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When Congress Moves Into the House Next Door

When the home at 428 New Jersey Ave. SE went up for sale, Marisa Gotthold, who lives just down the block, went to check it out. It was clearly set up as a residence, she said, though perhaps in need of a kitchen update.

“I asked the realtor what they were asking, and she told me $2 million,” Gotthold said. “We were laughing on the block, saying ‘no family is going to buy this house for two million dollars.” But the realtor felt differently. “It’s a unique block,” she told Gotthold.

In the end, they were both right. The house is now under contract for $1.95 million dollars not to a family but to the Congressional Hispanic BOLD Political Action Committee (CHC BOLD PAC).

This is not, however, the first political organization to move in next door.

Families living in the shadow of the Capitol building say that their neighborhood is being overtaken by what are commonly referred to as ‘party houses.’ An increasing number of townhouses in the area have been purchased by lobby groups, political action committees (PACs) and trade organizations who use the buildings for fundraising or networking events with Members of Congress. 

“At night, when congress is not in session or the weekend, you have dead zones,” Gotthold said. “If I wanted to live on K Street, I would have lived on K Street.”

The properties are residentially zoned and it is difficult to have them rezoned for commercial use. Most groups, however, don’t even bother trying.

Residents of the 400 block of New Jersey Avenue SE stand outside a home regularly used as event space, popularly known as ‘the UPS house’ because it is owned by a subsidiary of the parcel service. 428 New Jersey Ave SE:

Political Parties

Desiree Ponti lives on New Jersey Avenue SE across from a row of five townhouses she says are used for events, only one of which is an office. She says the street is totally different when Congress is in session.

Large trucks drop gardeners, supplies and caterers off throughout the day, and in the evening Suburbans are double-parked along the block, waiting for Members of Congress to conclude their appearances. Late into the evening people spill out onto front lawns holding their drinks, and sidewalks become strewn with garbage.

“It’s a blatant disregard for traffic laws and residential housing restrictions,” Ponti says.

Jennifer Samolyk, Commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B01 says that there is nobody home to hold accountable to the community. “If it was a resident next to a neighbor, they’d be more responsible for the trash. They’d have investment in the neighborhood and concern for their neighbors. But these groups don’t live here. They’re not good neighbors.”

Backyard Parties

Neighbors say that the use of townhouses as spaces to fete Members of Congress has been going on for a long time, but has increased steadily in the last five to ten years.

Different organizations are choosing to throw parties here because the houses are in the backyard of the Capitol building, allowing attendees to spend less time in transit and more time socializing.

But there are other benefits to claiming the townhouses as residences. Lobbyists and PACs can circumvent Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations limiting the expenditure on parties for Members of Congress. According to the FEC, homeowners can spend up to $1,000 per candidate per election on a fundraising event in their home without reporting it as a contribution.

The organizations also avoid needing the kinds of permits and licenses necessary to run an event space. A spokesperson from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) said as long as caterers hold a District liquor license there is no limit on the number of events that can be held in a residence.

A Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) representative said that residents, including lobbyists, who work from their homes can obtain a Home Occupation Permit (HOP). Such residents can have up to five events during a twelve-month period without requiring a Certificate of Occupancy.

Tipping Point

The CHC BOLD PAC purchase of 428 New Jersey Ave SE has, for many residents, become a tipping point for reasons beyond the exorbitant selling price.

The PAC is currently seeking a variance to rezone the house from residential to commercial use. The terms of the variance allow a non-profit organization to repurpose a building of more than 10,000 square feet.

Representing CHC BOLD PAC at the May ANC meeting, attorney Meredith Moldenhauer said that in contrast to groups using residential homes as event space without legal justification, the BOLD PAC was doing things “the right way.” But residents argue that the PAC is not a non-profit or charitable organization. They also argue that at 2,100 square feet, the home is too small to qualify for the exemption, which they say was designed to prevent the deterioration of larger mansion-style homes that are too expensive to maintain as residences.

Jennifer Samolyk said this decision could lead to commercial re-zoning of other homes in the neighborhood. “It will have a profound effect on other ANCs if this is allowed. It’s precedent-setting.”

“If this house goes, they’ll all go,” agreed Ponti.

Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) has voted unanimously to oppose the application. CHRS Zoning Committee Chairperson Gary Peterson said that ”the prime legal reason we opposed the application was the house was not 10,000 square feet.” The bigger reason, he added, was neighbor opposition. At its May 9 meeting, ANC also opposed the application on similar grounds. Regardless, the application could still be approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustment in early June.

Under Siege

Neighbors have been galvanized by the issue. A number of them have contributed $1000 each to retain a lawyer in the fight against the CHC BOLD PAC Board of Zoning application.

They also resist in other ways. Often it is neighbors who do the initial investigation into apparent party houses. They collect evidence that homes are being used as event space and turn it over to the DCRA.

Samolyk says their efforts have been rewarded in some cases. By working with the DCRA, three similar homes on D St SE have been closed down and one on New Jersey Avenue SE is under investigation. “They have been increasingly more responsive,” Samolyk says of DCRA.

“Unfortunately, this is not a new problem to our Capitol Hill neighborhood,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) said. “My office will continue to support the ANC’s work with the neighbors and keep pushing DCRA on enforcement of violations.”

Ponti says that the toll on the neighborhood is psychological, emotional and financial.

“It’s like we’re under siege,” Ponti says. “This is taking a serious toll on the community, the stress of fighting it year after year. You can’t put that kind of pressure on residents to prove that this is a residential neighborhood.”

The Board of Zoning Hearing for 428 New Jersey Ave SE is scheduled for 9:30 am Wednesday June 7, 2017 in the Jerrily R. Kress Memorial Hearing Room, Room 220 South at One Judiciary Square, 441 4th St. NW.

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