Willena Turner, a single mother of seven, wanted a home of her own. So in 1973 she scraped together $500 from her earnings as a federal records clerk for the deposit on a new, three-bedroom home in Sayles Place, a townhouse cooperative in the District’s Barry Farm neighborhood.
The deposit and Turner’s monthly payments went toward the cooperative’s mortgage, backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“She was more glad that she didn’t have to depend on a landlord,” said Pamela Turner, 57, Willena’s youngest daughter. “She was more content with having something of her own.”
For 35 years, Turner’s monthly payments chipped away at the cooperative’s mortgage and toward her share of the townhouse development on Douglas Place SE.
But her dream of a well-kept home of her own died in 2009.
That year, HUD moved to foreclose on Sayles Place, citing poor maintenance and repeated failed federal property inspections. To avoid foreclosure, the Sayles Place board members filed for bankruptcy and looked for an investor to purchase the mortgage. Bankruptcy gave residents the power to choose their new landlord, rather than letting HUD decide the matter after foreclosure.
They chose Sanford Capital and were hopeful. Even if they lost their equity, they were convinced that their homes would be maintained. Instead, when Turner died in 2012 in her home at the age of 92, she was paying rent to one of the city’s most notorious landlords.
Sayles Place residents told The Washington Post that their landlord ignores complaints about broken air conditioners, sewage that flows into kitchens and bathrooms, vacant units that invite squatters, unsecured entrances and poor exterior lighting. There were two shootings at the property in 2016.
City agencies have served Sanford with more than 200 warnings of housing code violations with fines totaling about $150,000 across its 19 properties, a Post investigation found. The D.C. attorney general filed two lawsuits against Sanford over housing code violations at two of the most dilapidated buildings. The company agreed to an abatement plan for both properties, neither of which is Sayles Place.
An attorney for Sanford Capital declined requests for comment about conditions at Sayles Place.
Caroline Andrews, 69, has lived at Sayles Place for 43 years. Andrews said she and her neighbors were upset when they lost their homeownership opportunity in the bankruptcy but were determined to make the best of it.
“We never had no idea that the people who took on the place would be the landlords that they are,” Andrews said about Sanford Capital.
Sayles Place was part of a Nixon-era federal program to support homeownership among lower-income Americans. The federal government subsidized cooperatives — where each resident has a financial stake in the entire property, as opposed to owning a specific unit — to create a low-cost buy-in option and keep monthly payments affordable.
The promise of Sayles Place was that residents could own a share of D.C. real estate, a rare opportunity in the 1970s when just 28 percent of the city’s population owned a home. The term of their 40-year loan would have been up in 2014.
Many of the first residents were single mothers like Andrews and Turner.
“It was a good opportunity,” Andrews said. “It was like a family.”
But by 2009 HUD moved to foreclose, saying the cooperative repeatedly failed to keep the property in good condition.
Michael Diamond directs Georgetown University law school’s housing and community development clinic, which represented the residents of Sayles Place in the mid-2000s. Diamond worked with the tenants to get repairs made to try to pass inspections.
When the co-op filed for bankruptcy in 2009, it claimed between $1 million and $10 million in liabilities on property assessed at about $3.4 million and $9,000 in cash assets. The board filed claims against 13 tenants who owed up to $25,000 in missed assessments.
“There’s no question their financial standing was precarious,” Diamond said, adding that it would have been better to put the property into temporary receivership until its financial and physical conditions improved.
Residents still question the foreclosure, which came just five years before the mortgage matured. “You mean to tell me y’all couldn’t come up with a better way?” asked Turner, who continues renting her mother’s three-bedroom apartment.
The Sayles Place board received offers from two potential buyers: W.C. Smith, which owned other affordable housing, and Sanford Capital, a relative unknown at the time.
The board tapped Sanford, which promised that it would freeze rents for several years and upgrade the property with handicap-accessible features, security gates and new kitchens, all while providing homeownership opportunities for qualified residents, according to Turner and cooperative-board documents.
In a letter to residents and in a corresponding covenant with HUD, Sanford promised to provide “decent, safe and sanitary housing.”
But on a cold November day, the doors swung open on several empty units revealing floors littered with trash, discarded clothing and unraked leaves. Shattered second-story windows left gaping holes like missing teeth, and plywood rested haphazardly over broken doors. Handicap access was never built, security gates never installed.
Juan Carlos Talley, 42, lived at Sayles Place with his three young children from 2014 until December. It was the second Sanford property in which the formerly homeless veteran lived. He took Sanford and its affiliates to court three times for maintenance failures.
So rampant is the drug use and prostitution in the unsecured laundry rooms that Talley was never able to wash clothes while he lived at Sayles Place.
“You can do any and everything in the laundry room, except laundry,” he said.
While some tenants accepted buyouts to move out when Sanford took over, Turner and Andrews stayed.
Andrews said she regrets that decision.
Turner just wishes Sanford would maintain the property, her home since 1973. Even if she wanted to move, she does not know where she could find another three-bedroom unit at an affordable rate.
“I would have nowhere to go,” Turner said.
Courtney is attached to The Post’s investigative unit through a program at American University.