Earlier this summer, Bill Jackson Jr. sat facing the doorway on a bed sheet laid out on the floor of a second story bedroom. He had the house all to himself. Behind him, a window was boarded up, covered with a ragged white door.
In the hallway, the second floor banister was covered with bird excrement. Most of the balusters lay broken on the floor over, under, and mixed with chunks of fallen plaster. The sun blazed down, shining through holes in the roof and attic floor, illuminating the abandoned house with streams of natural light. Besieged by the mercy of the elements, the historic home was decomposing.
When Jackson first discovered the forgotten home, the side screen door, sans screen, swung open. Using found nails and a soup can, he’d hammered the frame of the door to the door frame. To enter the house you now had to take a deliberate step over the fourteen inch base of the door and duck your head.
Jackson, an “O3-11 grunt,” or rifleman in the United States Marine Corps in the 1970s, did not choose this house on a lark. “I be settin’ lil’ booby traps sometime. I’ll break up some glass bottles and get some Plaster Paris and put it at the top of the steps. If I hear a crunchin’ noise I know someone’s outside on the landing,” he said. Jackson, who grew up on the city’s streets and has spent the past two decades scouting apartment basements, vacant buildings and even dump trucks to sleep in, said this was “definitely a good spot, one of the better ones.”
Upstairs, Jackson gathered himself and his thoughts. He had a couple hours before he had to be at “801,” the 350-bed shelter at St. Elizabeths East Campus. He wasn’t sure when he’d be back.
The city buys Bill a house
On July 23, 2010 the Department of Community and Housing Development purchased the “Big K” lot — the three homes at 2228, 2234 and 2238 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and the liquor store at 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE—for slightly less than 1 million dollars from the long-time owners, the Kushner family. The Office of Planning had previously denied Ann Kushner’s request to demolish the properties after decades of neglect.
Newspaper accounts and city records indicate the house Jackson’s occupied, 2228 MLK Ave., had been vacant since the late 1970s or early ‘80s. The Kushner family had let Bill’s home and next-door 2234, vacant since the early 1980s, putrefy for thirty years.
Though the old homes were purchased under the auspices of preventing their further dilapidation, DHCD has yet to structurally stabilize the properties or even seal them off from Mother Nature’s continued encroachment. In its neglect, the city effectively “bought” Jackson the house he was occupying unlawfully.
DHCD seals fence openings, still accessible
At an evening meeting on Aug. 3rd, held at DHCD to discuss potential uses for the “Big K” properties, I decided it was in the best interest of the city and Jackson to disclose the openness and subsequent dangers of the home at 2228 MLK Ave. I told DHCD officials, including the Director, what I knew about Jackson’s and his use of the property.
During conversations with Jackson, I asked if revealing his use of the vacant home would jeopardize him. He said, adamantly, he wanted his story told. During Jackson’s time at the house, since last November, he said it was occasionally frequented by other homeless men he knew. At night, he said, people would get high downstairs and he could occasionally hear “tricks doing their thing.”
“After being alerted that there is a squatter on the property, the maintenance crew inspected the property on Thursday, Aug. 4. At this time, they cut back more brush, re-boarded 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE (although the front door was securely boarded), and examined the fence for holes,” Najuma Thorpe, DHCD Special Affairs Specialist, wrote in a follow-up email.
The following day, it appeared the side door Jackson used to enter the house was securely boarded up. Jackson called a week or so later to tell me there were still other ways to get in the house. “It’s still Bill’s house,” he said.
As late as this weekend DHCD had not sealed an opening between the chain link fence on MLK Avenue and an adjacent pole in front of the former Big K Liquor store, allowing people to squeeze in and out. Sometime early this week, a welder sealed the gap. However, through the alley and other openings in the fence the properties are still accessible.
Earlier this week, DHCD reached out to nearby ANCs to inform them 2228 MLK Ave. might have to be knocked down. A representative with HPO confirmed their belief that 2228 is “leaning” and structurally damaged beyond repair. In the nearly 14 months, DHCD has held the property, they have not structurally secured it. There is no record that the property has yet to come before DCRA’s Board of Condemnation.
In neglecting the properties, DHCD engendered Jackson’s squatting. In its neglect, the city effectively “bought” Jackson the house he was occupying unlawfully.
This story was first published in the September 2011 edition of East of the River Newspaper.