washingtonpost.com
Forced Out

Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008 12:00 PM

D.C. politician and developer H.R. Crawford has drawn millions in public dollars for his housing projects, which have been plagued by delays even while hundreds of tenants were forced out.

Post staff writer Debbie Cenziper was online Monday, Dec. 8 at noon ET to discuss the latest in the Forced Out series of articles about management of rental properties in the District.

The transcript follows.

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Debbie Cenziper: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us today. The Post has been writing about D.C. landlords since March in a series called, "Forced Out." On Sunday, we looked at the business dealings of developer H.R. Crawford, a longtime D.C. Council member and former U.S. HUD official.

Looking forward to chatting with you.

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washingtonpost.com: Hi Debbie, thanks for taking questions today. Do you expect that HUD will finally severe ties with Crawford, when it comes to funding future projects? And why do you think all of their investigations of him just seemed to hit a wall?

Debbie Cenziper: Thanks for your question.

U.S. HUD started poking around when tenants raised questions years ago about the development of Walter E. Washington Estates in Southeast Washington. In that project, Mr. Crawford's company received $25 million directly from HUD. As the story noted, millions of dollars went to soft costs -- marketing, consulting, management and developer fees -- while only three original tenants were able to buy into the rebuilt community.

HUD did a preliminary investigation through the Inspector General, but nothing much happened after that and I am not sure why.

After the project was complete, the new homeowners started raising questions about Mr. Crawford's use of a $2 million trust fund established to cover neighborhood expenses. But again, HUD didn't do much.

When we called about this story, HUD said they would launch an investigation at Walter E. Washington Estates, so we'll see what happens with that.

Mr. Crawford's new funding has largely come from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which controls local HUD dollars. As far as I know, the agency never questioned Crawford's spending, even when the developments stalled for months or even years.

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Washington, D.C.: What has been Mayor Fenty's relationship with H.R. Crawford? How much of what Crawford did occurred under Fenty's watch and assistance?

I know the story is about Crawford, but I thought Fenty was supposed to be the "accountability" mayor. If Crawford had a horrible track record going back to the 1970's, and there were many complaints from tenants and activists, why would the D.C. government, under Fenty's watch, continue to dole out money to this person?

Debbie Cenziper: Great question.

A number of the deals and loans were pretty recent. For example, the story noted that the city helped bail Mr. Crawford out of a couple of delayed redevelopment projects by giving new developers millions in additional funding to repay Crawford's outstanding loans. That happened this year and last year.

You're right -- tenants and homeowners have been complaining for years. So have housing advocates and tenants' attorneys.

I'm not sure what Mayor Fenty's relationship is like with Mr. Crawford. But when we asked the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development about these deals, we received only a brief response.

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20020: What do you think will happen to Mr. Crawford? Will he go to jail? Will he become bankrupt?

Debbie Cenziper: When we called U.S. HUD, officials said they immediately launched an investigation of Walter E. Washington Estates, as well as some of the newer projects funded by the city (using HUD money).

So we'll see what happens there.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Debbie, Do you know if Mr. Crawford is currently pursuing any new development deals that would require additional DHCD funds?

Debbie Cenziper: The four projects we wrote about in Sunday's story are still active, and there is still a funding shortage for at least three of them.

I do know that at two of the projects -- Parkside Terrace and Trenton Terrace Apartments in Southeast -- larger developers are involved. Construction at Parkside appears to be moving quickly, and the new developer at Trenton Terrace has a long track record of building in Southeast.

So there is some hope, I think, that those projects will be completed in the near future.

We'll see if any of the original tenants get a chance to move back.

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Oviedo, Fla. : are the forced-out residents able to file a class action suit of some kind? what redress do they have?

Debbie Cenziper: Great question.

We have a small group of very active housing advocates and nonprofit lawyers in D.C. who take these issues on, case by case. But D.C. has a lot of troubled buildings.

The mayor's office and City Council in recent months have made a lot of changes to laws and policies, but there are still many, many complaints across the city about the lack of housing inspections and enforcement.

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DC: Ever go to Trenton Terrace? It was a hell-hole, so good riddance.

As for the former tenants, they got Section 8 vouchers, right? That's a coupon worth 70 percent off your rent! Pretty good deal, and they got to move wherever they wanted.

Oh, and there's only about 20,000 families in line, but those former tenants got to go to the front of the line. Pretty good deal for the former residents, no?

Debbie Cenziper: I saw pictures of Trenton Terrace, and you're right, it looked pretty bad.

As far as I know, no one questioned the need to redevelop Trenton Terrace, or for that matter, all of the other projects taken on by Mr. Crawford in recent years. The problem was that very little got built, and when houses did go up (at Walter E. Washington Estates, for example) very few original tenants got to return home.

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Washington, D.C.: Great article and thanks for your diligent reporting. Is it difficult to investigate the DC government and "insiders" like Mr. Crawford? It seems to me that there could be stories like this reported almost weekly. Do you think this is true? Are there reasons why we don't see more graft-related stories more often?

Debbie Cenziper: It's not easy tracking the flow of government money in D.C. or anywhere else, that's for sure. In this case, tens of millions of public dollars were on the line, but records at HUD and the city housing agency were scattered, incomplete or missing altogether.

It's time-consuming to do this kind of reporting, and unfortunately, many, many newspapers have cut back on staff and investigative resources. I'm grateful the Post still considers "accountability reporting" a top priority.

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Washington, DC: I am a current resident of Walter E. Washington Estates. Unfortunately, I moved there 2 1/2 years ago without any knowledge of any of this. What recourse is there for residents of Washington Estates and other Crawford "developments," particularly since HUD has repeatedly done nothing?

Debbie Cenziper: Thanks for writing in.

I'm not sure why HUD failed to step in, but I'd try to call some of the leaders of the homeowner's association, who are on top of the problems there. I know the homeowner's association has hired a new management company to try to fix the cameras, pool and security system.

In the meantime, we'll track HUD's progress on the promised investigation.

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Washington, D.C.: Were these projects awarded to Mr. Crawford through an RFP process? And how were the developers that have taken over selected? Thanks.

Debbie Cenziper: Yes, I think the city awarded the projects through an RFP process.

The new developers at Parkside Terrace and Trenton Terrace (Community Preservation and Development. Corp. and the William C. Smith Co.) appear to have a long track record in affordable housing. Parkside is under construction now, and Mr. Smith said he's working to put the financing together to start construction at Trenton Terrace. There are some old HUD restrictions on the property that he's had to deal with.

We'll see what happens.

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Debbie Cenziper: Thanks for joining us today. Nice chatting with you.

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