Only in D.C.: What to do when your neighbor is a foreign government

From Alan and Irene Wurtzel’s master bathroom, they can watch shingles fall off the neighbor’s roof, pigeons flutter through broken windows and rain pour into the four-story brick behemoth. And then there are the rats.

There’s nothing the city can do about the vacant Kalorama property because it’s owned by the government of Argentina, which doesn’t have to pay property taxes, adhere to local building codes — or evict vermin.

Talk about D.C. problems.

Residents like the Wurtzels must rely on the State Department to delicately encourage foreign governments to clean up their properties without instigating retaliation at U.S. embassies abroad.

Sometimes it works, other times not so much.

At the Sri Lankan Embassy on Wyoming Avenue NW, a note affixed to the building says that the embassy has moved. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, recently complained to the State Department about a handful of foreign missions in the city with neglected properties.

Norton named those owned by Serbia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan located in Kalorama, a tony neighborhood of grand homes perched above Rock Creek Park in the city’s Northwest quadrant.

“The offending properties are a public embarrassment to the neighborhoods, to the District of Columbia, to the State Department, and, particularly, to the United States,” Norton wrote in an Aug. 28 letter. “The State Department can and must do more to protect the residents of the nation’s capital.”

Norton asked for a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or the appropriate official within 30 days.

The State Department declined to say if her request would be granted.

“The Department takes this matter very seriously and understands the problems and challenges residents face when questions arise about a foreign government’s maintenance of their property assets located in the District of Columbia,” according to a statement from a department official.

Usually, the country has a few options: Fix the building and move back in, or sell. But a foreign coup or bankruptcy could mean that a country doesn’t have the political will or cash to act.

“As long as a property is notified to us as used for diplomatic or consular purposes,” the statement said, “it enjoys the corresponding level of inviolability. While this may restrict some actions by the District of Columbia, the rules of inviolability also protect reciprocally, United States diplomatic and consular properties abroad.”

The State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions said that it works with state and local authorities when maintenance issues arise, but the department declined to say how — or even if — it keeps track of problems among the city’s 530 diplomatic properties.

Left to their own sleuthing, neighbors have identified a half-dozen Kalorama properties that are owned by foreign governments and have fallen into disrepair.

With other vacant properties, the city could cut the grass, erect a fence and bill the owner. Not so with foreign missions. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is powerless over buildings that are essentially foreign soil despite their District addresses.

“It’s like foreign land,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose ward includes the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood.

The worst of the blighted buildings attract the homeless as well as drug dealers and prostitutes, he said.

The Iranian Embassy, at 3005 Massachusetts Ave. NW, has been vacant since the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, Evans noted.

“We’re lucky North Korea doesn’t have an embassy someplace in the District,” he joked.

Neighbors hope Tillerson will take special interest in the problem as he is a new resident of the neighborhood. He bought a $5.6 million house on 24th Street NW early this year, shortly after he was confirmed to join President Trump’s cabinet.

 

Tillerson’s home is blocks from the vacant Argentine foreign mission and the other run-down properties owned by Serbia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as one that belongs to Cameroon.

Ellen Goldstein, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission member for the southern half of Sheridan-Kalorama, knows what she would say were she to run into Tillerson while walking Hugo, her black and white terrier: “Follow me.”

Besides showing off Kalorama’s Mitchell Park and Spanish Steps, she would take him on a walking tour of some of the offending properties.

“There is no such thing as architectural crimes,” said Goldstein, a retired government-relations executive. “It’s just a shame to see crumbling buildings on your block.”

Even with what she called “quiet diplomacy,” problems are inevitable “when you have neighbors that don’t have to follow the laws that you follow.”

Aside from Argentina’s R Street house with its crumbling brick, broken rain gutter and critters, there’s a hulking structure a few doors down that is owned by Pakistan.

It sat empty for years as vines grew around hanging wires, the naked flagpole rusted and weeds grew tall in the rear parking lot with its full dumpster. On a recent day, a pile of clothes was wadded up at the entryway next to three glass bottles.

Farther down the street, white paint was peeling off a building owned by Serbia — and its set of three French doors leading to Juliet balconies. A broken chain guarded the entrance. In 2016, the city issued a notice of violation, which was later dismissed.

Serbia plans to begin renovations on the building later this year or early next year and is in contact with the State Department, a representative of the Serbian Embassy said in an email to The Washington Post.

“Please, have in mind that one of the reasons for current condition of the building is that it was part of the succession talks between successors states of the ex-Yugoslavia and within that period, no one was entitled to perform any activities on the building,” the email says.

Cameroon’s building at 24th Street NW is under construction. At another property flagged by Norton as needing repairs, the Sri Lankan Embassy on Wyoming Avenue NW, a note affixed to the building says that the embassy has moved.

Last month, Cheh, the council member, complained to the State Department about the former Iraqi ambassador’s residence on Woodland Drive, which is still owned by the “Kingdom of Iraq” according to city property records.

“What remains now could not be construed as a diplomatic mission in any accurate sense of the word; it is, instead, a blight and a health hazard,” Cheh wrote in the Aug. 21 letter.

Not long after that, she said, residents noticed a contractor working on the property.

Every once in a while, there’s a victory, said Christopher K. Chapin, president of the Sheridan-Kalorama Neighborhood Council. Malaysia’s building at 24th and California streets NW sat derelict for years, but has been completely renovated, he said.

A positive outcome could be harder to come by for the Wurtzels, who have been warily eyeing their neighbor since they bought their home more than 20 years ago.

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