The District government has spent about $2 million since 1992 to rent two boarded-up, graffiti-covered apartment buildings in Columbia Heights that are owned by a Maryland real estate partnership.
The vacant, blighted buildings at 15th and Girard streets NW, which at times have been used as a crack house and squatters' home, are costing the city nearly $290,000 a year in rent, based on a lease that extends to December 2006.
Then-Mayor Marion Barry signed the lease for the two buildings in December 1986, and the District's Department of Human Services used the side-by-side buildings as a homeless shelter until 1992. The apartments, owned by Bethesda lawyer Louis Pohoryles and his partners, have sat unused and rotting ever since -- even though a story in The Washington Post in 1995 detailed the city's continued spending on the properties.
"This is outrageous, so terribly wasteful it makes me angry," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose district includes the Columbia Heights area. "To think we are wasting so much of our scarce dollars."
Interim City Administrator Norman Dong, who said he only recently became aware of the situation, said he and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) are committed to working quickly to find a solution.
"This is just stupid. It reflects the worst mismanagement and abuse of the past administrations," said Dong, who has asked the District's property management office to provide him with a list by today of all run-down or vacant properties the city rents or owns. "I am horrified the District government is responsible for these blighted properties in Ward 1."
The city closed the Family Living Center in early 1992 after Human Services placed too many families in the buildings and did so little maintenance that the apartments became uninhabitable, said Kenneth R. Kimbrough, the District's chief property management officer.
Conditions have worsened since. Thieves broke in and stripped the buildings of heat pumps, plumbing pipes, lighting, even cabinets. Drug addicts set up crack dens and the homeless used the abandoned buildings as shelter. Late last year, a squatter started a fire in one of the buildings, causing structural damage.
The city has recently installed fresh boards and concrete over missing windows and doors to prevent anyone from entering the premises. Kimbrough said that the brick apartment buildings are still assigned to Human Services and that it is that agency's responsibility to maintain them and, if they are vacant, determine an alternative use.
The city's current bill for the properties and their 23 apartments totals $24,154 a month, or about $1,050 per apartment.
But Madelyn Andrews, a Human Services spokeswoman, said her agency turned over its homeless operations to a private-sector group several years ago and no longer has any need for the buildings.
"We are in the human service business, not the property acquisition or property management business," she said, adding that her agency has asked city administrators to try to resolve the matter.
The lease, which Kimbrough called unusually generous to the landlord, holds the District entirely responsible for the upkeep of the buildings and requires that they be returned to the landlord in "good repair and good appearance" at the end of the lease. He estimated that renovating the buildings would cost the city about $1 million.
If the District keeps paying rent on the properties until the lease expires, it will spend another $2 million.
City memorandums dating to 1991 indicate that officials have realized since then that terminating the lease would require the District to pay the landlord the full amount of unpaid rent. In recent months, The Staubach Co., a real estate management firm hired by the city, has met several times with the landlord to discuss a settlement.
Under one proposal, according to a confidential city memorandum obtained by The Post, the city would threaten to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the buildings, then the city or a neighborhood nonprofit group would offer the landlord $1.3 million to buy the buildings outright and convert them into condominiums or co-ops. City assessment records put the current combined value of 1480 Girard St. and 2809 15th St. at $675,400.
Pohoryles, who purchased the buildings with his partner in 1986 for about $400,000 before investing $1 million on renovations, said he would consider such an agreement with the city.
"We've been cooperating with the District all along," he said. "Nobody wants to see that property abandoned."
Graham said what most disturbs him is that it has taken the city so long to seek out a solution.
"How have more than five years slipped by with no productive use whatsoever?" he said. "It makes no sense."
Dong said the city will now move swiftly to reach an agreement. "I want to make sure we are being as aggressive as possible in understanding what our options are and then in pressing forward," he said.
While the city figures out what to do with the properties, the buildings continue to deteriorate.
Rain leaks through broken windows on upper floors and putrid odors drift at times from the structures, which are filled with rotting mattresses, knocked-out walls and human waste left by squatters. The grounds around the buildings serve as a neighborhood junkyard. Outside 1480 Girard, an empty beer can, broken glass and other trash could be found yesterday, just underneath a bumper sticker on the front door that read: "It's a D.C. Thang!"
Neighbors of the two buildings were angry yesterday to learn that the city is responsible for the blighted structures.
"They are taking money out of my taxes to pay for that, for an empty building," said William Roberts, 47. "The District government is crazy. Crazy."
CAPTION: At one time, the buildings at 15th and Girard streets NW were a city shelter for the homeless. Since then, they have been used as a crack house and squatters' home.