husband of Thompson's deceased daughter, who according to multiple sources in the neighborhood has been squatting in the house for years.

"Yeah, a former associate of mine has been set up in there pretty tight for a number of years," said community activist William Alston-El, who through community work and life experiences is affiliated with Anacostia's underworld. "His wife died and that's when he started. He's on crack, he's pretty gone in the head, you know. Yeah, you could say it's a crack house abandominium, a lot of people have been up in there, you know what I mean?"

By 2011 the taxes grew to more than $3,000. At this time Redemptor Litium, LLC, with holdings throughout all city neighborhoods, purchased the lien.

"This is a typical law school exam question," says James M. Loots, the lawyer representing Redemptor Litium, LLC. "The tax sale is supposed to fix the problem of getting the property under control and back to contributing property taxes."

Loots says his client has filed a motion for judgment and followed every necessary step to receive an order of foreclosure from posting the mandatory orange notice on the front door, to searching for heirs in the probate docket, to advertising in the paper for all known and unknown heirs to come forth.

The case is on a judge's desk and awaits another status hearing scheduled for next month.

Unfriendly neighbor

Dewey Sampson lives next door to the crack house abandominium. A federal employee, Sampson bought his home a little less than two years ago. On move-in day, two men sitting out front of the house next door offered their help, as good neighbors. Sampson soon learned from a long-time resident two down over that the men didn't live there. Nobody does. They are known undesirables, squatters.

"Early last summer I saw the orange sticker posted on the door," Sampson said. "I was really excited. I thought something was going to happen, but I didn't think it would take this long."

After the posting, last fall Sampson called the police on two squatters, who after an evening of drinking and drugging were cursing at each other loud enough for Sampson to hear through his walls.

"The police came right away. When they took one of the guys away he kept yelling, 'This is my house! This is my house! I was like what is he talking about?" said Sampson.

After telling him what I'd heard from Alston-El, Sampson said it now made sense. What's still illogical to Sampson and his fiance is how the house could sit vacant for so many years.

"This is a paradigm example of what the tax sale process is designed to addressgetting vacant or neglected properties back on the tax rolls and into productive use. Unfortunately, that process takes a very long time," said Loots.

The sooner the better for Sampson, who last week saw a face he'd never seen before leaving the back of the house. "I don't want to judge people, but she looked like she was on drugs." Adding insult to injury, Sampson just paid an exterminator as a result of termites coming over from the abandominium.

"Those guys coming and going primarily are a safety concern for my fiancé, me, and the entire neighborhood. What if they set the house on fire and it spreads?" Sampson said. "What do we do then?"

Inside the house

This past Sunday morning with iPhone in hand, I went around to back of the home. Although the city boarded up the front door and the adjacent window last fall, I saw no evidence that anyone has made an effort to secure the rear.

I opened the mesh-screened back porch easily. There were bars on the back porch window to stop intruders from climbing in, but the back door is wide open.


Rear of abandominium in Historic Anacostia.

Stepping inside the kitchen, the rancid smell of urine welcomed me. The counter was covered in stubs of used candles and empty cans of Goya beans. The floor was littered with all sorts of debris, including chunks of fallen plaster from the ceiling. Slices of light from the second floor peeked through through small gaps in the floorboards above.

In the living room, more clothes covered the floor, along with discarded syringes and a bent spoon used to fire up dope. Two windows fronted 14th Street, one boarded up, one deflecting the morning sun behind a thick curtain. Peeling back the curtain, I saw Engine Company Fifteen; down the street is Saint Phillip the Evangelist Episcopal Church; in the median sits the restored Old Market House Square, which had a ribbon cutting last fall.

In the tight hallway junk mail fertilizes the floor. Three framed pictures rest atop the radiator: a baby girl not yet pre-school aged, a young man flashing a smile in cap and gown, and repentant hands coming together in a moment of prayer. Lord knows the rebirth of Historic Anacostia's crumbling homes need communion through any and all lines of invocation. Underneath the three photos is an unread Washington Post from this past November.

I ascended the staircase, keeping my ears open for any sounds of rustling. At the head of the stairs is a small room, the door ajar. A bare mattress sat snug in the far corner, amid fallen sheetrock and plaster. Behind the door I saw dress shirts and suits. I walk back into the hall and past the bathroom with the upturned bathtub and toilet laying on its side.

In the far room, Clothes strewn everywhere, a king size bed headboard sans bed, a plastic lawn chair, a DirecTV remote with no television to control. Running up in the home alone, without the better company of a friend, I feel I should get going.

Passing a closed green door, I heard the static of a raspy cough. Time to get ghost. I slipped down the stairs, knowing the man behind the green door will not pursue what he likely thinks is a fellow squatter just looking for a small poor man's piece of the rock, an abandominium.


Inside the kitchen of 2010 14th Street SE.

Over debris, clothes, beer cans, and drug paraphernalia I passed through the living room, crouched under a long board that's presumably been set up as a barrier between the kitchen and further entryway into the abandominium for a less able-bodied person. My first and last self-guided tour of an Anacostia abandominium.

I give Alston-El a call, telling him what I saw.

"What's the waiting list for housing in this city, 45,000? Me and you could find that many units and more in all these abandominiums," Alston-El says. A painter-by-trade, Alston-El repeats his lament, "They fix these places up and then there'd be jobs for everyone from the community who can work with their hands. It could create some small businesses. Yeah, but they don't want to do that, you see, because it would save the neighborhood. But, nope, too much like right."

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

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"They fix these places up and then there'd be jobs for everyone from the community who can work with their hands. It could create some small businesses. Yeah, but they don't want to do that, you see, because it would save the neighborhood. But, nope, too much like right."

Well, yeah, that and the city doesn't own the place.

by oboe on May 24, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

Well, yeah, that and the city doesn't own the place.

That's not quite true if nobody's paying the property taxes.

If the structure's been classified as blighted, (at current rates), the taxes owed on the property will exceed the property's value within 10 years, and the city then has a clear-cut case to seize the property and sell it.

What's more baffling is that the DC government doesn't even appear to have made an attempt to determine the ownership of this property after its owners failed to pay taxes year after year.

Is there really no procedure to deal with properties that have been obviously abandoned and have no clear owner?

by andrew on May 24, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

" 'Well, yeah, that and the city doesn't own the place.'

That's not quite true if nobody's paying the property taxes."

It is quite true if a private party is listed as the property's owner in the city land records, back taxes or not. Hope the author doesn't get tagged for trespassing. Eye-opening look into another world for sure though.

by IsoTopor on May 24, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

Impressive work, John! I'm glad we're finally not just accepting the squalor that affects so many of our neighborhoods, especially "across the river."

But be careful out there!

by Tom A. on May 24, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

This occassional series of posts on "abandominiums" is fantastic. I think it's come up on GGW before so my apologies, but does DC have anything like O'Malley's program in Baltimore (called Project 5000?) to gain control of abandoned properties and redevelop them for productive use? Among other things I believe they targeted properties where there were legal/ownership issues that had to be adjudicated before the city (or other investor) could take them over.

by grumpy on May 24, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

What's more baffling is that the DC government doesn't even appear to have made an attempt to determine the ownership of this property after its owners failed to pay taxes year after year.

Given the sheer number of properties like this, and the amount of public outcry whenever the city tries to crack down on abandoned and dilapidated houses, I don't think it's all that baffling.

by oboe on May 24, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

@oboe When was there a public outcry about the city dealing with these nuisances? When has the city tried to deal with these nuisances?

There is a way to deal with these properties and it's called eminent domain.

by Political Observer on May 24, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

The city can, and has hundreds of times, board or even brick up the windows and doors securely and charge the owner or lien the property for the work to make it secure against trespass.

Vacant houses which are easily entered are safety concerns, not just for crime, but fire hazards and enticements for children to play in.

by Tom Coumaris on May 24, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

Good article. Mr. Thompson's son-in-law may well be the rightful owner. But 50 years after the Great Society, it's easier to fix abandonned buildings than abandonned people, though at some level the apparent owner may be as morally entitled to help as those with underwater mortgages.

by Jim T on May 24, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

The city can, and has hundreds of times, board or even brick up the windows and doors securely and charge the owner or lien the property for the work to make it secure against trespass.

I'd refer you to http://bit.ly/KuFgJb

Mostly, rather than individual owners, Pemberton is after the repeat offenders who buy up properties all over and try to hide from the tax. But it's actually pretty rare that someone actually pays the full blight tax, rather than fixes up their property or sells it. Pemberton remembers the owner of 1357 U Street NW, the old State of the Union building, whose owner just paid through the nose year after year. “He was so rich, it didn’t even matter," Pemberton says. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay it. It’s a little ridiculous.”

Generally speaking, unless you're a speculator, the city is incredibly lenient about dilapidated properties and tax liens. Obviously they're going to err on the side of not throwing people out on the street.

by oboe on May 24, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

When I lived in Lansing MI, a city with a big (for a city its size) abandoned house problem, the city had a "make safe or demolish" law in which inspectors could recommend that a city board order that a seemingly abandoned property either be brought up to code within so many days or it would be demolished by the city (with costs and fees charged to the owner or record).

Maybe DC needs something like that. Get aggressive.

by michiganman on May 24, 2012 5:19 pm • linkreport

DC does have such a board, but no one on it seems to want to make the hard decisions:

http://dcra.dc.gov/DC/DCRA/Inspections/Housing+Code+Inspections/Board+of+Condemnation

by William on May 24, 2012 10:56 pm • linkreport

oboe- State of the Union was always boarded up. When we had an epidemic of boarded-up houses in DC in the 80's we had the city concrete block up abandoned buildings all around Logan Circle. The city billed the owners and placed a lien. I'm sure the law is still the same.

Of course if someone claiming to be a legal owner is living there it's tougher, but the city can still go against it as a nuisance to either be repaired and made safe by a owner or the city will do so. If you remember the fire at the Brizill house story, the city had twice forced repairs. Also in Dupont we had the house at 16th and T that was "demolition by neglect" where the city forced the owner to either bring it up to code or the city would and charge the owner.

Once DC decides to move against a nuisance property, it has plenty of ways to force repair.

by Tom Coumaris on May 24, 2012 11:01 pm • linkreport

Once DC decides to move against a nuisance property, it has plenty of ways to force repair.

True, but often times it's a question of political will. Every once in a blue moon, DC gets aggressive about adding properties to the "nuisance" list, and every time there's significant pushback from residents. I think speculators tend to exploit that.

by oboe on May 25, 2012 9:27 am • linkreport

Wow, definitely brave for entering that home. I hope you scouted it out first to know nobody was in there. Great reporting though.

by StringsAttached on May 25, 2012 7:50 pm • linkreport

Interesting, thought provoking post.

One thing I think you should consider, after working in the mental health and substance abuse field for seven and a half years, is the use of person-first language. Instead of labeling someone a crack addict, the language would be, "person suffering from crack cocaine dependence." This emphasizes that they are a human being with goals and strengths, and while they are definitely suffering from their mental health problems or addictions, that alone does not define them.

It's great to see such a thorough series on Historic Anacostia looking at so many different aspects of life there.

by H Street Landlord on May 26, 2012 12:41 am • linkreport

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