The women in towering heels and men in crisp bow ties arrived at the $1.3 million mansion on Church Road clutching their glossy orange-and-black tickets for the evening’s event: “Sunset Upscale VIP. Lavish Caribbean Buffet, Drinks, Hookah, Music.”
Luxury convertibles lined the driveway outside. Women carrying trays of complimentary cognac and vodka shots flanked the entrance inside. And a DJ blasting music danced to the flash of lasers downstairs.
It was 11 p.m., and they were ready to party.
But the “Upscale Mansion Party” — as it was advertised on Instagram and Twitter — wasn’t a flashy Hollywood event or even the scene at an upscale D.C. nightclub. It was one of many unregulated house parties that people are hosting to help pay their bills and that law enforcement officials around the region have been more actively shutting down after complaints from neighbors and public officials, who say they present a multitude of hazards.
In Prince George’s County in particular, promoters say that they have been stymied by recent county laws restricting nightclubs and that renting private homes and mansions allows them to continue putting on exclusive events while helping struggling homeowners pay the mortgage. But authorities across the region say that the parties, which charge admission and are advertised on social media, are hardly Gatsbylike affairs. Police say the events can be dangerous and difficult to regulate.
“A party doesn’t necessarily concern us,” said Lt. Dave Coleman of the Prince George’s police. “We’re worried about these types of parties that can go from party to emergency so quickly.”
Promoters who organize such events say demand is growing for the parties in suburban communities that have few nightlife options. Like a twist on the Harlem rent parties held in the decades leading up to World War II, homeowners are willingly renting out their properties for the dozens of events planned across the region each year.
“Prince George’s County has the highest foreclosure market in the state,” said Lisa Ellis, who works with local promoters and residents through the Metropolitan Business Alliance. “What homeowners are doing is trying to chop down some of this debt, and here is this person who is trying to create a win-win for them. They’ll hear: ‘Your property is perfect. Why not let me put some money in your hands?’ ”
At first, Curtis Valentine thought his neighbors on Clay Drive simply liked to entertain friends with barbecues and pool parties in their yard overlooking National Harbor.
But when the music from around the corner began thumping through Valentine’s walls every weekend, he realized that the house in his Fort Washington neighborhood wasn’t necessarily a home. Cars parked up and down the street, strangers, in their 20s, 30s and 40s, rolled up throughout the night, and by early morning, the neighborhood was soiled by trash and by the occasional partygoer who turned someone’s lawn into a toilet.
“It’s 1 o’clock and I’m standing in my pajamas, and people are looking at me like, ‘Who are you?’ ” Valentine said. “My 5-year-old daughter can’t sleep. They’re dressed like they were going to a club in D.C., and I’m looking at them like, ‘Can you please go home?’ ”
Valentine soon learned that someone was advertising the house on Clay Drive — which started to undergo foreclosure proceedings in 2009 — as both a party venue and bed and breakfast called the Harbor House Estate. Admission to reunion fish fries, Grammy Awards parties and Fourth of July celebrations would cost anywhere from a requested donation to $50 a head, according to Valentine and party invitations online.
“It was trying to create a very Hollywood-like environment of pools, a nice house, alcohol and women,” said Valentine, president of the Riverbend Citizens Association and a Prince George’s County Board of Education member. “One time, they had four different DJs. I don’t understand why you need four DJs.”
For years, Prince George’s worked to shut down nightclubs that sprang up in barbershops, auto-repair garages and other nontraditional venues, said Gary Cunningham, deputy director of the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement. The events, police said, attracted shootings and homicides. But the clubs grew quiet after the county passed legislation in 2011 requiring licenses for dance halls.
“We’ve had a reduction in homicides as a result,” Cunningham said, “but . . . they’ve started looking to other venues to do their events.”
Coleman, the Prince George’s police lieutenant, estimates that five to 12 house parties similar to what Valentine described crop up across the county every weekend. The events are often advertised through fliers posted on social media, usually with themes or dress codes such as “Black and White Formal” or “Grown and Sexy.”
But authorities say charging admission turns the event into a business enterprise, requiring liquor licenses to sell booze, health inspections for food and myriad other regulations.
“It’s a health risk if they’re selling food and setting up urinals that aren’t set up properly for sanitation,” said Genia Reaves, an assistant police commander for southern Prince George’s, where officers are often called for party complaints. “But the main concern is that you have 200 or 300 people and cars in a community that it is not built for that. Emergency vehicles can’t respond because the roadways are blocked. And it takes away from regular calls for services.”
The county tries to stop the parties before they start, and it has shut down about 40 events since the Fourth of July weekend. But social media, Coleman said, makes things complicated.
“Before, when there was a party, it was limited by how many people could find out about it by telephone or word of mouth,” Coleman said. “With the Internet, it is unlimited. Things can get out of hand quickly.”
In July, 300 to 500 people paid $20 for an event in Accokeek advertised as a lavish summer pool party, complete with food and private table service, police said. But when gunshots were heard right outside the event at 1 a.m., partygoers scrambled to flee as police and emergency vehicles struggled to get in. Afterward, 20-year-old Daryl Sylvester King Jr. lay dying in the street, struck by a bullet outside the nearly half-million-dollar home.
King’s death remains unsolved.
Prince George’s County is not the only jurisdiction grappling with problems from immense for-profit parties on private properties.
In Tampa in April, neighbors complained that a $2 million mansion that doubled as a “stripper school” and event venue violated local codes and noise ordinances, according to the Tampa Tribune.
In May, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a lawsuit against a Dupont Circle homeowner alleging that he illegally rented out his 6,000-square-foot mansion on Q Street NW for weddings, parties and concerts. Police were called to the property — advertised on home-renting service Airbnb as the “Celebrity House Hunter Mansion” — for noise violations, disorderly conduct and other complaints more than 100 times in a single year, according to Racine’s office. The homeowner said that he didn’t know he was breaking the law and has since modified his online listing to specify that the house can’t be used for events.
And in Anne Arundel County, a judge approved a restraining order this summer to shut down what was advertised as a “DMV Mansion Pool Party” called “Summer Splash,” according to police. The more than $2 million mansion in Gambrills hosted parties that attracted patrons from all over the East Coast, and a shooting broke out at one of the events, police and residents said.
Moving nightlife into private homes is simply a matter of homeowners and promoters getting creative in a tough market, Ellis said. Promoters are hurting because the county has largely closed venues that can handle the club environment that partygoers want.
“The business owners are just trying to survive, and they figure they can rent out a mansion in foreclosure or large homes in need of capital to fight back,” Ellis said.
Holding events in mansions appeals to promoters because the profit margin can be better. Event organizers who use established nightclubs can get only a cut of sales at the bar. But at mansion parties, promoters can buy their own alcohol to sell at a markup of 300 percent or more as well as pocket admission fees, event organizers say.
But the risks are much higher in homes, where security companies may not be licensed and bonded and where the guy behind the bar is just some event organizer’s cousin, said Wayne Johnson, an event planner who works with only established nightclubs in the District.
“You can’t regulate a house,” Johnson said. “If something happens at a club, you lose your license and nightclubs can lose their entire investment. But if something happens at your house, they’re not going to take your house from you. No one is at fault.”
That was partly why it took nearly two years before the county was able to close down the Harbor House Estate, according to Valentine.
The parties are not criminal enterprises under county regulations, but instead are simple zoning violations. The county is drafting legislation that aims to make the $250 fine steeper and the operations criminal.
“If you’re making, say, $20,000 a night,” Cunningham said, “$250 is just the cost of doing business.”
A woman listed as the property owner for what was billed as the Harbor House Estate did not return calls for comment, and the property owner listed for the mansion that hosted the Sunset Upscale event hung up the phone when contacted by a reporter. Several event organizers said the homeowners they work with did not or would not want to discuss why they rent out their homes or mansions. Some — who are preparing their homes for foreclosure or sale — were embarrassed to discuss the matter, promoters and Ellis said.
Mark Sesay, 26, who organizes events throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District, said many of the people he works with tend to be discreet, for obvious reasons. He added that mansion parties are emerging markets that are safe places where young professionals have an opportunity to network. He said he has not had any problems with violent behavior in the three years he’s been throwing the parties around the region.
“Some of these homeowners have lawyers helping them,” Sesay said. “There’s only a select few open to doing it.”
Promoter Damola Ademiluyi, who owns Fortunate Minds, said that property owners often will advertise that their homes are for rent for events. Many will install sound systems and block off private living spaces for the purpose of hosting the large event. And depending on the amenities and space, Ademiluyi said, promoters pay between $1,500 to $3,000 to rent a mansion for an event.
“We reach out to anybody who is looking for a way to pay their mortgage,” Ademiluyi said. “For a night or a day, you got half your mortgage paid off in one weekend.”
The exclusivity and ambiance of a mansion party appeals to a clientele avoiding the typical club scene, he said. And the events often draw revelers from students to young professionals across the DMV out for everything from birthdays, to school homecomings to business networking events.
Responsible event organizers, he said, keep the venue location secret until the night of the party. And many arrange party busses or shuttles from empty shopping center parking lots to the venue to reduce traffic in residential neighborhoods.
Parties can quickly get out of hand for inexperienced event organizers who don’t hire security or conduct crowd control, Ademiouyi admitted. But the answer is to work with promoters and create safe places for events, rather than shut them down completely.
“There needs to be some nightlife affairs division in the government,” Ademiouyi said.
Longtime promoter Butchie Farrell, who works in Maryland, the District and Virginia, said the county’s previous crackdown on nightclubs pushed people underground, with the number of venues shrinking but the demand for nightlife still there. He often attends the events as does his son.
“A lot of individuals are having house parties because there is nothing going on in Prince George’s County right now,” Butchie Farrell, a longtime promoter in the region, said. “Why patronize D.C. and Virginia when I live in Maryland and someone is having a party two miles away from my house?”
This story has been updated to reflect more reporting from mansion party promoters.