The apartment building in the 4900 block of Nash Street in Northeast Washington is empty, boarded up to keep out vagrants. But out back, the overgrown yard is very much in use.
Scattered about are a refrigerator, a bookcase, a record player, a bed, an office chair and two toilets, along with a rusted Cadillac and dozens of tires.
"This is like a used furniture wholesale lot," observed Deanwood Heights resident Queen Parks, who lives nearby. In fact, the items have been dumped here illegally, next to dozens of empty liquor bottles and fast-food wrappers.
Residents in low-income and transitional neighborhoods across the city have been complaining for years about abandoned properties, which they say are havens for drug dealers and illegal dumping and eyesores that depress home values and community morale.
Now, frustrated residents are going to new extremes. Some are cleaning the lots themselves, while others are being more provocative, such as the Deanwood neighbors who dumped trash on a D.C. Council member's lawn last month.
"It's a shame," said Steven Dooley, a community organizer who works in Deanwood and other areas. "These lots decimate a community. . . . If the city does not take care of a community, it sends a message."
City leaders have responded with a program -- the Home Again Initiative -- that they hope will allow them to more quickly seize abandoned properties, then sell them to developers for renovation and resale.
However, the sheer number of vacant lots -- combined with the tedious task of inspecting them, citing negligent owners and, if necessary, seizing properties through tax liens or eminent domain -- has made the process laborious and time-consuming, officials said.
There are 2,710 abandoned properties in Washington, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The Home Again program has a full-time staff of six.
"All the needs in the city far exceed the resources we have as a government," said Howard Ways, who coordinates neighborhood revitalization for the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development. "The challenge is where do we invest our resources today to demonstrate an impact and get people to believe in the program so it can work and then we can replicate it and move into other neighborhoods?"
Under the city's Homestead program, which previously oversaw abandoned houses, the District sold individual properties to residents or nonprofit agencies. But many new owners, often inexperienced with major renovations, had difficulty completing promised upgrades.
Under the Home Again initiative, the city sells bundles of properties to screened nonprofit or for-profit developers who agree to renovate them within a year or lose the property to the city. When officials launched the program last spring, they predicted that 150 lots would be converted into single-family homes by fall 2002 and another 100 by October 2003.
That was optimistic. Next month, officials will complete the sale of the first 45 properties to developers. Another 20 are up for bid.
"I am frankly kind of bewildered why it is taking so long," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council committee that oversees consumer and regulatory affairs. "A year later, we're only ready to put 45 properties out there? I don't know why you couldn't have 450 out there right now. We've got to be way more aggressive."
Many residents agree. When the city drew up neighborhood improvement plans recently, 11 of the 39 neighborhoods identified abandoned properties among their chief concerns. In Deanwood Heights, the issue ranked No. 1.
Deanwood is tucked in the far eastern corner of the city, bordering the Maryland line. The median household income for its roughly 14,000 residents is $28,729 -- far below the citywide figure of $43,001 -- and some wonder if that is why the neighborhood has not received more attention from City Hall.
Deanwood's plight illustrates Washington's unique challenge, officials said. Unlike such cities as Philadelphia and Baltimore, where entire blocks of houses and businesses have been abandoned, Washington, with a hot housing market, has vacant properties scattered within otherwise vibrant neighborhoods.
In Deanwood, well-manicured homes sit next to boarded up shells with piles of trash and old tires. Empty lots with overgrown brush, some next to schools, are visible every few blocks.
Even the vacant apartment complex on Nash Street sits between two apartment buildings filled with families with young children.
Residents, including Courtney Wood, who has three daughters, complain that the abandoned properties lure drug dealers and homeless people, and the trash piles attract rats, raccoons and opossums.
"It's disgusting," Wood said. "We want the city to clean this up like they would do in any other neighborhood in the city."
About 20 Deanwood residents, including Wood, dumped trash on the lawn of their D.C. Council representative, Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), last month after charging that he had failed to deliver on a promise to have the city clean 11 of the neighborhood's most troublesome lots. Other Deanwood leaders say Chavous has been supportive.
"I have been working with [Deanwood leaders], breaking it down lot by lot in terms of what they want to do," Chavous said last month. "I don't have the power to make city agencies do things. I can only put in the request."
Deanwood residents will have to be patient. With abandoned lots so widespread, officials are focusing their limited resources on five neighborhoods they believe are most attractive to developers: Columbia Heights, Shaw/LeDroit Park, Near Northeast, Ivy City/Trinidad and Rosedale.
Even in those neighborhoods, however, the process has proved painstakingly slow.
The Home Again program was established to take advantage of new housing and tax laws that the D.C. Council adopted over the past two years. The laws gave the city more power to foreclose on abandoned properties or seize them through eminent domain.
The Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Deparment established a database to track the properties. Eighty-eight properties have been registered, and the city has yet to seize any lots because of lingering legal questions.
Angela White Narain, a Home Again project manager, has been trying to wrest control of an abandoned house in Trinidad for several months. After researching public records, she found the name of the owner, against whom the city had issued tax liens, and sent three letters proposing a friendly acquisition.
When the letters came back unopened, Narain said, she hired a private investigator, who discovered that the owner had sold the property. Now, Narain must begin the letter-writing process again.
"We need more laws," Narain said. "Clearing the title, dealing with the estate, doing liens . . . it takes time. If we had legislation that automatically gave us clear title, it would be great. Right now, it's just cumbersome."
The abandoned apartment complex on Nash Street is a vivid example of how long vacant properties can remain out of the government's reach. Martin Properties Inc. is the most recent registered owner of the property, having registered in 1986, according to city records. Because that company has not paid taxes and has not kept the building in good condition, the consumer affairs department and Office of Tax and Revenue have levied more than $30,000 in fines against it.
The city shouldn't expect payment soon, however. Martin Properties went out of business 10 years ago, said Philip J. McNutt, a Rockville attorney who worked on a legal matter involving the company. The city has tried to sell the complex at tax sale auctions for years and has yet to find a buyer.
Ambrose said she is willing to sponsor more legislation to help the city get tougher on owners of vacant properties. "If it's going to be too difficult without some adjustment, what are the adjustments we need? Let's get moving on them," she said.
Despite these setbacks, more than 200 properties have been removed from the city's list of abandoned lots since May because the owners, perhaps spurred by the city's newly aggressive posture, have gotten work permits, officials said.
For Deanwood residents, however, this is little solace.
"This is what they call 'cleaning up?' " Queen Parks wondered aloud on a recent day, pointing at stripped cars and debris piling up at a vacant lot near her house that the city had cleared recently.
"Please," Parks scoffed. "This whole area is outrageous. This is what we get for our tax dollars? I don't feel represented by my city."