Park Southern mess should get D.C. Council hearing, David Catania says


Mayoral candidate David A. Catania. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Mayoral candidate David A. Catania kept the pressure on Democratic nominee and fellow D.C. Council member Muriel E. Bowser on Friday, saying in a radio interview that if Bowser won’t hold a hearing on a burgeoning controversy over a Southeast housing complex, the council’s chairman should.

The problems of Park Southern Apartments have emerged as a campaign headache for Bowser (Ward 4), who counts the president of the nonprofit corporation that owns the building and its former property manager among her political supporters. The Southern Avenue complex, home to more than 700 low-income residents, is $628,000 in arrears on a city-backed loan, needs extensive repairs and has been accused of “gross mismanagement” by a city agency.

Bowser, who chairs the council committee with jurisdiction over housing matters, has resisted calls to hold a public hearing. Under pressure after reports in The Washington Post and attacks from Catania (I-At Large), Bowser earlier this month asked the District’s inspector general to investigate the situation at Park Southern, saying the matter should remain removed from politics.

But in an interview on WAMU (88.5 FM), Catania said that would not suffice: “The inspector general will not tell us anything for months and months and months and months,” he said, suggesting instead that the council pursue the matter regardless of Bowser’s intentions.

“The chairman of the council could have a hearing; that’s absolutely possible,” Catania said.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Friday that he was “certainly open” to holding a hearing on Park Southern but that no council member had personally approached him about calling one.

“I think the issue with what’s happening at Park Southern is very important,” he said. “What’s at stake is a substantial amount of affordable housing and what’s happening with public and private dollars. . . . I have to be mindful that if there were to be a hearing, that it’s focusing on the problems of Park Southern and not getting caught up in mayoral politics.”

Bowser defended her handling of the controversy a week before on the same radio program, “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” saying she was satisfied with how the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development was handling the matter.

Asked why she would not agree to hold a public hearing, she said, “Are you interested in show? Or are you interested in results?”

About a month after the District government placed the housing complex in default in April, Bowser asked city officials to attend a closed-door meeting with the nonprofit owner’s president, Rowena Joyce Scott, and the former property manager, Phinis Jones. City officials declined to attend the meeting, instead suggesting that she hold a hearing.

“When I was made aware of the government’s involvement in Park Southern, I did what I do with all problems that come to me, whether they be housing or some other constituent issue, and that is to call all the people to the table,” she said.

On Friday, Catania amplified his criticism, saying Bowser has acted to “help grease the wheels” for a sale of the building to Scott and Jones, who is seeking to assume the nonprofit corporation’s debt to the city — a transaction tenants fear could threaten the building’s affordability.

“We have 360 units of affordable housing that are at risk right now,” he said. “What I fear will happen is the clock will run out and that the purchase will happen, and the tenants will wake up and they will be without the building that they themselves currently own.”

His campaign also called on Bowser on Friday to return roughly $20,000 in campaign contributions made by Jones and associated companies.

Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for Bowser’s campaign, declined to say whether Bowser would support Mendelson or another council committee holding a hearing but characterized Catania’s remarks Friday as “more political theater and grandstanding.”

Catania also responded to a controversy of his own: his decision not to sign onto a letter supported by all of his council colleagues calling on local construction company Baker D.C. to “meet and negotiate” with its workers.

Baker was the subject of a May strike at a Connecticut Avenue NW construction site organized by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. The union subsequently sought support from D.C. Council members for its attempts to organize Baker’s workers.

Catania — who was a vice president of M.C. Dean, a major Virginia-based electrical contractor, until late 2012 — said Friday that his ties to the construction industry had nothing to do with his decision not to sign the letter. He said that in the past, he has sent numerous letters calling on employers to bargain with their workers.

“This one, given the time I had to review the issue, I didn’t see the evidence of management frustrating the rights of workers,” he said, “and in those instances, I try to stay out of it.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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