District inspectors have found more than 1,000 housing-code violations that carry the threat of $539,500 in fines during a sweep of apartments managed by Sanford Capital, a company that has drawn scrutiny for poor housing conditions even as it receives millions in taxpayer subsidies.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered the inspections after reports about the company in The Washington Post and Washington City Paper.
“They will have a choice: Fix the violations, face nearly half a million dollars in fines or see us in court,” Bowser said at her State of the District Address on Thursday.
The violations stem from recent inspections of 229 units across 15 complexes — just under 20 percent of Sanford’s portfolio of approximately 1,200 rental units. The city has given Sanford one week to fix problems, instead of the standard 30 days, before it will issue fines.
City officials say Sanford is contesting all the violations in administrative court, which must be resolved before citations can be issued.
Stephen Hessler, an attorney for Sanford, wrote in an email that his firm would “defend our clients vigorously while maintaining professional and hopefully effective lines of communication and cooperation with DCRA and the Office of the Attorney General; while I am not able to comment on pending federal, administrative or civil litigation it is our, and our clients’ hope that we can resolve matters at hand.”
The mayor ordered inspections of all Sanford properties, and inspectors ended up reviewing a sampling of units at all but three complexes.
Inspectors did not visit two properties that are the subject of city lawsuits and where Sanford has already agreed to a court-monitored abatement plan.
Meanwhile, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is ramping up pressure on Sanford concerning one of those lawsuits. On Friday, he filed motions in D.C. Superior Court asking that Sanford be held in contempt for failing to meet the requirements of the abatement plan covering Terrace Manor — including a provision that the landlord provide heat. Racine is asking the court to appoint a receiver to take over the property. He also wants to hold Aubrey Carter Nowell, Sanford’s co-founder, and Todd Fulmer, head of the company’s maintenance arm, personally liable for conditions at the complex.
Housing advocates and members of the D.C. Council who have been looking into the government’s oversight of dilapidated properties say the aggressive scrutiny is overdue.
Before the latest round of inspections, Sanford Capital had racked up nearly $150,000 in fines since its operations began a decade ago. The company continues to receive millions annually through housing vouchers for low-income and previously homeless families. Dozens of tenants interviewed by The Post said the company has been slow to respond to such problems as broken doors, rat infestations, malfunctioning heat in winter and sewage backing into their units.
But the city has not cut off public funding, nor has it prioritized Sanford properties for increased scrutiny.
That’s because housing inspectors with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) respond to complaints and select buildings randomly for pre-announced inspections, with the goal of examining every large complex every several years.
At the mayor’s direction, the city is developing an algorithm to target buildings with a history of violations — and other risk factors — for proactive inspections.
The recent focus on Sanford has meant that inspectors are diverted from other problems across the city. Bowser’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year will include $300,000 to hire more inspectors.
“If you are going to go fishing, go where the fish are,” D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said at a recent oversight hearing for DCRA. “Let’s do strategic enforcement where we see there are problems.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who criticized DCRA at the oversight hearing for not requesting additional inspectors, welcomed the administration’s more-aggressive review of troubled buildings. Still, he said the city has been too slow to react.
“We’ve known of these problems for, gosh, I’m going to say two years, and a lot of tenants have suffered, so I don’t want to criticize the good, but it would be nice if this had happened sooner,” he said.
On a recent day, during one of the unannounced visits by a city inspector to Sanford’s Oak Hill apartments in Southeast Washington, a mouse darted past the inspector’s feet in the lobby. Closet doors were off their hinges in several units, ceilings were stained and discolored from recent leaks, and rodent holes were visible along walls.
The heightened scrutiny from the city appears to have propelled Sanford to make some repairs, residents say.
Monique Scott, 49, ushered in the inspector who knocked on her door at Oak Hill. Just a few minutes prior, a maintenance man sent by Sanford had gotten to work fixing her refrigerator.
The inspector noted the problem with the closet door, holes behind the toilet and a shoddy repair of a sliding balcony door. He also ordered the maintenance man to drill into place a transition strip that had been jutting out between the kitchen and living room, posing a tripping hazard.
Scott, a mother of 13-year-old twins, said conditions were much worse earlier in the year, including four months when she was without a working stove and oven. She says she bought her children food from Popeyes for their birthday, instead of cooking them a meal, and baked their cake in a neighbor’s oven.
Scott moved into the apartment five years ago after meeting a Sanford representative at a District housing agency, where he offered to accept tenants with federal vouchers. And like other Sanford tenants who use vouchers, she said she has kept quiet about problems at her building because she worries that she will have no alternatives in a city where rents are skyrocketing.
“If I try to go to another place, they’ll say I’m a complainer and they won’t take me. My kids are too young to be going through shelters and homelessness because I can’t be waiting for them to fix problems,” said Scott. “I tell them it’s called life.”
In the apartment below Scott’s unit, another tenant showed the inspector what she described as damage left by Sanford’s maintenance men: a smoke detector dangling off its wires, a hole that shattered the center of her bathroom door and a missing window screen.
Ericka Jones says she’s also dealt with leaks of raw sewage from her ceilings that prompted her to toss out her couch and her 2-year-old daughter’s clothes. The ceiling above her daughter’s closet was still yellow.
“We couldn’t have Christmas because it was flooded and went to my mother-in-law’s,” said Jones, who pays her rent with a city-issued voucher meant to keep families out of shelters. “The last time a DCRA man was here, urine was coming out of the ceiling.”
Violations are recorded using pen and paper, which must then be entered into the agency’s computer. DCRA officials say they are upgrading to a digitized system this year.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the mayor had ordered inspections of all units in buildings owned by Sanford Capital. The mayor ordered inspections of all properties, not individual units. This story has been updated.
Shaun Courtney contributed to this report.