There was a time when investing a little money and sweat into a fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood would have been the sensible choice for young home buyers like Samantha Dols, 31, and her boyfriend, Raj Das, 39, who toured the penthouse on a recent Saturday while considering some of the school’s more humble units (including the one with five vintage urinals in the bathroom).
But the penthouse was evidence of the unfathomable wealth seeping into this town — and pooling unexpectedly in neighborhoods that only recently were described as “transitioning.”
“It’s like we’re just tourists,” mused Dols, a PhD student at American University, after gazing at a shower roughly the size of a freshman dorm room, accessorized for some reason with its own aquarium.
Washington has long boasted homes that would be opulent enough for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” if it weren’t for the super-discreet sensibilities of the city’s wealthy. But the multistory, ultraluxury condos for sale in newly gentrified neighborhoods are something else entirely. They’ve ushered in McMansion-style excess to blocks still shared with carryouts and check-cashing places.
“What’s crazy to think about is what it would take to fill it up, and also what it would take to maintain it,” Das added after surveying the penthouse’s shag-carpeted levels.
But it’s already under contract. The question is, who’s buying these places?
Less than a mile from the schoolhouse, in a neighborhood on the fringe of Capitol Hill that two decades ago struggled with crime, an old Gothic-style church has been broken up into six luxury condos, with stained glass windows, private elevators, stark white Italian-
designed kitchens and a stone-lined wine cellar that evokes a European wine cave. Each unit at the Bell Tower at Stanton Park — named for the 130-foot steeple — has been listed at around $2.8 million.
“Real estate has gone up and up and up, to the point where we wonder when it’s going to stop,” said Emily Ehrens Hainline, an agent at TTR Sotheby’s, as her snakeskin heels clacked up a wooden staircase during a tour. “When does it get ridiculous?”
Last year, a single brick-walled condo unit in the Helicopter Factory — yes that’s what it used to be — fetched $2.3 million, shattering the record for its neighborhood adjacent to Howard University. A deal is currently pending on a 3,700-square-foot two-bedroom in another old schoolhouse in Washington’s Eckington neighborhood, wedged between some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and just around the corner from a gas station and a carryout pizza joint; the asking price was just over $1 million.
For decades, the Washingtonians who could afford this much house were more likely to gravitate to the stand-alone mansions nestled alongside embassies in Kalorama or in tony enclaves such as Georgetown or McLean, Va. Members of the Trump administration beelined for these neighborhoods when they arrived, scooping up four of the market’s dozen priciest homes last year.
But the advent of seven-figure condos in Washington’s mixed-
income neighborhoods baffles some old-timers.
David Holmes, a retired former ANC commissioner, bought his own house not far from the new church condos for a song back in the 1990s. He’s all in favor of filling the empty churches, whose African American congregations have slowly migrated to the suburbs.
And at a time of rapid gentrification, the Bell Tower seems like good news: No quaint rowhouse or favorite bodega was harmed. No longtime residents were displaced. While some properties like the Helicopter Factory and the Chapman Stables in Truxton Circle and the countless schoolhouses turned condo had sat crumbling and neglected for years before their extreme makeovers, the decommissioned church was able to avoid that fate.
But Holmes is also a homeowner, and he’s astonished by the multi-million-dollar price tags affixed to — what, exactly? “I can’t understand why people would pay that kind of money for a condo,” he said.
The answer, of course, is because they can — whomever they might be.
The prices of the city's condos — of all homes, really — have spiked in recent years, a chicken-and-egg dilemma caused by the dearth of affordable properties on the market, says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist of online real estate brokerage Redfin. Which is why frugal millennials are looking back toward the suburbs — which leaves the city's housing market to the very wealthy.
Changes in tax law and the recent bullish stock market also help explain the minor glut of multimillion-dollar condos with the heated floors and claw-foot tubs, designed for a particular kind of buyer who is flush with . . .
“Cash, you know?” said Jayne Ehrens, who with her daughter represents all six of the units at the Bell Tower. “Most people have cash in this price range.”
And so the number of homes in that price range grows: “Builders are going after buyers who have cash. And that’s the international buyer, that’s the ultrarich buyer — that’s who they’re building homes for,” Fairweather confirmed.
Still, the wait for the exact right buyer to plunk down money for these pimped-out condos can require a long game, agents say, particularly when the “personal touches” include a wall of urinals in the powder room and neo-Gothic arches curving over your memory foam mattress.
“When you’re dealing with something that has a big personality, the only thing you can do is attempt to market it in that same fashion,” says John Coplen, the Long and Foster agent selling the penthouse and the other units in the Pierce School. You just hope there’s a buyer out there, somewhere, with a taste for a disco-themed bathroom.
“Your audience,” Coplen acknowledged, “is small.”
The typical customers for these luxury condos “have houses all over the world,” said developer Mike Mafi. “It’s their third or fourth or fifth house.” Mafi specializes in decadent homes for precisely that kind of buyer; an unabashedly large Versailles-inspired house he attempted to build in Great Falls sparked controversy. (He built it, eventually, on a different lot, after neighbors in the first location sued.)
Ehrens suspects foreign money could pour into their opulent church. Chinese, for example. “They think we’re so affordable,” she said. “We did have Russia. But, you know, I haven’t seen a lot of Russia recently.”
Perhaps, she added later, with a mischievous glint, there’s a buyer out there in search of “a pied-à-terre.”
A condo like this, explained her daughter, “is a statement piece to show off,” something that makes most of us say, “Maybe someday I can have that” — and others declare, “I have to have that.”
Ehrens smiled. “Like a piece of jewelry.”