The red-brick rowhouse in the 200 block of N Street NW sits vacant in a neighborhood with soaring property values, but Donna Barriteau has resisted an offer to sell it. It's the house she grew up in, and the place has been in her family since before the Great Depression.
But development is nonetheless threatening the family homestead -- and not in the way that Barriteau had expected.
A contractor last year started excavating on the vacant lot next door to build a three-story, two-unit apartment building and, in the process, dug under the basement of her house. Her chimney has cracked, and Barriteau is worried about the building's foundation.
She filed suit against the owner of the lot, providing the court with a letter from an architect that said the construction pit was so large and deep that her house was "in imminent danger of collapsing." A D.C. Superior Court judge halted the construction June 30 and ordered the owner to pay Barriteau $26,000 for repairs and attorney's fees. But Barriteau said she has yet to receive any of that money and contends the construction work is still going on.
Some nights, Barriteau said, she awakens suddenly and is so anxious about the N Street house that she drives 15 miles from her home in Glenn Dale to see if the building is still standing.
"In the middle of the night -- 2:30, 3 o'clock, 5 o'clock in the morning -- I'd start crying and tell my husband, 'I've got to go,' " she said.
The lot next to her house is owned by 226 N Street NW LLC of Maryland, according to court records, and city records list Alfonzo Vaughn as the registered agent for that company. In an interview, Vaughn would not comment on Barriteau's allegations, saying only that he is a contractor and not one of the company's partners. No company partners or attorneys are listed in the court file or in city records on the project.
City regulatory officials have said that illegal construction activity is a growing problem in the District, and in the past 18 months inspectors have issued more than 1,400 stop-work orders and levied heavy fines against property owners doing work without proper permits.
Records show that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs first issued a stop-work order on the N Street project in May 2004 because the excavation was taking place without a building permit. The next month, the owner was granted a partial building permit to start digging a foundation but was told to take steps to ensure that the work did not damage Barriteau's property, according to court records.
Before obtaining that permit, the company filed a letter with the agency, dated April 2004, that said the owner of the adjacent house had given permission to construct underground concrete supports extending onto her property.
The letter was signed by Barriteau's great-grandmother, Beatrice M. Hasty, who is still listed in city records as the owner of the rowhouse at 224 N St. NW.
But Hasty died in 1998.
"I can't believe someone forged my great-grandmother's signature," Barriteau said.
Lennox E. Douglas, the acting administrator of the city's Building and Land Regulation Administration, which is responsible for issuing permits, said officials did not contact Barriteau's family because they had no reason to suspect that the letter might be forged.
The June 30 order from D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Campbell barred any further construction under the current city permit, and Douglas said no new permit will be issued until the owner produces new drawings and additional safety assurances. Douglas said city inspectors have been visiting the site regularly and have not seen anyone working at the site recently. But a reporter this week saw evidence of recent masonry work.
Barriteau, a 42-year-old mother of two teenage sons who teaches fifth grade at Marion P. Shadd Elementary School in Southeast Washington, has taken 432 photographs of the project during the dispute. Her paperwork is as thick as a city telephone book.
She said that she was approached by Vaughn last year, soon after the adjacent lot was sold for $450,000, and that he offered to buy her property for $700,000. She said she turned him down. The properties in the Mount Vernon Square area are a short distance from two of the city's newest developments: MCI Center and the Washington Convention Center.
Barriteau said she did not object to the plans to build apartments next door until the construction began affecting her family's home. In addition to destroying part of the walkway to her basement, the digging decimated a brick retaining wall and damaged her chain-link fence.
City transportation officials cited Vaughn this year for doing work that undermined an alley on the other side of the project.
Campbell ordered 226 N Street NW LLC of Maryland to pay $10,000 for repairs to Barriteau's house, $14,561 for her attorney fees and $2,000 for other professional fees. Barriteau said that even if she does eventually get the money, it won't be nearly enough to cover her expenses.
"I feel like I'm ready to give up," she said. "I'm a schoolteacher. I don't have the finances to keep up the battle."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.