In the Southeast neighborhood of Talbert Terrace, a tree-ringed lot that has hosted four generations of childhood baseball games and joy-filled block parties could soon disappear.
Despite over a decade of attempts to clear up paperwork confusion and reclaim ownership of the land by the tax-exempt neighborhood association, the community owed more than $600,000 in back taxes by 2016. That year, the District sold it in a discount tax sale for $29,000.
“It seems like they’re robbing us,” Karen Hilliard, longtime Talbert Terrace resident and current vice president of the Anacostia Homeowners and Residents Association, told The Informer in an early May article about the lot.
In July 2019, the purchaser, Rupsha 2011 LLC, officially acquired the deed for the land from the city. To many of the neighbors, it seemed like their chances to keep the spot had shrunk to nothing.
Then last year, neighbors learned that the developer planned to construct an 18-unit residential building on the lot, eliminating the green space entirely and making no promises about affordability.
The neighborhood association — whose members come from about 70 households on Talbert Terrace, Dexter Terrace and Talbert Street — mobilized for one more fight.
“We sort of put it out to the whole association, [asking] who wanted to be involved,” Hilliard, 68, said. “And they stepped up.”
The Ad Hoc Committee
A group of neighbors volunteered to help and quickly realized that their first task was to get organized. They began compiling all documents related to the green space, legally known as “Lot 1103 in Square 5869,” into a shared folder. That included everything from email correspondence with District officials to historic information, like the 1977 deed to the property. The Anacostia Homeowners and Residents Association had originally won the deed in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the developer, who owned many nearby properties.
In February, a handful of people, including Hilliard, began meeting weekly to strategize. Within the neighborhood association, the volunteers spending hundreds of hours on research and outreach became known as “the ad hoc committee.”
“Every email we send out, five different hands go up — and they’re not always the same hands,” said CJ Brandmeier, who chairs the ad hoc committee. “Everyone’s pitching in with what they’re good at.”
Brandmeier, 36, moved to the neighborhood in 2020 with his wife, Sarah Brandmeier. He said that when their son was born last year, the fight to save the small park became even more important and personal.
“We saw a future here for him,” he said.
Like Talbert Terrace itself, the ad hoc committee is multigenerational and multiracial.
Eugene Johnson, a 69-year-old grandfather of eight, got involved about six months ago. A D.C. native, Johnson has lived in the neighborhood for about a year since moving in with his daughter in the Talbert Terrace home that has been in her family for three generations. Johnson described the committee as a “melting pot” and a “really tight unit” bonded by both the park’s cause and a dedication to the community more broadly.
“Some people might think that this is a small thing. It’s just a little, small lot,” Johnson said. “But it means so much because it’s part of the legacy of this community. And these folks on this committee have been really diligent in trying to do everything they can.”
In addition to organizing neighborhood events in support of the park space, such as a cleanup and rally in April, and a BBQ in May, the committee mobilized around what Brandmeier described as three “missions.” The tri-pronged strategy included reaching out to media outlets, connecting with political leaders and researching the legalities of the lot’s sale.
As part of that third mission, Brandmeier and others began looking into Rupsha 2011 LLC and its owner, Mohammad Sikder. They found more than one red flag.
Sikder declined multiple requests for comment.
A History of Cutting Corners
In June 2019, Sikder and another one of his development companies pleaded guilty in a federal court to crimes related to lead-based paint. Sikder’s company, District Properties LLC, had avoided oversight related to lead safety by falsely stating, in 25 permit applications, that buildings had been constructed after 1978 (the year the U.S. banned lead-based paint).
Sikder also hired workers for a home renovation without training or licensing in lead-safe practices. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found four different violations at the site related to lead exposure, and sampling found lead on employees’ hands. After properly remediating the home, Sikder and District Properties LLC sold it without providing the buyer with any information about the home’s lead paint history.
Just over a month after Sikder’s conviction, the District allowed one of his companies, Rupsha 2011 LLC, to acquire the deed for the Talbert Terrace lot. (Tax sales, like the 2016 one Rupsha 2011 LLC participated in, only transfer a certificate of sale to a purchaser. They have to foreclose on the property, after waiting at least six months, in order to get the deed and gain full ownership.)
Neighbors have particular concerns about the possibility of a developer cutting corners at the property. The Talbert Terrace lot is on the same hill as River East at Grandview—a building that crumbled due to structural issues less than five years after its construction.
“I don’t have any faith that this guy will come in and do the right thing,” Johnson said. “And will the District government in their compliance [enforcement] responsibility really make sure that things are done correctly?”
Tax Sales Without Guardrails
The members of the ad hoc committee say that the city had actually failed to enforce the rules long before Sikder’s 2019 conviction. They allege that Sikder should not have been eligible to purchase the playground lot — or any other properties — in the 2016 tax sale to begin with, and that the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) should not have allowed him to participate as a buyer.
“The District was asleep at the wheel,” Brandmeier said.
D.C. law includes some requirements for people who sign up to bid on properties in a tax sale auction. One of them is that buyers and their businesses cannot themselves be behind on their property taxes.
Yet, on the same day that Rupsha 2011 LLC bought Lot 1103 on Talbert Terrace — along with 73 other properties — Mohammad Sikder’s name appears in the sale’s records as an owner of a property being sold. That property, a small lot in Carver Langston, should only have been up for auction because its former owner, Sikder, was delinquent on the taxes.
Asked what the office does to ensure that purchasers during tax sales meet the eligibility requirements, a representative for the Office of Tax and Revenue responded that potential purchasers must certify under oath that they are not more than one year behind on property taxes.
“The information we got from OTR is that they don’t have any ability to audit any of the purchaser requirements,” Brandmeier said. “Who knows how much fraud is going on? We don’t know. They don’t know. Nobody knows.”
What Could Come Next on the Legal Front
Since Rupsha 2011 LLC already foreclosed on the property and acquired the deed in 2019, few options remain available to prevent the company from building. The Office of Tax and Revenue representative said in an email that District law allows tax sales to be voided if the legal requirements were not met, but that the city can only take that step before the purchaser completes the foreclosure process in court.
The neighborhood group did not discover the problem until more than three years after Sikder finished the foreclosure process.
“We’re carrying OTR on our backs,” Brandmeier said. “They’re relying on AHRA, a neighborhood organization, to figure out who is eligible to participate in the tax sales that they’ve been running since the dawn of time.”
The Attorney General’s office told the group that it believed D.C. could not win a suit against the developer because the city had approved the purchase and D.C. Superior Court had granted the foreclosure.
Andrew Hunt, another neighbor volunteering on the ad hoc committee, said that the search for pro bono representation has so far proved difficult.
“This is a case that has little to no precedent,” Hunt, 30, said. “It takes a lawyer who is willing to give a community of 70 houses a chance against a city that is, in my opinion, rubber stamping developments left and right.”