D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is ordering city inspectors to review the more than 1,300 apartments owned by Sanford Capital, saying there is an “urgent” need to evaluate all the company’s units after reports of wretched conditions in some of its 19 buildings.
“We are going to make an urgent plan to get a clearer picture of the conditions,” Bowser (D) said. “We’ve heard about samplings of information about these units, and now we need to understand the conditions of their portfolio in its entirety. We will make sure we get all the properties inspected.”
But the mayor cautioned against taking drastic action against the company without more information because of the difficulty of finding better housing for families who might otherwise be homeless.
Sanford receives millions annually from taxpayers through city housing vouchers that are provided to low-income individuals and families. Many apartment building owners do not accept those vouchers.
“Let’s be clear that we have a large property owner who accepts housing vouchers here,” Bowser said. “There are over 350 people who are using a voucher in Sanford properties. . . . . We do not want anything to happen to make these families homeless.”
Patrick B. Strauss and A. Carter Nowell, who together launched Sanford Capital in 2005, have declined repeated requests to discuss their business. Their attorney, Stephen Hessler, declined to comment Tuesday.
Bowser, who campaigned on a commitment to safe, affordable housing, received $3,000 for her 2014 mayoral campaign from Sanford, according to campaign finance reports. Strauss’s wife, Mary, gave an additional $753.
Inspectors with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs have issued more than 200 warnings for housing code violations to Bethesda-based Sanford during the past eight years, issuing more than $150,000 in fines. About one-third of those fines have gone unpaid; it is unclear whether Sanford disputes them.
Tenants in multiple Sanford properties continue to report problems, including rodent infestations and lack of heat. DCRA officials say they have no way to track owners of multiple properties, and do not subject building owners with numerous violations to extra scrutiny.
Bowser said her administration would be “strongly investigating any administrative or policy changes we need to make to deal with the worst-of-the-worst housing providers” who have slipped through the cracks of a system partially managed by multiple agencies.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine sued Sanford over conditions at two of its complexes in southeast Washington, and the company has agreed to court-monitored abatement plans at those buildings.
A spokesman for Racine said the attorney general continues to investigate substandard housing in the city but declined to say if he is focused on additional Sanford buildings. Racine recently announced the formation of a new public advocacy division to specialize in housing, among other issues.
Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who lost the 2014 mayoral race to Bowser, said the city government should make an example out of Sanford Capital by putting all of its properties into receivership and suing it for the cost of repairs.
It would send “a powerful message to others,” said Gray, whose district includes several Sanford buildings.
Even if the District is unable to get Sanford to pay for rehabilitation, the city should tap its reserves to pay for repairs and ensure that voucher recipients continue to have safe places to live, Gray said.
“We have vulnerable people and vulnerable citizens affected by this, and they need to be able to feel like their government is someone they can reach out to,” he said.
Other D.C. Council members reached for comment seemed hesitant to end the flow of taxpayer dollars to Sanford Capital, citing the city’s shortage of affordable housing.
“I just wish there were an easy answer and we could just shut Sanford down, but the consequence would be people forced into homelessness with no viable alternative, so we have to do what we can to make Sanford follow the law,” council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said in a statement. She chairs the committee that oversees agencies that provide housing vouchers.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has visited a Sanford building in Congress Heights riddled with pests and mold, said the city needs to vigorously enforce existing housing codes. “The city should take them to court over and over if necessary,” he said.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said in a statement said it was “inexcusable that DCRA can’t get its act together to track these bad actors,” and called on housing inspectors to step up enforcement and collection of fines.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the housing committee, says she is considering legislation that would create escalating fines and tax penalties to ramp up pressure on companies like Sanford.
Some of the council’s most progressive members want more aggressive action.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) says housing inspectors should prioritize buildings with a high concentration of subsidized units, and place tax liens and even foreclose on buildings with chronically squalid conditions.
“We have to go after those who profit the most from those who are the most vulnerable,” said Silverman.
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said the city should place buildings with unsafe conditions into receivership and hand over control to reputable nonprofit affordable-housing providers, echoing a call from many housing advocates. Bowser administration officials have been hesitant to take such an approach, saying the city lacks the resources and risks running afoul of private property rights.
“We need to figure out a way to get these buildings from the hands of crooks into the hands of people who understand the dignity of human life,” White said.