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Neglectful landlord ordered to pay nearly half a million dollars in back rent in record-setting case

DCRA visits an apartment building located at 2724 11th St. NW, Washington, D.C., to check for code violations in June 2005. This week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the owner to pay tenants nearly $500,000 in back rent, a record-setting amount. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
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In a record-setting decision, a D.C. Superior Court judge has ordered a property owner to repay tenants nearly half a million dollars in rent. The judge found that the owner of a Columbia Heights apartment building repeatedly broke D.C. consumer protection laws by lying to his tenants about the safety and habitability of apartments.

The ruling, issued Monday by D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony C. Epstein, is the culmination of a years-long dispute and the largest amount of back rent ever ordered by a judge to be paid out to tenants, according to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The $422,322.16 in rent restitution covers 100 percent rent refunds for the 18 months between June 2016 and the appointment of the receiver in November 2017

Jefferson-11th Street, LLC — a business owned by Florida-based attorney Ellis J. Parker III — is required to pay a total of nearly $680,000 in restitution to renters and penalties and fees to the District for “hundreds of housing code violations that persisted at the property for years,” according to the OAG.

The landlord was also ordered to undergo annual audits of the building’s adherence to code and safety requirements, replace its management firm — which has been banned from overseeing any aspect of property management at the building going forward — and put in place policies and training for future managers.

Parker, who has co-owned several buildings around the D.C. area, could not be immediately reached for comment.

“We hope this is a warning to landlords across the city that you are required to provide safe and habitable housing to your tenants,” said Benjamin Wiseman, director of the OAG’s Office of Consumer Protection.

The OAG has sought to use consumer protection statutes to hold negligent landlords accountable outside of housing court — a strategy that Wiseman said has changed the way D.C. and other cities address issues of landlords refusing to comply with health and safety codes.

“We’re in an affordable housing crisis,” Wiseman said. “What we found is that the consumer protection statute is a powerful tool that requires all businesses — including landlords — to be upfront and truthful with their customers.”

That includes tenants signing onto leases that guarantee a safe and habitable home, he said.

The 26-unit red-brick apartments have had problems for years — mold rotting the walls, leaks in the roof, crumbling walls, rats and roaches infesting tenants’ homes — and has been the subject of several lawsuits, including for code violations and rampant unaddressed mold. In 2017, Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) sued the property owner for violating the District’s consumer protection laws.

“No tenant should have to live in properties that are in disrepair,” Racine said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s up to landlords to follow the law and provide residents safe, healthy, and habitable homes. And if they fail to do that, we will hold them accountable.”

Parker, who resides in Palm Beach, Fla., has owned the building for more than 30 years. He purchased it from the estate of his late father-in-law, Hartford E. Bealer, the co-founder and retired president of Chevy Chase Bank, according to the transcript of a 2018 deposition used in this case.

Parker has said in court documents and in a 2017 interview with Washington City Paper that he was unable to fix the repairs needed in the building without raising tenants’ rents. But he also said in the 2018 deposition that he “absolutely … can repair any problem that we have in that building.” He added: “I don’t have the will and I don’t have the ability without selling my property.”

All 14 households that had been living in the building before the OAG filing its lawsuit in 2017 have in the time since been relocated — a decision by a Superior Court judge to force the building into compliance with D.C. building and safety codes by putting it under the care and supervision of a court-appointed receiver.

Most of the tenants are low-income families, attorneys said. Many are Central American immigrants. Some have been living at the Columbia Heights apartments for more than 30 years.

“My family has had to deal with issues such as crumbling walls, water damage, and mold. We’ve also had to deal with an array of pests: rats, mice, bedbugs, roaches, and more,” Felipa Arias, a tenant of the building, said in a statement issued Tuesday by the OAG. “Whenever we would ask the building’s management to remedy these issues, the repairs that were made either didn’t last long or didn’t actually fix the issue.”

The tenants have won other cases seeking repairs and back rent from the owner over issues of mold and widespread safety issues, including broken fire alarms. Those cases — which resulted in cumulative judgments against the landlord in the range of $1.5 million to $2 million, according to lawyers — have all been appealed and await rulings.

Tenants have not received a penny.