Last July, a group of Georgetown residents went around their neighborhood jotting down addresses of houses with dual mailboxes or doorbells. A list of 89 such houses found in a six-block area west of Wisconsin Avenue was forwarded to the District housing inspectors.
The scouters, who consider themselves watchdogs over this elite, historic section of the capital, were looking for illegal tenants of "English" basements of single-family homes. Owners of houses with separate-entrances, basements apartments who didn't obtain occupancy permits before 1958 are not allowed to rent them out. Housing more than two roomers without a boarding house permit is also illegal.
For the last 19 years, no single-family homes in Georgetown have been legally converted to rooming houses or multifamily dwellings. The zoning rules were changed in an effort to help maintain the single-family, residential nature of the neighborhood.
But like other areas of the city such as Capitol Hill, Georgetown has hundreds of English basements, ranging from furnace rooms with cots to fully-furnished, carpeted, air conditioned, two-bedroom, furnished suites renting for $350 a month or more.
Seven months after the Georgetown citizens launched their campaign - aimed at reducing parking and traffic congestion and the proliferation of trash cans - housing inspectors have found only eight of the 89 accused houses to be in violation.
Fifty were found to have valid certificates of occupancy, eight were occupied by single families, and 23 have yet to be inspected. City building inspector Stephen McCarthy says an absence of homeowners during inspection hours has hindered his work.
Of the eight homes found to be inviolation, five have been converted back into single-family residenes; two owners haven't been confonted yet and a third is filing an appeal with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
The affair has left a few red faces in Georgetown.
Some are red with frustration, like that of Eva Hinton, a veteran activist with the Citizens Association of Georgetown. For three decades, she has been filing zoning complaints against waht she considers efforts to crowd Georgetown and commercialize it. To accomplish something, zoning violators must be taken to court, she maintains, because there are no builtin penalities for ignoring the zoning laws.
If a homeonwer refuses to comply, the D.C. Corporation Counsel can initiate action. If convicted, the violator can be fined as much as $100 a day until correstion is made. However, building inspectors can't recall the last time a homeowner was prosecuted or fined for illegally renting out an English basement.
Some faces are red with anger, like that of the Prospect Street resident who accused the citizens group of spying on the neighborhood.
Others were afraid reversion to single-family houses would hurt the resale value.
"We wouldn't have bought the house originally without the (rental unit)," said one lawyer who has since sold his N Street residenct. "The agent told us it was technically illegal, but the law is not enforced and you can probably get away with it." The person who bought his house converted it back to a single-family dwelling.
Several basement ordinance violators interviewed recently took a "Why me?" attitude.
"They must have missed oodles," said another Georgetown homeowner. "Why, I can look up and down the street and see at least 10 of the 25 houses have flats. The man across the street has two apartment that must bring him in $600-$700 a month. They're both illegal, but I'm sure he isn't about to give up his tenants.
Some faces are red with embarrassment, like those of Georgetown realtors who resent any aspersions cast on the super-chic, super-expensive area. An agent with the Millicent C. Chatel, Wise & Gilliat firm declared frostily, "We never deal in illegals. Prices have not been affected. There has been no impact whatsover."
But Gertrude d'Amecourt who heads a real estate firm that handles homes in Georgetown, said, "people are more aware (of zoning). There are very few houses on the market now with rental units. It's possible they could have been withdrawn or are advertised otherwise."
The Georgetowner newspaper says "guest suite", the euphemism for rental unit, has been replaced by "finished basement."
Following publicity about the situation engendered by disgruntled homeowners, the Citizens Association of Georgetown published a summary of the regulations and concluded with this statement: "The existence of illegal apartment units has resulted in increases in tax assessments for conforming dwellings, since their higher market value distorts values for the entire neighborhood.
Opponents of the regulation contend that all homeowners would have to do to conform would be to remove the stove from the basements, even though stable renters would then give way to transients.
"People, especially students, are so anxious to live in Georgetown, I could have rented the flat for as much ($350 a month) with just a hot plate," said the attorney who used to live on N Street.
(Hot plates are also out, says James J. Fahey, zoning regulation administrator for the city.)
While the issue appears to have died down in Georgetown. Hinton says she plans to continue making complaints against individuals. The citizens association, which was forced into the position of speaking out against its own members, considers it a dead issue, particularly in light of its fight to keep big developers away from the Georgetown waterfront.
"We realized we had bigger fish to fry," association president Olcott Deming acknowledged.