Building on Broken Promises

Companies owned by developer and former D.C. council member H.R. Crawford has received millions of public dollars in recent years to build and renovate housing complexes. The projects have been marred by delays and controversy. Crawford blames funding gaps, environmental problems and other challenges for the delays.
By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

The partnership began at a crumbling apartment complex on a hillside south of the Capitol when longtime D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford told tenants, "I can show you how you can be a homeowner."

Within months, he struck a deal to raze the rental complex and build dozens of affordable townhouses with $25 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, promising tenants the rare chance to buy into the new community. The rise of Walter E. Washington Estates, completed in 2003, brought growth and hope to one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods and forged Crawford's reputation as a fierce and successful advocate for affordable housing.

But the project hailed as a turning point in the District was tainted by unchecked spending and deals that benefited Crawford and his partners while leaving hundreds of tenants with little chance of returning to the rebuilt community, The Washington Post has found. The city has since awarded more than $8 million for four other Crawford projects and, after he was joined by larger partners, tens of millions more. None of the developments has been completed.

Crawford denies spending government money improperly and said he has worked for years to revive distressed neighborhoods.

"Have I done everything right? Probably not," he said. "But I have done the best I could managing some of the toughest developments in lower-income communities, the work that very few wanted to do."

At Walter E. Washington Estates, records show, Crawford used hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund his own property management firm even after paying his company more than $3 million in developer's fees, a practice developers and HUD officials say amounts to double-billing. He doled out contracts to consultants with ties to the government, including a former HUD administrator who had supported the project. Although he had agreed to return some of the proceeds from the home sales to HUD, he under-reported that income in documents to the agency and paid nothing back.

In the end, 141 townhouses were built. Just three original tenants bought in.

Crawford, records show, sold the HUD-subsidized homes to two city officials, five of his employees or their relatives, and a couple who have bought and sold millions of dollars in properties in the Washington region. Crawford also sold a house to his daughter, putting his name on the deed, with the city granting a five-year property-tax exemption reserved for lower-income buyers.

Longtime tenant Florence Smith had persuaded her neighbors early on to support Crawford, believing that if they gave up their rental apartments, they would one day return as homeowners. Smith soon began to fear that the original tenants would not inherit the new community.

When she died of cancer in 1998, her children mounted a brick from one of the demolished buildings in her headstone, a symbol of the home she believed she had lost.

"She thought that tenants would all get houses, that Crawford would be a man of his word and that people would be able to come back," said Smith's daughter, Wanda. "They were double-crossed."

More criticism emerged after the project was complete: A forensic audit commissioned by the new homeowners found that Crawford overbilled their homeowners association by $900,000.

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