District condemns Sigma Alpha Epsilon house

District fire and safety officials condemned the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at 2034 G Street after an August 22 inspection, and evicted the house’s 15 residents without prior notice.

Officials cited health and safety violations, but could not list specific infractions.

There were all the conditions to have a very serious, maybe life-threatening fire, said Chief James Short, head of the city’s fire-prevention unit. Short could not comment on specific violations.

The unannounced inspection occurred shortly after 10 a.m., when a taskforce of inspectors from a variety of District agencies entered the house after an anonymous complaint was logged, fire officials said.

Under D.C. law fire and housing inspectors can arrive at a property at any time to inspect facilities.

When the inspection occurred, residents were moving in and out of the house, preparing for the new school year, said Sigma Alpha Epsilon president Mike Rendina.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, Washington City Rho, has been unaffiliated with GW since 1993.

Residents were given about 30 minutes August 22 and two hours August 25 to retrieve their belongings.

The house and property are owned and operated by the fraternity’s housing corporation – a group of 12 alumni and students – and have been focal points of contention between the fraternity and University.

The G Street property is one of the few not owned by GW on the block, and the University has previously expressed interest in purchasing the property on several occasions.

Fraternity officials were told the inspection may have resulted in a call from D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ office, but Elana Temple, a spokeswoman for the Mayor could not confirm the rumor.

There was no warning, said Ed Crump, an alumnus of GW’s chapter and a trustee of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Foundation. The timing makes you wonder. This happened to be the day when freshman orientation began and just happened to be when people were moving in. It does make one a little curious.

Although fraternity officials were told they would receive a list of violations within 24 hours of the eviction, on August 25 alumni and legal counsel for the fraternity’s housing corporation said they still did not know the exact reason for the eviction.

Legal counsel for the housing corporation said it is nearly impossible to create a timetable for repairs or to determine how much money will be needed to repair the house until the corporation receives a list of violations.

If you read the D.C. code, it certainly came as a surprise to everyone they would close the house, Crump said. The insanity of the situation is we don’t have a list, and once we get it we have to apply for a permit and get an architect to design (plans). That’ll take two, three or even four weeks to get the thing approved, and then we’ve got to get it fixed up. We can’t even get our people in to look at it.

The fraternity was cited for about $15,000 in fines during an earlier surprise inspection in late May. The main citation involved the absence of a hardwired smoke detector system in the house – a requirement for buildings designated as apartments. But members of the housing corporation consider the structure a house, and decided to appeal the May citations.

A hearing date for the appeal was set for Sept. 28.

Other problems cited during the May inspection, such as excess trash, had been corrected, fraternity officials said.

When rumors circulated around campus several days before the August 22 surprise inspection, the housing corporation’s legal counsel called District agencies to verify claims of a future eviction or inspection. The fraternity’s attorney was assured no such thing would occur by each agency, lawyers said.

It’s just too coincidental that this happened two days later based on an anonymous complaint, said counsel for the Housing Corporation, who requested that her name not be published.

At least one GW official denies any University participation.

It’s not the (University) that turned (Sigma Alpha Epilon) over to the authorities, said Mike Gargano, assistant vice president for Student and Academic Support Services.

The city’s move to condemn the property came as a surprise to fraternity members, house residents and parents of fraternity members, including several who are real estate lawyers.

I live there and I felt it was safe, Rendina said. The house isn’t in perfect condition, but it’s an old house and it’s safe. For them to come into Northwest (D.C.) and onto a college campus – something’s fishy there.

Members of the fraternity said they are curious why D.C. officials did not cite the property for all the problems during the May inspection.

Because of the timing of the inspection, the 15 members who were supposed to live in the house must try and find immediate, alternative housing – a task they said is particularly hard with a tight Foggy Bottom real estate market.

No one wants to start the school year without a home, Rendina said. But we’re brothers. We’ll do it. We rely on each other. This looks big, but we’ve survived in the past and we’ll survive again. This makes me remember why I’m in a fraternity. It’s brothers helping brothers.

Members of the fraternity that had planned to live in the house are rooming with other members and searching for apartments in the city – some as far away as Rhode Island Ave. and the Shaw neighborhood.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon members said they were told they had been moved to the top of the waiting list for on-campus housing.

We’re here to learn and it’s difficult not to have a permanent place to live, said Seth Rosenzweig, vice president of the chapter. It seems this could have been a real mistake. They really should think about the best interest of the students.

GW’s chapter has full support from their national organization despite the condemning of the property, leaders said.

Our alumni are working with us and are investigating the reasons for the condemnation of the house and they are also working with the authorities to determine what needs to be done, said Brandon Weghorst, a spokesman for Sigma Alpha Epilon’s national organization. We are still committed to doing the best we can for the chapter.

National officials said they were unsure when the house would be ready for occupancy again.

I’m not sure when or if the chapter house will open up in the near future, Weghorst said.

Chapter officers say they would like to have members back in the house by the beginning of next semester.

Washington City Rho is the only one out of 210 of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters in the country that is not affiliated with a university, and is the only chapter that has been continuously active since before the Civil War.

The chapter has had a number of disciplinary problems with the University in the past decade, including charges of disorderly conduct and destruction of property.

Things have happened with the fraternity, Rendina said Friday after all brothers moved their belongings out. Yeah, there were bad (members of the fraternity) 10 years ago, but things have changed. I’m a student here and I feel like I’m being treated like the enemy. Today might have been the worst day of my life.

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