D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser made the pledge on the campaign trail, in her inauguration speech and during her State of the District address in March: She would make sure that every Washingtonian can live in a safe and affordable home.
On a corner of Alabama Avenue and 13th Street SE, right across from where the mayor announced a $55 million practice facility for the Washington Wizards basketball team last month, her assurances are being put to the test.
There, a gleaming new complex of apartments, offices and shops is planned above the Congress Heights Metro station — the kind of development that is similar to dozens around the still-gentrifying city over the past 15 years and one that could help make this community the next hot neighborhood.
To build the project, the developer would have to raze four rent-controlled apartment buildings where residents already feel they are no longer welcome. The tenants are largely poor, elderly and live on fixed incomes. They said they believe they are being pushed out by two politically connected developers, who have failed to make improvements to the four apartment buildings even as many residents live in squalor.
Residents say they have been offered money to leave but are concerned about where they would go when their buildings are torn down.
“We know what’s coming to Southeast,” said resident Tujuanda Blalock, referring to the gentrification that has swept through other parts of the city. She won’t be able to afford the redeveloped neighborhood, she said, and neither will her neighbors.
Housing advocates and some council members say the Bowser administration has a unique opportunity to ensure that even as the neighborhood develops, tenants such as Blalock still will be able to afford to live there.
The key is a fifth building at the center of the development plan, at 3200 13th St. SE. It is effectively under city control because of a long past due city loan and unpaid taxes that total about $1 million.
The city’s housing department is weighing whether to forgive that loan, which would facilitate the sale of the building and the launch of the development — and push the current residents out. If city officials chose not to forgive the loan and take ownership of the building, they could reshape the development and possibly strengthen affordability requirements, housing advocates and some city officials say.
“The city could influence the redevelopment through the city’s control of that building,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
Bowser (D), through a spokesman, declined to comment on the development and her thinking about the project. Members of her administration, while aware of the tenants’ living conditions and their fears, said there is little they can do to preserve affordability because the properties are privately owned.
“We can’t wave a magic wand,” said Bowser’s housing director, Polly Donaldson.
The changes coming to the corner of Alabama and 13th — echoing previous booms in Columbia Heights, Shaw and Brookland — highlight the difficulty in gentrifying cities across the country of balancing the commitments to deliver new amenities to neglected neighborhoods while preventing those improvements from pushing out longtime and less affluent residents.
The decision in Congress Heights is a crucial one for the young administration as the mayor hopes to deliver on a range of promises, especially to residents east of the Anacostia River, where for years many have felt left out of the city’s boom.
As mayor, Bowser has committed $100 million annually toward providing affordable housing. But according to a March report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the city’s housing crisis has grown so dire that rising rents have led to the virtual disappearance of low-cost private housing across the city.
“Families that spend the majority of their limited budget on housing costs are forced to cut other necessities like food, health care, and transportation,” the report said.
With this development, the District has a critical opportunity to create a better outcome, said Will Merrifield, a lawyer from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who is representing the tenants in Congress Heights.
“The only apartments left in D.C. that are affordable — defined as under $800 a month — are subsidized units,” Merrifield said. “The D.C. market is so out of control that if you’re displaced from a rent-controlled apartment, it is essentially impossible to find housing.”
For months, the residents of the four buildings have felt unwelcome.
One woman says she hasn’t had heat in five years and uses her oven for warmth. Another resident said it took five days for the landlord to repair her toilet; she and her family began using a bucket. And the smell of garbage and sewage leak perpetually from a ground-floor apartment that was abandoned more than a year ago, and where a layer of brackish water covers the kitchen floor.
“This is the stuff you see in the movies — the slumlords,” said Blalock, a resident of one of the buildings set to be demolished.
While Congress Heights has long served as an outpost for many poor D.C. residents — where low rents still exist by default of city neglect — developer Geoffrey Griffis of CityPartners said he took an interest in the neighborhood back in 2008. Other Metro-accessible neighborhoods were booming, but Congress Heights wasn’t even on most investors’ maps, he said.
“I thought, here’s an opportunity to start to assemble something, to start to do something,” Griffis said in an interview.
To redevelop the area around the Metro station, he teamed with the Bethesda-based company Sanford Capital.
Over the next three years, Sanford Capital bought the four brick apartment buildings at 1309, 1331 and 1333 Alabama Ave. SE and 3210 13th St. SE for about $2.8 million.
Together, the companies laid out a plan calling for a 285,000-square-foot office building and about 208 apartments with ground-floor shopping. The project, Griffis said, would be “transformative,” bringing jobs and businesses to a long-neglected neighborhood.
District law requires that at least 8 percent of the new apartments be affordable to families making between 50 percent and 80 percent of the area median income — or between $54,600 and $87,360 for a family of four.
But few of the tenants, many of whom are disabled or senior citizens living on public assistance, will be able to afford that, a reality that Griffis also acknowledged. Instead, he said he offered to pay around $1,200 of tenants’ moving costs, and that they could return to the new — but likely smaller — apartments at their existing rents.
Tenants said returning to the new development was unlikely because they didn’t trust the developers or their guarantees. One resident, Ruth Barnwell, said some of her former neighbors had already accepted payments from Sanford to move on. Others left because they found the living conditions untenable.
While three years ago, nearly all of the 47 apartments in all four buildings were occupied, only 19 have tenants now, according to Sanford.
“They’re trying to push people out,” Barnwell said.
Griffis said he and Sanford executives have been meeting with residents since 2009 to prepare them for the coming changes.
“We’re not trying to run anybody off. If anything, we’re trying to get them to work with us so we can move at a faster pace,” Griffis said.
Some residents are wary. City inspectors have cited Sanford Capital for nearly three dozen violations, including rat infestations, failure to maintain minimum temperatures, obstructed drains, broken lights, splintered floors, leaking faucets and defective smoke detectors.
Residents have accused Sanford Capital of deliberately contributing old mattresses and furniture to a trash heap in one building’s parking lot. The company also owes more than $10,000 in back taxes on two of the properties, according to the D.C. tax office.
The D.C. attorney general is now looking into the tenants’ complaints, a spokesman said.
“All of our properties are up to code and have no outstanding housing code violations or infractions,” A. Carter Nowell, a principal at Sanford Capital, said in an e-mail.
Nowell said “nonresidents” were dumping the trash, not the company. He said that the company has abstained from making building improvements due to the planned development. The Zoning Commission approved the project earlier this year.
“Because we will be razing the properties in order to build new units, we are not currently making capital improvements,” he said.
District law allows the tenants certain rights to purchase their units so long as they live there under the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act.
“There is no question in my mind that this is a classic situation of a landlord trying to force the tenants out through harassment,” said Mendelson, who said he had to meet with tenants outside during the summer because the air conditioning was broken. “Being in there, that’s the strongest thing they have. The minute they move out, they lose everything they’ve got.”
Early in her administration, Bowser used District funds to add affordable units to a series of District development projects. She also announced her plan to fund the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund with $100 million annually — money that housing officials said can help cover the cost of subsidized units in new developments.
In the case of the Congress Heights plan, the city has additional leverage by controlling the fate of 3200 13th St. SE — the key fifth building that, while part of the approved development plan, is not yet owned by the developers.
In 2008, businessmen Zed Smith and Kelvin Elmore purchased the property with a $920,000 loan from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development with a commitment to use the building to house District youth aging out of foster care. The redevelopment never happened, the debt was never repaid and the building remains vacant.
Legally, the city could now forgive the loan or take ownership of the property — something D.C. officials and developers say it rarely does.
Donaldson said that the fate of the building was under internal review as part of a broader inspection of the District’s outstanding loans but that she hoped to make a decision “as soon as possible.”
Merrifield said the administration has an obligation to act.
“The city should be saying to these developers, ‘We’re having an affordable-housing crisis. If you want your plan approved, you have to work with us to broaden the affordability at these sites,’ ” he said.
There are a series of connections between members of the development team and Bowser’s campaign, and critics, such as neighborhood activist Eugene Puryear, say that those connections have stood in the way of city action.
CityPartners and members of the Griffis family gave $3,102 to Bowser’s 2014 mayoral campaign. Patrick Strauss, a principal of Sanford, and members of his family gave $3,753, according to campaign finance reports.
Griffis said in an interview he has known the mayor for years, considers her a friend and was a fundraiser for her mayoral campaign. Bowser recently appointed him to the National Capital Planning Commission. He dismissed any suggestion that his support was meant to produce political favors.
Two close Bowser allies in Southeast are also involved in the project: Phinis Jones, a prominent fundraiser and campaign coordinator for Bowser, and his business partner Monica Ray, who managed the campaign finances of Bowser’s pick to represent the local ward, Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8).
The Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation (CHCTDC), which Jones founded and Ray runs, is poised to take ownership of the crucial fifth property in the development plan — if the city forgives the loan, according to the property’s owners and legal documents obtained by the tenants’ lawyers.
Jones and Ray have been involved with the development for years. Sanford initially hired Jones to provide construction and maintenance services on the Congress Heights apartments, the company said. Jones and Ray’s organization also worked with Sanford Capital early on to win neighborhood approval for the development plan.
“With our involvement in the project, they have an advocate that’s going to make sure that the community gets its best bang for its buck,” Ray told Capital Community News at the time.
Ray and Jones’s group would also be the beneficiary of $5,000 in annual payments if the project goes through, according to a deal with Sanford and CityPartners, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. The payments are established under a Community Benefits Agreement, which developers frequently sign with neighborhood groups.
Griffis called Jones a friend whom he has known for years but said he did not know how the organization would use the money. “I don’t know what they actually do,” he said.
Bowser, through a spokesman, declined to answer questions about whether the mayor’s ties to the developers were having an impact on the city’s handling of the situation.
Jones did not respond to multiple phone messages. Nor did Ray.
May, who said she lives a few blocks from the Sanford buildings — and whose summer community outreach efforts were partly financed by Jones — said she had visited the properties and expressed her dismay about the living conditions to Griffis. But the residents say they have not heard from her since.
“I have been to the site since the summer. I have talked with residents of the property,” May said in an e-mail. “I continue to explore options to provide the residents of this property and other properties in Ward 8 safer and higher quality housing.”
Mendelson said the involvement of the mayor’s supporters in the development was troubling.
“You’ve got politically connected developers,” Mendelson said. “You have a very unfair balance of power.”
Far from the mayor’s office and the machinations of District power, Barnwell, Blalock and their neighbors said so far, they only know two things to be true: Their homes are not being repaired, and they don’t know where they will end up when development finally arrives.
“It’s sad because some people are here ’cause they have nowhere else to be,” Blalock said. “What are you going to do with all these families?”
Jennifer Jenkins, Aaron Davis and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.