D.C. Auction Sells Off 29 Home Properties, Nets Nearly $5 Million

By Hamil R. Harris and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 31, 2009

City officials put 29 houses on the auction block yesterday at the old D.C. Council chamber in Judiciary Square, and bargain hunters packed the room and formed a line out the door.

They brought their hopes and fat certified checks -- $10,000 was required to bid.

"Okay, ladies and gentlemen, let us go to 475 Florida Avenue," auctioneer Paul Cooper bellowed. "I got $90,000 on the front row. I got $130,000. How about 140? Is that 140 standing in the back? I got 250 seated in the back. I got $290,000. Once. Twice. Final call. Sold!"

As Cooper spoke in a rapid cadence, a few veteran buyers shook their heads -- $290,000 for that? -- saying too many properties were selling for way more than they were worth. But the spenders didn't mind.

"I renovate properties throughout D.C., and this was a good opportunity to pick up properties," said Scott Zimmerman of Capital City Real Estate, who paid $380,000 for the first auctioned property.

Professional developers helped drive up the bids.

Leila F. Edmonds, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said the auction went well, with properties selling for the top dollar amount of $400,000 and as cheaply as $35,000. The auction satisfied two goals, she said: netting nearly $5 million that officials plan to invest in affordable housing programs and putting mostly dilapidated housing back on the market in 18 months.

It was the first time in about a decade that the city held a home auction this large, a department spokeswoman said.

Houses up for auction -- what Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had called "neighborhood eyesores" -- stood faded and boarded up in numerous communities, including Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Deanwood, Anacostia and 16th Street Heights.

Many potential buyers left disappointed, having been priced out by the big players.

Elder Myron Noble, head of Middle Atlantic Regional Gospel Ministries, came to bid on a property at 100 Bryant St. in LeDroit Park. The house has practical and sentimental value for Noble, having served for decades as a meeting house for a Pentecostal student group at Howard University. But Noble could only watch as the bidding soared above the $200,000 he was prepared to pay.

"I wanted to return it to the faith-based community," he said.

In the audience of about 150 was Noble's competition, Pastor Bruce Clark of Advance Church of Silver Spring. He had his own plans for the house on Bryant: to turn the building into a facility to minister to at-risk youths. But when he learned that the weather-beaten house needs $200,000 more in renovations, Clark walked away.

In the end, neither minister got the property, which went for nearly $400,000.

With the auctioneer crying out, and dozens of people shouting back at him, thrusting numbered white placards in the room's sweltering air, a bedlam seemed to wrack the old council chambers. Fire marshals pushed part of the overflow crowd out the double doors.

Haile Bereket had his eyes on a prize: a property at 304 13th St. NW. He was willing to pay $120,000, but the winning bid more than doubled that, at $300,000.

Eyeing the action, Ijaz Bhatti, 53, of Silver Spring seemed enthralled. "I have never seen an auction as big as this," he said. Bhatti came as a participant looking for "an investment property," he said. He left as an empty-handed bystander. Harold Johnson, a savvy and successful owner of Project Resources International, said the auction was a good event for the city. But the new homeowners were at the first step of a larger challenge. A big fix -- hammering, nailing and sawing with dust flying -- is in their futures.

"I think it is great for the District to raise revenue and to get property off the books, but the proof is in the pudding and the renovation," Johnson said.

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