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Building Razing Puts D.C. In Court

Owner Informed After the Fact

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page B01

The vacant apartment building in Marshall Heights had no roof but good bones. So Erika R. Brown snapped it up from the District at a tax sale. She planned to renovate it for affordable housing.

A month later, Brown's phone rang. It was her appraiser, asking if she had changed her mind and decided to raze the building.

Erika R. Brown had hoped to renovate an apartment building that stood at 5004 D St. SE before the District razed it. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"I said, 'No, what are you talking about?' and he said, 'Well, they're wrecking it right now,' " Brown recalled.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had condemned the building more than two years earlier and was finally executing a demolition order. Meanwhile, a trust set up by the District government had taken the building for nonpayment of taxes and sold it to Brown, without knowing it was on the demolition list.

Neither agency knew about the other's actions because neither filed the required updates to land records, according to legal filings.

"Everybody I tell this story to says, 'Oh my God, only in D.C.,' " Brown said.

"At the time I thought it was a complete mistake and that it would be pretty easily rectified," Brown said. "But it has come down to this huge, incredibly expensive process."

Brown wants the District to reimburse her the cost of replacing what was torn down, which she said would cost $1.9 million to build today. The District has offered $150,000 to settle the case.

The District has refused to acknowledge its mistakes and, in a series of Kafkaesque legal arguments, has dragged the issue out in court for two years and counting.

The facts are these: In June 1999, the District foreclosed on a four-story building at 5004 D St. SE. In August 2000, the regulatory agency condemned the building and ordered its demolition. In March 2002, the trust sold the 16-unit building to Brown for $95,000.

Thirty-one days later, on April 15, 2002, a D.C. contractor turned it into rubble.

"It is a nightmare -- on a good day and after a few drinks," said Gary M. Sidell, Brown's attorney, who said the District is fighting Brown's request for nearly $2 million with all of its formidable resources.

The District is arguing that it gave proper warning before demolition, even though it admits it did not notify Brown.

The trust, District TLC Trust 1996, set up by the city to seize and sell foreclosed properties, failed to record that it took title to 5004 D St. As a result, the D.C. Board for the Condemnation of Unsanitary Buildings sent the demolition notices to the building's previous owner, the East Benning Corp.

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