The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A historic Black church says D.C. is trying to push it out of Shaw. The church’s tenants say it’s a slum lord.

Both the church and the residents contend they are victims of gentrification

Tenant Jovan Edwards kicks away a box as he shows his heating system at Foster House apartments on Dec. 16 in Washington. Several tenants at the complex are dealing with leaking pipes and mold issues as well as rodent and insect infestations. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that New Bethel Baptist Church transferred the management and development rights for Foster House to a joint venture with a developer. The church transferred management and development rights for the parcel on which Foster House sits, but not the building. The church continues to manage the building. Construction on Foster House is on hold as a lawsuit filed by the tenants challenging the transfer awaits a hearing before an appeals court after a lower court ruled in favor of the developers. This version has been updated.

The Foster House apartments were built from the ashes of Shaw.

In 1973, just five years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ignited an explosion of rioting that left Shaw and other D.C. neighborhoods in ruins, New Bethel Baptist Church began renting brand new apartments to low-income tenants. Most of the building’s early residents were Black families who also attended Sunday services at the church.

The building was an extension of New Bethel’s mission, church leaders said, to provide housing to families displaced by the riots and the disinvestment that followed. It was a way, they said, to rebuild the community from the ground up.

Nearly 50 years later, Foster House residents again fear being pushed out of their homes. But this time, tenants said, it’s the church that is doing the pushing.

Longtime renters at 801 Rhode Island Avenue NW said they have spent years with mold in their walls, rodents crawling their floors, broken appliances, water leaks, roach infestations and an HVAC system that coughs black clouds through their vents. Roughly half of the 76 units in the building are now vacant. Those who left could no longer afford to stay in a gentrified neighborhood where a one-bedroom apartment can cost upward of $2,000 a month.

New Bethel has said the Foster House building is too far gone to fix, and the church cannot afford to make repairs. It, too, is falling victim to the same forces that have morphed Shaw from a majority Black neighborhood — 78 percent in 1980 — to an area in which less than 20 percent of residents identified as Black in the 2020 U.S. Census.

These changing demographics have already contributed to the disappearance of historic Black churches in Shaw. The Rev. Dexter Nutall, who has led New Bethel since 2009, said declining membership, rising costs and the battle with Foster House residents could push the church as well as the tenants out of the neighborhood.

‘You feel unwanted’

When Jovan Edwards moved into Foster House with his grandmother in 1979, the hallways hummed with life — children’s laughter, the beat of feet, neighbors calling to each other from down the way. He said the building felt like a community, a family even.

Congregants from New Bethel would join residents in the community room, baking cookies and brownies for the kids. Families shared resources, watched each other’s children and had each other’s backs.

It has been years since the building felt like that, tenants said.

Today the halls are quiet. Just down the block from a row of million-dollar homes, Foster House is home to some of the District’s poorest residents. Many say they can’t remember the last time they saw church representatives in their midst.

As issues with the property have grown more severe, residents’ trust in and patience with the church has worn thin. A dozen tenants interviewed by The Washington Post said they blame New Bethel for years of neglect, ineffectual property managers and conditions so bad that a number of families felt they had no choice but to leave.

“It’s hard to recognize somewhere as home when you feel unwanted, when your home is literally making you sick,” Edwards said. “We have a lot of seniors in here who never smoked, who now have severe respiratory problems. … I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Edwards, who moved back into Foster House in 2000, keeps a camera in his unit to discourage maintenance workers from coming in without warning. A neighbor has taken to posting notices on her door that read, “YOU ARE NOT PERMITTED TO TAKE PICTURES IN HERE!!!!!! PERIOD. THIS GOES FOR EVERYONE EXCEPT THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE.”

Since 2005, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has investigated more than 120 allegations of code violations in the building. Dozens of citations have been issued and several problems remain unaddressed, according to agency records.

Federal agencies also cited the property for failing to pass inspections. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 32 housing violations in 23 units, including mold issues, according to court records. During a 2018 inspection, HUD investigators found 49 violations in 20 apartments.

The D.C. attorney general’s office hired a private inspection firm in October to take a look at 12 units and the common areas of the building. Court documents show the company found 190 violations in the apartments and 27 throughout the common areas that included “many safety-related deficiencies.”

Elisabeth Johnson, 66, says rodents have run over her feet while she stood in her kitchen. She’s struggled with broken appliances, leaky pipes, mold and ventilation issues.

Zhenlu Guo, 72, who lives with his wife and grandchildren, said the bathroom ceiling collapsed in 2020, pouring water and sewage into their home.

Ericka Malloy, 50, who suffers from lupus, sued the church over mold levels in her unit that she said affected her breathing.

“I’m starting to feel like they’re trying to make things worse so we will up and move on out,” said Joy Perry, 43, the live-in caretaker for her 73-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia. “My mom has been a member of the church since she lived here. They’ve been giving us bags of food since it’s the holidays and I swear, I started to think, ‘Are they trying to poison us now, too?’”

Matthew Yansane, 61, one of the few remaining tenants who continued to worship at New Bethel until recently, said he left the congregation after he could no longer ignore how disillusioned he had become with the values the church preached while he lived in its crumbling building.

“The Black church is not being pushed out of the District, but residents of places like the Foster House are being pushed out of the District,” said Yansane, president of the tenants’ association. “They are the agent of gentrification. The Black church is supposed to stand for a decent society, but to me, a decent society is one that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens.”

Redevelopment plans

Pastor Nutall, a native Washingtonian, took the helm at New Bethel in 2009 after civil rights leader Rev. Walter Fauntroy stepped down. The neighborhood around them was changing fast, Nutall said, and the squeeze of displacement felt palpable.

Nutall has made it part of his mission to remind the community of why D.C. needs New Bethel, and the Black church more broadly.

“The Black church stands for sanctuary. Not in the sense of a room, but in the sense of a safe place,” he said in an interview with The Post. “It stands for social justice, it stands for outreach, it stands for community.”

‘The end of our journey’: A historic black church closes its doors in a changing D.C.

But that community has fractured.

In 2018, the church transferred the management and development rights for the parcel on which Foster House sits, but not the building, to a joint venture created in conjunction with developer Evergreen Urban by signing a 100-year land lease. Tenants’ lawyers have argued that the novel arrangement sidesteps the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a law that requires landlords to give tenants a right of first refusal to purchase the property or transfer their purchasing power to a developer of their choosing. In 2019, the tenant’s association filed a lawsuit accusing the church of violating residents’ rights in its haste to redevelop the property. That suit is awaiting a hearing before the D.C. Court of Appeals after a lower court ruled in favor of the developers. Until the case is resolved, construction at Foster House is on hold.

In February, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office stepped in and sued New Bethel, alleging that at-risk low-income seniors had been forced to live in unsafe conditions due to the church’s negligence — a violation of New Bethel’s stated nonprofit purpose.

Although the church initially agreed to remedy some of the conditions in the attorney general’s suit, the May deadline for those repairs came and went with little action, the city’s lawyers said. The District then asked a judge to appoint a receiver, a third party answerable to the court that oversees repairs — a move the church opposed.

“I’m not going to say we’ve always done things perfectly, but I believe we are responding and acting as reasonable owners of a 50-plus-year building,” Nutall said. “That includes sustaining the building, but there are systems that have outlived the manufacturers’ recommended useful life.”

A judge is scheduled to hear updates on the church’s remediation plan Friday afternoon.

Nutall has accused the District of trying to push the church to sell by draining its resources with a protracted legal battle. Racine (D) defended his office’s motivations for getting involved, saying the conditions at Foster House are “horrid” and primarily affect the “overwhelmingly Black and brown tenants” who live there.

“I respectfully ask the objective observer to look at the work we have done — we have unfailingly been in the corner of vulnerable people,” Racine said.

Displacement fears

Nutall said he empathizes with the fear Foster House residents have of being displaced. He fears displacement, too. It’s why, he said, the church is determined to develop the property — rather than sell it off to another owner.

“My fear and concern is if anyone other than New Bethel ends up with this property, even more people will be pushed out of Shaw,” Nutall said.

Ongoing court battles have put a strain on the church’s finances. New Bethel has spent nearly $250,000 between March and December on legal fees, the pastor said, not counting what had been covered by insurance. To help alleviate the pressure, Nutall created a legal-defense fund to collect donations from supporters and other faith groups.

Tenants bristled at the concept.

“If he cared about the residents, he would be raising that money to address our complaints,” Yansane said. “Once we no longer live here, who will go to the Black church? The kind of residents they’re looking for to put in these new, market-rate apartments are not going to the Black church.”

The ultimate plan, Nutall said, is to knock the building down and erect a new one. The pastor thought the project would be underway by now, but lawsuits and pandemic-related delays have pushed the timeline back indefinitely.

His vision is this: Expand the 76-unit apartment building to accommodate 198 mixed-income units — some that will rent for market-rate prices and others earmarked for low-income tenants whose annual income is around 30 percent of the median for the area (roughly $38,700 for a family of four).

Nutall declined to specify how many of those new units would be designated for low-income residents. His goal, he said, is to “guarantee all current occupants of the Foster House who continue to meet the requirements of the subsidy … would be able to move back in.”

As of late December, lawyers and advocates estimated, fewer than 40 apartments remained occupied.

“Our original vision for it was 76 or more deeply affordable units,” the pastor said. “But I’m not sure how that vision looks after we have gone through this year of litigation and costs and legal fees.”

To residents, the church’s optimism rings hollow.

Malloy is one of a handful of tenants whose unit was found to be so saturated with mold that she had to move out while the apartment was cleaned. A few days before Christmas, her things were packed, boxes stacked in uneven piles.

“I’m a little scared that once I move out of here, I won’t be able to get back in,” said Malloy, whose attorney told her she could spend as many as 60 days living in a hotel room. “What if they don’t let me come back? What am I going to do then?”

Michael Brice-Saddler and Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.