For several months, lawyers from the D.C. attorney general’s office observed broken heaters, rodent infestations and badly maintained plumbing at four rent-controlled buildings in one of the poorest corners of Washington. They were appalled.
Now, the District is suing the landlords — Bethesda-based Sanford Capital and its subsidiaries — for maintaining the apartment buildings in Congress Heights in what the suit alleges is such an extreme state of disrepair that they have deteriorated to the point of “being uninhabitable by tenants.”
The pattern of neglect, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office says, was intentional, lending credence to tenants’ long-standing claim that they are being pushed out to make way for new development in one of the District’s last remaining affordable pockets.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, caps more than two years of public complaints about broken pipes, persistent flooding, vermin infestations and mold from residents at 1309, 1331 and 1333 Alabama Ave. SE, and at 3210 13th St. SE, many of whom are disabled or elderly and living on fixed incomes.
Will Merrifield, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who has represented the tenants in their efforts to seek repairs, said the lawsuit demonstrates appropriate action against “a company that has continually showed . . . that they’re not interested in complying with the D.C. housing code, and they’re not interested in the welfare of the people who live in their properties.”
Aubrey Carter Nowell, a principal at Sanford Capital and one of two individuals named in the lawsuit, declined to comment Friday because he said he had not seen the suit.
Nowell said in an email in September that the properties had no outstanding violations. He also said that the company was no longer making capital improvements because it planned to raze the properties as part of a redevelopment plan.
Inspections by the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in late October resulted in the issuance of 77 housing code violations for those four buildings, which had already received more than three dozen. Additional inspections of one building a few days before Christmas found residents there living without heat or hot water. A ceiling collapsed on the tenants of one apartment on Dec. 21, the lawsuit says.
“Indeed, the refusal of the Respondents to abate their housing code violations in a timely manner is particularly egregious in light of the fact that many of their tenants have modest financial means, and therefore lack viable alternatives to the unsafe and unhealthy rental accommodations inflicted upon them by their landlord,” the attorney general’s office says in its court filing.
Racine has petitioned the D.C. Superior Court to assign a “receiver” — a temporary manager — to take control of the buildings to make much-needed repairs, and he has asked the court to order Sanford Capital and its subsidiaries to pay for the damage.
The four apartment buildings lie at the center of a planned 285,000-square-foot mixed-use development above the Congress Heights Metro. The project, which Sanford Capital and its co-developer City Partners say will include new offices, more than 200 apartments and ground-floor retail, was approved by the city’s Zoning Commission last year.
But the lawsuit appears to have alienated Sanford Capital’s business partner and chief executor of the development plan, Geoffrey Griffis of City Partners.
“The current condition of several of the properties are not something we support,” Griffis said in an email Friday. Although Griffis and his company do not own or manage any of the properties in question, he said “that a change is required.”
He said that he did not know how the lawsuit would affect the development plan he had worked on with Sanford but that he hoped it would “effect immediate changes for the residents of Congress Heights” and that City Partners would still be able to move forward with the development plan.
“We do not want to displace residents, which is why we have made guarantees that all current residents will be offered the chance to move back into the new building at their current lease rates,” he said.
Tenants and their advocates said last year that the cityapproved development plan, in spite of repeated code violations by one of the developers, raised questions about the District’s commitment to maintaining affordable housing, even as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) allocated $100 million to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
Some affordable housing advocates, such as Merrifield, see Congress Heights as part of a broader pattern of swift gentrification amid rising property values.
“What’s going on at Congress Heights is going on all over the city,” Merrifield said, adding that property owners in poor neighborhoods across the city are trying to “cash in” on rising housing prices by forcing the tenants out through intentional neglect so that they can develop the land into more profitable ventures.
Bowser’s administration also has leverage in the Congress Heights development plan because it controls a key fifth building in the plan, 3200 13th St. SE. Sanford Capital and City Partners have planned to acquire the building, which owes the city roughly a million dollars for an unpaid loan and taxes.
According to the lawsuit, the District “may petition the court to appoint a receiver” for a rental housing accommodation when the building has been cited for code violations that pose “a serious threat to the health, safety, or security of the tenants” and the owner, agent, lessor or manager “has failed . . . to abate the violations” — or when the operation of the building has demonstrated a “pattern of neglect.”