The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More aid but no solutions for owners at crumbling D.C. condo building

Several engineering reports have deemed the building on Talbert Street, in Anacostia, dangerous and unlivable

Homeowner Jeanita Brown shows one of the many cracks in the basement floor of her D.C. townhouse on Aug. 26, 2021. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

More than a year after countless calls, meetings and messages to city officials, little has changed for the dozens of first-time home buyers who were forced to flee their crumbling Anacostia building.

Their mortgage payments still come due every month. Homeowners remain unsure when or how they will be able to return to the condos they bought as part of a D.C. effort to empower first-time home buyers and grow the number of Black homeowners in the District. The condominium association, which has been tasked with pricing out solutions, is barely staying afloat.

That’s why in June, a handful of homeowners staked out Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at a Ward 5 polling center, where the mayor had come to cast a vote for her own reelection.

“Our housing is falling apart!” said Theresa Brooks Hill, a resident of the River East at Grandview Condominiums on Talbert Street. “We cannot go back there at all.”

Nearly all the residents have moved into temporary housing throughout the city, aided by financial assistance from the D.C. government — a one-time $7,000 cash payment and monthly rental assistance, an arrangement that was extended from one year to two after the confrontation.

Several engineering reports have deemed the building dangerous and unlivable. The problems begin with the very foundation the structure was built on and extend throughout the complex, the reports say, affecting everything including the plumbing and the retaining wall, which has been sliding slowly toward a steep drop-off and the busy residential street below.

The building, residents say, has to be torn down.

“I don’t plan on moving back unless my unit is completely fixed; knock it down and start from the ground up,” said Yvonne Lawson, a young mother who was pregnant when she moved and now lives near Union Station.

Tearing down and rebuilding a 46-unit apartment complex is well out of budget for the condo association, which has been saddled with legal fees and insurance costs that shot up from $19,000 annually to $15,000 a month in less than a year. Though a lawsuit was filed against developer Stanton View and its subcontractors last year, it remains unresolved.

Neither Stanton View Development nor its attorney responded to requests for comment. In 2020, Stanton View filed a lawsuit against six subcontractors that had worked on the Talbert Street project for $2 million each, alleging they had performed work that was “faulty, negligent, not in accordance with plans … and not in accordance with industry standards.” Last year, with the case still unresolved, the developer also filed for bankruptcy.

“We still don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Ty’on Jones, a homeowner and one of five members of the condominium association. “What everyone wants is to be back in the home they own. We all went through the process to be homeowners, but no one has made any commitments to assist with the cost to rebuild.”

They found dream homes through D.C.'s first-time homeowners program. Now they have to evacuate.

Before construction began in 2016, the D.C. government underwrote a $6 million loan to Stanton View Development to build the property, which included a subsidy from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, the primary cash reserve for D.C.'s affordable housing projects.

Nearly all of the homeowners are Black women and first-time home buyers who received loans through the city’s Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), one of the Bowser administration’s primary programs for boosting homeownership among Black Washingtonians. Starting this month, the program — which has been criticized by some enrollees for being overly cumbersome in a lightning-fast housing market, but is generally well regarded among D.C. officials — will offer more than twice as much assistance to qualified first-time home buyers.

Following months of outcry from the homeowners and just before they were forced to leave last year, the District quickly assembled a task force composed of several city agency leaders to distribute benefits and help them find new housing.

In an interview last month, D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development interim director Drew Hubbard, who sits on the task force, said the mayor met virtually with some of the homeowners in July and promised another year of rental assistance, though it remains unclear how long it will be until the Talbert Street building is safe to inhabit.

“That was the first sit-down she agreed to despite us reaching out to her office on several occasions,” said homeowner Davina Callahan, who sought therapy after her move to manage her anxiety during months of uncertainty. “I’m managing as best as possible.”

The city, Hubbard said, spent months waiting for a follow-up report from the engineering firm hired by the condo association, the Falcon Group, to bring in geotechnical experts for a second, more thorough examination of the property. Unlike the broad overview offered by the Falcon Group’s first report, this one sought to assess the structure’s underlying soil and determine how the building might be saved.

Engineers laid out a stark choice: Attempt to repair the structure by raising up the building and addressing the faults with the foundation underneath — work that could cost upward of $12 million — or demolish it and start anew.

Once homeowners learned what was happening underneath the property, Jones said, the choice became clearer. The shifting foundation put pressure on pipes and other structures that gave way and burst underground. The leaking water accelerated the erosion of the soil under the building, Jones said. With residents gone and fewer people flushing toilets or running water, he added, the damage has slowed, but the foundation is still shifting.

Tearing down the building altogether, Jones said, would “cost less over time,” and it would be “faster and easier” for work crews to start from scratch rather than attempt to rebuild faulty construction.

“Knowing that there are sloped floors or the windows that had never been able to close, we knew that you would have to go into each person’s unit and repair it piece by piece, even after dealing with the foundation issues,” Jones said. “For some units, the floors have sloped for so long, you couldn’t repair the units without tearing down and rebuilding certain homes. So at that point, we talked about it as a community and decided it makes more sense to demolish the building and rebuild.”

But that will be costly, too.

Jones and other members of the condominium association’s board are waiting on cost estimates to present to D.C. officials. But, he said, they have received no assurance that the District will offer any financial aid.

He worries they’re running out of options.

Muriel Bowser ups aid to first-time home buyers in hot D.C. housing market

“Unless some millionaire decides to drop the cost of whatever this number comes out to the condo association, there’s no one else that could potentially help us but the city,” Jones said. “We are 100 percent certain that the owners don’t have the capacity or resources to fund a rebuild on our own — people have had to apply for assistance just to pay their condo association fees. With the new insurance, we’re barely keeping up now. So if the city does not help, we’re all going to be stuck with a property that is continuing to move and be a danger to everyone around it.”

Hubbard said that the city was waiting for more information from the condo association before deciding how to proceed and that “the ability of the city to help with remediation.”

The deterioration of the building may also pose a public safety risk to those beneath the property along Morris Road SE, a busy thoroughfare dotted with homes and bus stops, according to a July engineering report. The retaining wall at the rear of the property is slowly moving toward the drop-off just above the road, experts wrote, and is in dire need of repair.

“We’re concerned not only about the Talbert site itself, but those other structures underneath and off of Morris Road,” Hubbard said.

LaRuby May, a former Ward 8 D.C. Council member and lawyer representing nine residents, including LaDonna May, her sister, said that despite the District’s offers of rental assistance and sympathy for the homeowners, she and her clients believe D.C. must do more to bail out residents who were saddled with a dangerous and deteriorating property after being promised a stable future — and a way to build wealth for their children and families — by the District’s first-time home buyer program, which connected many of the condo owners to the properties on Talbert Street.

Homeowners are still on the hook for their monthly mortgage payments. To “right the wrong” done to these families, LaRuby May said, D.C. officials should determine a way to either expedite the repairs needed to the building or free the homeowners from the obligations of their mortgages and give them another chance to purchase an affordable home with the same assistance offered the first time around.

“The District has to create a structurally safe place for these families to come and build the legacy of wealth that we need in our Black communities,” she said. “This is a righteous fight. The residents of this property deserve better.”

Hubbard said the city is committed to forgiving Home Purchase Assistance loans, interest-free loans that D.C. offers to qualified home buyers to help with gap financing and closing costs. But because each homeowner secured mortgages from different sources, broad mortgage forgiveness is more challenging.

D.C. officials are working with the 40 or so mortgage lenders who represent the various homeowners, Hubbard said, adding that many of the lenders have asked to review the engineering report to better determine options for forgiveness or flexibility in the event the building undergoes significant repairs or renovations. Jones and the condo association’s attorneys have also been in contact with banks to see what options exist for mortgage holders.

“We’re trying to see where there’s a willingness to look at forbearance,” Hubbard said. “Mortgages are more complicated than HPAP.”

In the meantime, May is fighting to bring the District back in as a defendant in a lawsuit seeking to hold the developer and subcontractors responsible for damages and emotional distress suffered by homeowners.

To help bolster their case, May said, the residents have agreed to bring on a new attorney to act as co-counsel: Ron Austin, an attorney in Louisiana who recently won a $20.5 million settlement from Brad Pitt and his now-defunct charity, Make It Right, for providing New Orleans residents 109 new, affordable and allegedly flood-proof homes in the Lower Ninth Ward after the area was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. The homes that Pitt’s foundation built, the lawsuit said, began to fall apart almost immediately after homeowners bought them.

The situation in that case, May said, is strikingly similar: Black homeowners who sunk all of their life’s savings into a newly constructed residence, thinking it would be a safe place to live and allow them to build wealth for their families, only to be confronted with the reality of faulty construction and a litany of dangerous problems.

“Ron has an expertise in this area and a passion for getting justice for Black and Brown folks,” May said. “We’re excited to bring him onto the team.”

The D.C. Court of Appeals has yet to rule on several petitions in this case, including whether the District can be brought back in as a defendant.

Hubbard said the city has already shown a commitment to aiding these homeowners and vowed to “ensure they’re in a good place” as the situation evolves. But for residents who have already suffered so much disappointment, hope is hard.

“I am one of those homeowners who worked really hard to buy my house, and I’m tired,” Jones said. “But I still want to fight for the other owners who are single moms, single parents when they moved in, who have two, three kids and may not have as much time and energy to stay on top of all this stuff while being displaced from our property. I know how important it is for someone to look out for these people.”

He paused, choosing his words carefully before adding: “I hope the government feels that way, too.”

Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.