Condemning a Church's Properties

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ray Milefsky moved into a rowhouse across from Shiloh Baptist Church in 1986, and pretty soon, he says, he started complaining that the congregation was neglecting dilapidated, vacant properties it owns in his Shaw neighborhood.

Milefsky, a State Department analyst, embarked on a two-decade campaign, calling city agencies and church officials and speaking up at community meetings, all of which prompted little or no response.

That is, until recently.

In the past five weeks, the District has issued condemnation orders on six church properties, seeking to force Shiloh officials to repair and restore what community leaders have long decried as a neighborhood blight.

The city's unprecedented interest, community leaders say, may be rooted in the election of the new mayor, the changing dynamics of a rapidly gentrifying area, and local blogs that have focused on the church's properties, including one solely devoted to what it touts as the "the Negative Impacts of Shiloh Baptist Church on the Shaw Neighborhood." "It's a virtual community," Milefsky said. "Initially, I was a Luddite. Now I'm a true believer. It's doing a good deal of jabbing them right in the belly button."

The Web sites -- there are at least five that have focused on the church -- have tracked the District's actions and Shiloh's response. One blogger, Rob Goodspeed, published a map of the church's seven vacant properties along Eighth and Ninth streets in Northwest Washington. Another, Sommer Mathis, posted photos of the buildings. Another Web site reprinted a 1990 Washington Post article about Shiloh that had the headline "Neighbors Label Church 'Slumlord.' "

"We were amazed that we were having the same conversation 17 years later," Mathis said, adding that her site's Shiloh posts have drawn dozens of comments from readers. "People in the neighborhood were really excited to see someone trying to hold the church accountable."

The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, Shiloh's pastor, compared the Web sites to "crying fire in a crowded theater."

"They are whipping up emotion, using freedom of speech, to create a climate where there's greater anger towards us," he said.

Smith said he attributes the District's crackdown on Shiloh's properties to a combination of factors, including the arrival of more affluent neighbors, as well as the interest of developers "who envision million-dollar condos on Ninth Street."

"It's the perfect storm," he said. "We are under attack by the forces of the new urban professionals who want to drive churches out of the city." While he said the church wants to follow the law, Smith characterized the condemnation orders as an effort to "embarrass us."

Shiloh, which has maintained a congregation at Ninth and P streets since 1924, has long played a powerful role in Shaw. The church has provided counseling to drug addicts, fed the homeless and offered day care for children. At the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980's and early 1990's, Smith said, the church provided a measure of stability in a neighborhood that residents were leaving.

But community leaders and residents say the church has also added to a sense of disrepair in the neighborhood by failing to restore or sell its vacant properties. While developers have begun to fix up and lease buildings along Ninth Street, stretching south to the Washington Convention Center, many properties along the corridor remain vacant.

The church has become an obstacle to Shaw's revitalization, said Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Since moving to the neighborhood a decade ago, Padro estimates that he has complained to the District about the church's properties some four dozen times.

"Probably once every six months there has been a major issue relating to public safety or health with these properties, the buildings being unsecured, homeless individuals lighting candles," he said.

The fire department has on occasion issued violations and the police have secured the buildings, but D.C. agencies have largely ignored the complaints, Padro said. He attributed the city's new focus on Shiloh to the election of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), whom he said is pushing agencies to respond to community groups. He also credited the Internet sites, saying they "helped galvanize public outrage."

At a minimum, Padro said, he hopes the pressure forces the church to secure the vacant properties and ensure they are sanitary.

"It doesn't matter who's living in those buildings as long as it's someone other than rats and termites," he said.

Linda Argo, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issued the violations against Shiloh, said the Fenty administration has initiated a citywide campaign to penalize owners of vacant properties that are not up to code.

"It's not just that we're moving aggressively on Shiloh; we're moving aggressively across the city," she said.

The condemnation orders require that Shiloh fixes roofs, brickwork and gutters and stabilizes interiors. If the church fails to make the repairs in the next few weeks, or at least show the District that it has hired contractors, the city will finance the work and place liens on the properties.

Smith, Shiloh's pastor, said the church is developing a plan for the properties that may involve turning two Eighth Street rowhouses into luxury rentals to help finance the development of affordable seniors housing on Ninth Street.

"We want to be good neighbors," Smith said. "We are doing everything that the city has asked us to do."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company