Dear PoPville – The Government Wants to Take our House

Dear PoPville,

We really need your help. We are the owners of 1544 9th Street, NW. (corner of 9th and Q — I actually think it got one of your horse’s you-know-what awards shortly before we bought it). When we bought the home in October 2010 it had been vacant for a decade, and it had no plumbing, no electricity, no windows, neon green plaster on the outside, and only half a roof. We sank our life savings and a construction loan into rehabbing it and we think this has greatly improved the corner of 9th and Q.

The day before we were finally supposed to move in (summer of 2011), the city threatened to take the home from us through eminent domain because they wanted to annex it onto the three vacant buildings that will be the CG Woodson museum one day. I think I can say that was one of the most upsetting days of my life. We fretted and lost much sleep over it, but eventually prevailed (with an enormous amount of help from our Councilmember — at the time, it was Mr. Evans). Eventually, we received a letter from the Office of Economic Planning and Development, assuring us that the government would not take our house from us. I still have this letter.

Yesterday, someone emailed to me the plans for the Dr. Woodson Museum. The first thing I noticed was that the annexing of our home is still one of the options (and indeed seems to be one of the “preferred” options). This is just so upsetting. Our house has nothing to do with Mr. Woodson — he did not live here, nor did he even live in the house next door. He lived three houses over. If they are interested in simply adding another house beyond the three they already have, they should look on the other side of Mr. Woodson’s house, to the row of still-vacant houses owned by Shiloh, instead of kicking me and my family out of our home.

In sum: we are NOT interested in selling to the National Park Service, and they know this. I thought we were done with this nonsense. I knew rehabbing this house would be a hard project and I didn’t expect any thanks from DC, but these repeated thinly veiled threats to now steal the house they cared nothing for until someone else restored it are beyond anything I could have conjured up.

I think it would be incredibly helpful to have the community express opposition against annexing our house onto the CG Woodson museum.

The comment period with the National Park Service closed but if you are interested in registering an opinion, can contact the NPS at the following address/number, and ask for Alexcy Romero, who is the superintendent of National Capital Parks-East, and apparently intimately involved with the project.

1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington D.C. 20242
(202) 619-7000

Thanks again for whatever you can do. This whole thing makes me feel kind of powerless, but it is good to know people care and are willing to help.

47 Comment

  • You guys did a great job at the reno. I kinda wish you were installing an outdoor cafe inside your hedges, though 🙂

    Best of luck.

  • I would recommend that the homeowner consider contacting the Institute for Justice. IJ is an Arlington-based public interest law firm, and a lot of the work they do focuses on protecting homeowners from eminent domain abuses.

  • You do have a real estate attorney on this, right? Be sure you get someone experienced in eminent domain cases. I would not wait until something happens – as long as the the NPS plan still shows that your place is a target, assume that they intend to pursue it to your detriment. Good luck.

  • Arent they going to give you enough money to buy another house, presumably more house?

    • anon. gardener

      i’d almost think the renovation would make it less attractive to NPS, since they have to pay market value for the property if they want to exercise eminent domain, and the market value of that house must be huge now.

    • A relative who lost a house to eminent domain got enough money for a new house, for a summer house, and to retire.

  • mind boggling that the government would want to take the only productive property on that stretch of 9th street!

    You should get a giant billboard and hang it off your roof with an arrow pointing at your house that says occupied and one pointing down 9th that says abandoned.

  • anon. gardener

    You certainly need to stay vigilant, but buried deep within the NPS planning document is this statement: “Due to the recent purchase of building 1544,
    its acquisition by the National Park Service is not feasible for the foreseeable future. If the acquisition of an additional property appears to be warranted, then the park would assess possible options through a boundary study.”

    They seem to understand that you are NOT willing to “sell or donate” your property. But personnel changes, so while you can probably relax a little, you need to keep monitoring the situation.

  • anon. gardener

    And can I just say, I am in awe of the job you did on your house!

  • 1. Get a lawyer with eminent domain experience and talk to the Institute for Justice as noted by “Anonymous”

    2. If you read the NPS plan, your house is included in one of the two options for the “preferred alternative.” The language they use in the document is not “we are going to buy this property” but that they have the authorization to buy it “from a willing seller” – their language (page iv). Bottom line is, it seems that NPS is not that interested in buying your house given that they purchased the other two buildings in 2005 and 2006 but didn’t make a move to buy yours.

    It’s pretty financially irresponsible for the NPS or the city to pass on this property when it’s a dump and then say “oh yeah gotta have that” when it’s been fixed up and has to be bought for more. They’d probably have to completely redo the building anyway.

    But definitely get a lawyer so the city doesn’t come calling again trying to screw you over.

  • I know some people at the Institute for Justice and I passed your story along to them as well. They’ve been successful in some cases in the past, and at the least would have legal advice for you.

  • Yeah, I am not sure what happened here. The NPS has been apparently planning the museum on this and adjacent sites since they got money allocated for it in 2003, and this house was on the Districts blighted list for the better part of a decade.

    So there are a bunch of questions, like how this house got sold in the first place if it was already slated to be destroyed? It seems weird that there were no Title or settlement issues.

    Assuming the NPS and District are entirely to blame, you aren’t likely to have much luck. Uncle Sam more often than not gets its way in domain cases for feel good things like museums. Frankly I think taking even more valuable real estate off the DC tax rolls is a bad idea, but the Feds wouldn’t give a tinkers damn.

    You can fight it, but I’ve seen a few of these cases locally and at this point the best you might be able to hope for is pushing for more money than the standard appraisal will provide. I know an extra 50-100K over your sunk costs is a small prize when you don’t want to sell the house you’ve spent so much effort on, but it “is what it is”.

  • Are you a member of a civic association? Are you working with them?

  • I’m another neighbor. Would love to meet y’all — the reno has been looking great. (And I’d LOVE to see the inside).

    For what it is worth, I am fairly confident that the alternative that included buying your house is legacy from old plans. The NPS has been working on this project for several years–long before you purchased the property. So this language remains because the options were set sometime between 2006 and 2008. Now that there is no longer a seller for the property, you should be fine.

    • As someone who works for a business involved in this project, I can say with absolute confidence that the inclusion of 1544 is from old plans. The current plans include 1538 (the Woodson home) and 1540 & 1542. Indeed, the very letter you’ve linked to doesn’t mention 1544!

  • I’m happy for you that it looks like the government has steped back from trying to acquire your property; however, simply because your property has nothing to do with Dr. Woodson doesn’t meant that the government should not be able to exercise its right of emininent domain. Takings for the public good are well established and they are not going to stop happening anytime soon. As long as you are property compensated, and proper procedures are followed, it’s just a fact of life. How do you think many public projects in the U.S. were completed. The government needed land ahnd they took it after compensating the landowners. Wheter the compensation is fari is another question, but it is well within the government’s powers.

    • It may be within the government’s right, but we need to make damn sure it meets the definition of public good. This is a beautiful house, the kind of thing this city needs more of, and the taking of it should not be considered lightly. Too many examples of the government invoking ED only to replace what was there with either outright dreck or things that are peripheral to the public interest. The use of ED for “urban renewal” projects that gave us gems like L’Enfant Plaza for example is pretty sad. So is the Kelo case.

      • Agree – the definition of “public good” is pretty difficult to apply to a museum especially to an obscure, though admiral and historically important person. Especially when many more people would encounter him if included in the new museum of African American history on the mall.

        Also, years ago when the NPS was holding public hearings on changes to Rock Creek park, one of the officials told me that a lot of their various “alternative” plans are simply presented to fuflill paperwork requirements.

        Well done on the house!

        • There is tons of settled case law on takings and what constitutes a “public good.” Just because someone spends money to create a dream home dosen’t necessarily give them the right to keep that home if it is in the public interest for the government to do somthing else with that property.

  • Agreed with everyone else that you did a great job on the house.

    While the city may have backed off, if this is a NPS project there’s a whole different bureaucracy that’s not bound by any city decision, and the left hand over there often has no idea what the right hand is doing. So anongardener’s advice is sound. Just keep an eye on the situation and it certainly couldn’t hurt to have a 1/2 hour consultation with a real estate lawyer who deals with eminent domain.

    More (somewhat) good news. NPS is bound by the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act. While I understand that there’s more at stake here than money, at least the money and assistance guaranteed under the Act are such that you won’t get financially screwed. Here’s some guidance from the NPS on the subject:

    If you read the regs, pay attention to Section 24.401. It’s the part that entitles a homeowner-occupant who’s been in the house for more than 180 days to a replacement housing payment over and above the purchase price.

  • You all did a wonderful job on your home! Best of luck to you!!

  • I’d suggest working to get the other options out of their roadmap. If their documentation states that they want your house, get a lawyer to get them to update everything so there is NO room for interpretation (i.e., so it says while party X is still a willing owner of the property NPS will take no action to acquire the property, be it via an arm’s-length process or through eminent domain). Any fuzziness in the language can only screw you in the end.

  • p.s. put some shutters on the windows and add a little pop of color. Looks great.

  • I much prefer the plan to have the purple line barrel through Columbia Country Club. When i think of eminent domain, I think greater good public works project that substantially benefits a large segment of the community (Nationals Park is a good example locally). I think doing it for small projects like this is an abuse, although probably legal provided they give you fair market value. Good luck. My sense is the more publicity you can get the better. I can almost hear that annoying redheaded guy on channel 4 now telling your tale.

  • OK, I didn’t read through this whole thing. I would be very angry as you appear to be, but there’s a few things to step back and look at. First thing I want to point you to wording on page 55 (72 overall) of the proposal I downloaded from the NPS website:
    “1544 9th Street, NW – Option two proposes actions for building
    1544 that would take place only upon its acquisition through donation or purchase from a willing seller and subsequent addition to the park boundary.”
    They term that as WILLING seller. That’s a good thing.

    On the other hand, I’d be upset with several things I see from just breezing through the proposal. First all the photos they use are during the period that your house is dilapidated (before your purchase and renovation which occurred a while ago). I think since this appears to still be in the PUD process and has since been submitted to the public for comment (which sadly that period ended yesterday) it’s an unfair representation of what the current state of that block is (someone might say, yeah annex that building, it looks terrible and vacant).

    Secondly the plans show large classroom, store, and visitor center spaces. Depending on local citizens analysis of what they think this building needs, this could be very desirable to have, again putting your argument in a disadvantage. I should note that the text stated your building would be used for mechanical and in-house support so I don’t see that accurately reflected in the plans (unless they only meant the restrooms and offices originally).

    Third: Estimated costs don’t appear to incorporate acquiring your home. The one-time costs only increase by $1.1 million and that appears to be fore construction only. Where’s the cost of purchasing your home from you either via eminent domain or willing seller? They don’t seem to address that (again, haven’t read 100%). That could sway public opinion also.

    Finally keep in mind that these large PUD documents are evolving creatures, not one time spur of the moment things. Meaning the architect/planner behind this probably has a large evolving PUD proposal that’s been going on for years. Not all parties may be privy to the information of your complaint and confirmation of no eminent domain. Subsequently, I don’t see the use of imminent domain in the proposal. That’s good, and they simply could be using your building as an option because they want to keep all options on the table (and the planners like that option the most for obvious reasons) but realize that’s only on the unlikely scenario that they can convince you to sell. This is standard in PUD design process and perhaps should not worry you too much. Just check with your CM, NPS, and anyone else you can to confirm that you don’t want to sell and they won’t use eminent domain.

  • Does anyone know the name of the plants in the yard?

  • As a friend of the owner, I can say that this house is beautiful on the inside and out. It is a fantastic revitalization of the area and one can only hope that the feds and the DC government will encourage future growth like this by backing down. Thanks for all the support commenters!

  • How many houses do they need for this museum, anyway? Is it going to have a roller coaster and water rides?

  • First, you did an amazing job rehabbing the place – congratulations!

    Second, I’m so sorry you are having to go through this, having your living situation frought with this kind of turmoil is unsettling and I would hope no one has to experience something such as this.

    I think a question remains in terms of the contract or how the home/property was bought (who sold it and did they actually have the authority to do so)? I’m assuming it was city-sold property. Depending upon the terms of the sale when you bought it will likely be helpful in determining how much ground you have to stand on now. I say this not to say that you are at fault but only to try to look at this realistically.

    I really hope this works out for you and wish you and your family for a favorable resolution that works well for you.

  • “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, and government to gain ground.”-Thomas Jefferson

    “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have,”–Gerald R. Ford (often attributed to Jefferson)

    Be careful who you vote for.

  • brookland_rez

    F the DC gov’t. Sorry, but I’ve been dealing with my own issues with them.

    • Not just the DC Government. The Federal Government — A lot of this project is due to our’s truly Rep. Norton!

      The Federal government is out of control!

      Did anyone read the story in USAtoday regarding the new rules/law regarding ADA and hotel pools. That all pools must now have a ramp or lift.

      Simply ridiculous!

  • When I look out my front window, I now see a dark blue renovated home where there used to be a decrepit abandoned building that was falling apart.

    As a neighbor, I can’t tell you how happy I am that the new owners took on the task of giving the building the facelift it needed.

    It sounds like the immediate crisis may have been averted, but I think many of the neighbors in the area would come to the owners defense if NPS tried to force them out again.

  • I walk by this building nearly everyday and I truly love the restoration you’ve done. You have a beautiful home. I can’t imagine living with this threat. Good luck to you and your family.

  • I sent the following to the Park Service last night:

    Tonight’s the last night to comment on the Park Service’s plan to
    leave the Woodson properties a wreck. Please respond, if you can,
    before 2:00AM to

    Here are my passioned comments:
    I was disheartened, but not surprised, to read that you are giving our
    community two –actually one-and-a-half — options on the disposition
    of the Carter G. Woodson site: 1) keep the site you purchased for more
    than three million dollars a boarded-up ruined hulk, or, pending the
    acquisition of the handsomely restored corner property as a residence,
    2) turning the place into an empty shell with someone to interpret
    vacant rooms for us in the three buildings you’ve left to rot and
    decay. For the love of G-d, just sell the properties and get the way
    out of the dynamic growth of our neighborhood. Keep your hands off the
    corner property, which the current owners have lovingly and handsomely
    restored as their home. They were unaware of your nefarious scheme to
    grab their home from them. If you paint and drywall the interiors and
    dress someone up to tell us about Woodson in dialected English, you
    will be horrendously dishonoring the work and accomplishments of
    Woodson the scholar and the man, and waste our tax dollars in a scheme
    no one will want to visit — like Lincoln’s summer home up in the
    Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, access to which is neigh to impossible.
    Please, just return the properties to human habitation — and stop
    paying off ASAALH.
    Why was there no public hearing on this?

  • If taking your home is still a possibility (and several commenters say it’s not), I think it would be unfortunate for you and your family. But it would not be theft. The constitution doesn’t allow governments (city, state, or federal) to steal anyone’s private property. But it does allow governments to take that property for a public good in exchange for just compensation. So you may lose your property, but you are entitled to be paid for the loss.

  • A couple of thoughts to add in:

    I have been a planner for many years and I would suggest you work with a real estate lawyer and the NPS to remove any mention of your property from the plan. As long as taking it is mentioned as a possibility, particularly in the preferred option, you have to assume it will happen, eventually.

    Your lawyer will give you real detail, but typically once you get into the eminent domain process, you will have little recourse – generally at that point the legal arguments will focus on much money you should receive, not whether or not your house should be taken. Yes, it has to be a justifiable public good, but a museum use is a pretty solid public good.

    So again, it will be in your best interest to proactively seek to have mentions of your house completely removed from the plan – do not let even the ‘willing seller or donation’ phrase remain.

    And, you probably know this, but just a reminder – if this is an NPS project the city won’t automatically be able to stop it or protect you. The city definitely cannot give you any garantees about what the NPS might or might not do. Don’t assume the city or the NPS is your friend.

    Sorry to sound negative, but I know how plans can take on a life of their own and be progressing when no one seems to be looking. I am not connected in any way with this project but I do know that there has been great interest for many years in creating something at the Woodson house; now that it seems to be advancing, I wouldn’t take anything for granted.

  • Dearest neighbors, your support is wonderful and the sense of community in Shaw is really nice to experience (not just this — in day-to-day stuff, too). One of the reasons this home was very attractive for us was actually that we would be next to a museum one day, and a museum for a historic D.C. figure at that. One of us is originally from D.C. and we were very excited to be able to play whatever small part we could in revitalizing a neighborhood which was once one of the most vibrant areas of the city.

    I think we wouldn’t have freaked out as we did over this NPS plan, if we hadn’t already had an actual eminent domain threat from the city last year. That really makes us read the term “willing seller” in the NPS document in a different light, because we had already made it very clear we weren’t willing. It is also disconcerting that we (as the occupants of the home) got no invitation to or even notification about the public hearing to discuss these options with the community, which was apparently held last month. The report notes that copies of the report were sent to local businesses and other stakeholders … but not to the owners/occupants of the house at issue? Sketchy.

    In any event, I just heard from Alex Padro, our ANC Commissioner. He informed me that, based on his conversations with the NPS, they have no intention of annexing our house. The reason that the report still mentions it as a preferred option is that, though it was recently released, the report was actually written three years ago. That was wonderful to hear, though our run-in with DC over this matter last year prompted me to ask for something in writing from NPS. He told me could probably get that for us. Mr. Padro was very nice and reassuring about the whole thing. And the reason he heard about this so quickly was: this blog!

    As for the facade, we’re not done yet … soon, hopefully! We definitely want to do much more with the landscaping to add some color. And we obviously still have to add the corbels back to the very top. They were damaged beyond repair, so we had to make replicas based on the originals. Those are done and just waiting to be put up.

    It has been a labor of love. (The frustrating, infuriating kind of love on occasion, but love nonetheless.)

    THANK YOU to PoP and its readers/our neighbors … I think you really helped us and made a difference today. People noticed! And we will take the legal advice and suggestions. We may indeed consult an attorney, just to see if we cannot get mention of 1544 removed from the plan. It will be hard for us to rest easy until that happens.

  • This f’n city is awesome at fining, taxing, and generally annoying its productive law abiding citizens. This is because they are the only ones that will actually comply with the law. You would have a better chance of finding a compassionate ear from the city government if you were a 15 year old convicted of a gun crime. There you go again for trying to be part of the solution.

  • Just another neighbor who wants to pipe up that your reno is amazing; I make a point to walk past your house on my way past Logan Circle, and frankly I find it inspiring that you were able to do all that. Also my boyfriend loves your motorcycle.

  • aside from the baseball stadium, how many times has the city used eminent domain in the past 10 years?

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