Water gushes through walls when it rains and the mold spreads across Bertha Chambliss’s living room. Dead birds rot atop a stairwell near the apartment of Melinda Goode and her two teenage sons.
Near the southern tip of the District, Park Southern Apartments is home to more than 700 of the city’s working poor, who have grown accustomed to an unceasing litany of woes including a leaky roof, rodents, no air conditioning and broken locks.
In addition to deteriorating conditions in the apartments, many of the residents say they learned only recently that the building’s finances are also in near-disastrous shape. A city-backed mortgage is more than 36 months behind on payments. An escrow account holding tenants’ security deposits is depleted.
And at the center of the dysfunction is the board president of the nonprofit corporation that owns the building: Rowena Joyce Scott, a minister who is also one of Southeast Washington’s most influential Democratic powerbrokers.
Scott faces accusations that she has wielded her political influence to avoid government scrutiny and to benefit personally at the expense of Park Southern’s residents. The controversy also has raised questions about whether the District has adequately overseen the subsidized project — and provoked finger-pointing between two city leaders who have benefited from Scott’s political support: Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Council member Muriel E. Bowser, who defeated Gray in the April 1 Democratic mayoral primary.
Scott maintains that she has done nothing wrong and has made critical repairs but lacked the money to do more.
But with the city’s plummeting stock of affordable housing now a central theme in this year’s mayoral election, the tangled political and legal tale of Park Southern threatens to stretch beyond her and become a blight on both Gray’s and Bowser’s records. One of Bowser’s general election opponents, Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), has accused Bowser of improperly thwarting the city’s efforts to figure out what went wrong at Park Southern to protect a supporter who helped her win.
Built atop a hill along the District’s southern border with Maryland, Park Southern was touted as the first city housing project to be jointly built by the government and private developers for struggling families who made too much to qualify for federally subsidized public housing.
Finished in 1965 by a group of developers that included Marjorie Lawson, a city judge and leading civil rights adviser to John F. Kennedy, all 360 units in the block-long series of connecting towers were dedicated to low- and extremely-low-income residents.
Park Southern originally was owned by its developers. But in the 1990s, a neighborhood development corporation run by residents and community members took possession. Financed with low-rate loans from the federal and city governments, the complex charges below-market rents that are supposed to cover the corporation’s loan payments as well as upkeep and operations.
“All we have ever wanted is a seat at the table,” said Donald Goins, who has lived in the building for nearly two decades and thinks that Scott and other members of the nonprofit board have repeatedly kept residents from holding honest and timely elections. Several poorly funded lawsuits filed by residents have had limited success.
Scott ascended to board president of the Park Southern Neighborhood Corp. in 2007. Payments continued to slip on a city-backed loan secured the year before. Long-standing complaints of mismanagement grew louder but went unchecked, residents and court documents show.
Nearly a year ago, city officials began pressuring Scott to do better after an air conditioning failure left residents sweltering for weeks. About that time, city officials discovered that none of the project’s external security doors would lock. The door locks were still broken when the city seized control of the property in April.
According to court records, interviews and correspondence obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act: Park Southern owes the city $628,262 in mortgage and interest payments. It owes about $400,000 more for utility and other bills, mostly to Pepco and Washington Gas. Tens of thousands of dollars are missing from the account holding tenants’ security deposits.
Tenants also allege in a lawsuit filed in April that Scott and the board racked up tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained travel expenses, salaries to nearly 100 people even as residents saw only two or three at the property, and let herself, her daughter and close associates she helped win seats on the board live rent-free.
In April, the city sent in a property management company to take over. According to court documents, interviews and correspondence, Scott’s alleged “gross mismanagement” of Park Southern and its finances are under review by the D.C attorney general. Ted Gest, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said city code inspectors, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue and the Internal Revenue Service have been alerted to “alleged malfeasance” by Scott and the board. Regarding a possible criminal probe, Gest said only that the attorney general is working with Gray’s housing department to protect the city’s rights as a lender.
A city-funded estimate of repairs for the building now rivals the assessed value of the entire structure: $20 million. The city has begun eviction proceedings against Scott, saying she has never paid to live there and owes $57,000 in back rent.
In addition, a property manager hired by Scott owes an estimated $300,000 for rent collected in March that was not turned over to the city’s temporary property manager, according to city housing officials.
Scott said the security-deposit money was missing before she took over as president. She said tax records showing increasing payroll and other costs reflect that she has hired dozens of parolees for part-time work. Scott acknowledged that she was living rent-free as part of the compensation for her job.
Scott is best known within D.C. political circles for her ability to deliver votes in heavily African American wards east of the Anacostia River. Until last year she was chairwoman of the Ward 8 Democrats. The epicenter of her political power has long been Park Southern.
Scott’s alleged mismanagement of the apartment complex is bringing new scrutiny to her political activities. She is a longtime supporter of Gray — but in the thick of the mayoral primary race in the spring, at a time when the Gray administration was looking into problems at Park Southern, she switched allegiances and backed Bowser (Ward 4).
Gray and his top aides considered Scott a supporter, even sharing campaign e-mails with her until a week before the election. That changed when she was photographed and quoted in a Washington Post article about helping get Bowser supporters to the polls for early voting.
Gray saw the photo and was livid, according to his campaign manager, Chuck Thies. On the Saturday before the election, the mayor traveled to Park Southern and went up and down hallways knocking on doors. He ran into Scott and they had a heated exchange at an elevator; he said he didn’t want to “hear anything more” from her, according to several residents. Scott, who does not dispute that she switched her support, said she would have been happy to organize a meeting of residents for him as she had with Bowser.
By some accounts, Scott’s switch set the stage for Bowser’s momentum-building win of the Ward 8 straw poll, when no one from Park Southern turned out to vote for Gray, Thies said.
The Gray administration’s subsequent scrutiny of Park Southern — and Bowser’s actions in response — have prompted a volley of charges and countercharges that Gray is seeking political revenge and Bowser is improperly rewarding a supporter.
City officials had increased their scrutiny of Park Southern’s problems before April 1. And attorneys for Park Southern tenants said they had been pressuring Gray’s housing department to rein in Scott — and had recently threatened the city with legal action.
But the day after Gray lost his bid for reelection, the housing agency declared the nonprofit board in default on a $3 million, city-backed loan.
In an interview, Scott said Gray is “out for revenge” over Scott’s decision to back Bowser.
“Mayor Gray, that man is being very vicious,” she said. “I thought I was free to vote for whoever I wanted. I didn’t know I wasn’t — like this is a Third World country.”
Gray declined to comment through a spokesman.
As the allegations against Scott and her management of Park Southern mounted, Bowser met with city housing officials and questioned their takeover of the complex. In addition, in early May, Bowser requested a meeting between Scott and her associates and city housing officials.
Aides to Gray refused to allow city officials to participate in the private meeting, saying in e-mails and interviews that it could have put the city in a compromised legal position because of the city’s ongoing legal dispute over mortgage payments and the possibility of legal action, including a potential criminal investigation.
Instead, Michael Kelly, Gray’s head of housing and community development, agreed to brief Bowser without Scott in the room. In a letter circulated to the D.C. Council, he asked Bowser to hold a public oversight hearing on Park Southern, essentially agreeing to be put under oath and testify about how the city came to take action against Scott.
At her meeting with Kelly, Bowser asked the city’s attorney general to “provide the legal authority under which” the Gray administration had taken action against Scott and Park Southern, Gest said. An assistant attorney general later provided Bowser’s office with a list of Park Southern’s financial delinquencies and details about the District’s rights as lender. Bowser's legislative counsel followed up with a more direct request, asking in a June 3 e-mail provided to The Post for an opinion on the District’s “legal right to seize Park Southern documents and space.”
Catania, the council member who is running against Bowser in the fall mayoral race, accused Bowser of improper intervention on behalf of a political supporter. He also suggested that she is no different from Gray, who is the subject of a federal criminal investigation related to illegal fundraising and spending during his 2010 mayoral campaign.
Bowser scoffed at the idea that the meeting she asked for raised ethical concerns — a charge Gray aides also made in e-mails. Bowser said that getting everyone in the same room to discuss the problem would have been progress. She said her sole interest is in making sure the property retains its status as affordable housing. Of the hearing, which she still has not called, Bowser said she thinks the truth about Park Southern’s woes probably lies “somewhere in the middle” between the versions presented by Gray and Scott. She said it is time for Gray’s housing department to “do its job” and figure out the situation.
Residents, meanwhile, are waiting nervously. At a recent meeting with more than 100 residents, many praised the city’s new property manager for tackling long-neglected maintenance issues, and booed when a resident raised the possibility that Scott might return as property manager.
Goins said that at least without Scott in charge, “things are finally looking up.”
Scott, who is fighting her eviction, said she is trying to “hold on for a few more months” until Gray leaves office. She said she is confident the next mayor “would be more sympathetic.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.