Rodent and bedbug infestations. Raw sewage in the basement. Ovens used for warmth in lieu of heat.
It is all part of the “outrageous” saga of a “slumlord” in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, lawyers and tenants testified before the D.C. Council on Thursday night.
But more troubling, council members said during the three-hour hearing, is that while the tenants of four rent-controlled apartments in Southeast may be experiencing one of the most egregious — or at least the most publicized — housing debacles in recent city history, they are hardly alone.
Rather, a hearing meant partly to determine a solution for a small group of tenants in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast cracked open a larger chasm of flaws and missing pieces in the city government’s stated mission to protect poor D.C. residents from displacement amid the rapid redevelopment and gentrification of District neighborhoods.
Among them are a flawed Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which, while designed to protect tenants from displacement amid redevelopment, is actually “extremely hard to execute,” council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said.
And then there are the ways in which lawyers and tenant advocates alleged that the city has facilitated the actions of “bad actor” landlords and developers; approving the development plans of companies that have racked up code violations, or even handing such “actors” government funding to house the homeless and other vulnerable residents.
The Congress Heights tenants have long alleged that their landlord, Bethesda-based Sanford Capital, is trying to push them out to make way for a more lucrative development plan involving office buildings, apartments and retail shops.
Their complaints, court filings and public testimony over the past two years led to an investigation and subsequent lawsuit filed last month by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine — an event that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he could not recall seeing in more than 15 years on the council.
On Monday, tenants, government officials and a representative from Sanford Capital are expected to testify at D.C. Superior Court, where Racine will ask the court to assign a new temporary owner to manage the properties and make needed repairs.
“What this case more broadly illustrates is how development is done in Washington, D.C.,” testified Will Merrifield, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who has represented the tenants association. “It is a rough and dirty process that benefits a lot of people at the top of the food chain and is devouring people below.”
A. Carter Nowell, a principal at Sanford Capital, did not respond to questions about the case on Friday.
But as the Congress Heights tenants detailed the year-long creep of a building-wide bedbug infestation, their battles against mice and, more recently, a collapsed ceiling, council members posed a broader question: How do we fix this?
“We need to understand that this kind of situation looms in many buildings, and we really need to get on that,” council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s Committee on Housing and Community Development, said Friday.
Tenants and their advocates testified that they want to see changes to the city’s TOPA law — and they want the government to stop partnering with companies that have a known record of abuses.
Under District law, building owners are required to provide tenants with TOPA notices — the opportunity to purchase their housing units — before the company is allowed to evict them to make way for a demolition or redevelopment.
The problem, witnesses and council members said Thursday, is that there is no clear timetable for the notices, which means that a property owner can maintain poor living conditions for months, potentially compelling tenants to move out, after winning city approval for a development plan. The fewer tenants left at the time that TOPA notices arrive, the less likely it is that a move to purchase will be successful, they said.
Caroline Hennessy, who testified on behalf of Housing Counseling Services, which has also worked with Congress Heights tenants, suggested that the approval of a development by the city’s Zoning Commission should be a trigger to issue TOPA notices. That would have meant that Congress Heights tenants would have received TOPA notices in early 2015, after the plan for their buildings’ demolition won city approval.
Geoffrey Griffis of CityPartners, Sanford Capital’s development partner, said in an email Friday that tenants’ TOPA rights have been preserved and that “no resident will be permanently displaced, or driven out of Congress Heights because of this project.”
But developers, Hennessy said, should “not have the ability to just wait out the tenants and make their lives miserable.”
The city has also functioned as an enabler, advocates argued.
Many of Sanford Capital’s tenants receive Section 8 housing vouchers and other government subsidies that cover the cost of rent. That includes 170 tenants who are also “homeless services clients,” the District’s Department of Human Services told Merrifield last month. Three households are homeless families who live in buildings that are the subject of Racine’s lawsuit.
The fact that a company that has racked up dozens of code violations and is being sued by the city also receives government funds “just shows how ridiculous housing policy is in D.C.,” Merrifield said Friday. “Instead of creating quality affordable housing, they are funneling the most vulnerable families to slumlords.”
Several advocates proposed a “bad actor law.”
“Landlords with an excessive number of code violations . . . should be banned from receiving any public monies,” said Jeremiah Lowery, a public witness at the hearing.
Council member Bonds said her takeaway from the hearing on Thursday was “it’s really clear that the bad actors should not be a part of any subsidy whatsoever.”
While Sanford Capital receives government funds to house poor District residents, other city agencies have also facilitated its development plan.
That includes the District’s Zoning Commission, which last year approved a Congress Heights development plan submitted by Sanford Capital and CityPartners, despite existing code violations at properties that would be subject for demolition and despite testimony from the tenants about hazardous living conditions.
The region’s Metro transit agency also appears to be on the cusp of selling an acre of land to the developers, even as Sanford is being sued by the city.
Metro recently sought an appraisal for the tract of land above the Congress Heights Metro station, which sits adjacent to the four buildings and which it had agreed in 2012 to sell to the developers as part of the development plan. The Metro board will probably vote on the purchase price in March, a board member’s spokesman said.