Lately, with a nip in the autumn air, Ernestine Turner, 83, has needed bedtime heat in her rodent-infested apartment. So she pulls open the door of her old Hotpoint electric oven and sets the knobs to broil at 350 degrees.
Tuesday morning, as Turner, whose health is failing, sat on a sofa in a threadbare robe, the coils still glowed in her tiny kitchen, radiating since the night before.
“Nothing works in this place,” she said, meaning the three-bedroom apartment she shares with two of her adult daughters. “We’re living uncivilized.”
At Terrace Manor, an 11-building housing complex for low-income tenants in Southeast Washington, broken heating systems are just one of many chronic problems that have made conditions “deplorable” for tenants, according to the D.C. government, which filed a lawsuit Monday against three partnerships that control the development.
Turner, who has suffered three strokes, has a deteriorating memory and is losing her eyesight, also said she endured a summer with no air conditioning.
“When it was so hot in here, and I had just got out of the hospital, I called and called and called,” she said. The landlord is Sanford Capital and two related partnerships, all based in the same office suite in Bethesda, Md., the lawsuit says.
“My daughter called,” Turner said. But no one responded to her messages. “She finally went up there and talked to them. ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll send somebody’ — just all kinds of excuses. And it was so hot in here one day, I got sick from it.”
The civil action, filed in D.C. Superior Court, marks the second time this year that the city has sued Sanford for allegedly operating a vermin-infested apartment complex rife with heat, water and fire-safety problems in Ward 8, the District’s most impoverished precinct.
The company declined to comment on the allegations.
The current complaint, citing “a serious threat to the life, health and safety” of Terrace Manor residents, echoes a lawsuit filed by the city against Sanford in January. In that case, four other Ward 8 apartment buildings owned by the company were placed under a court-monitored repair regimen after months of futile complaints from tenants about mold, vermin, flooding, broken utilities and other hazards.
At those four buildings, along Alabama Avenue and 13th Street SE, near the Congress Heights Metro station, renters alleged that Sanford was trying to push them out by allowing living conditions to deteriorate. Sanford and a co-developer are planning to raze the buildings and construct offices and new apartments at the site.
Terrace Manor, along Savannah and 23rd streets SE, is a mile east of the Congress Heights buildings. According to the lawsuit, Sanford runs the complex under the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which gives tax breaks to companies for providing affordable housing for poor families.
Although the city did not explicitly allege that Sanford is trying to push tenants out of Terrace Manor, the lawsuit notes that 52 of its 61 apartments were rented when the company acquired the property four years ago but that only 14 are occupied now.
“That management company — I wouldn’t even call them a management company,” said one tenant, Samantha Wright, 50, who lives with her husband, two of her daughters and three of her grandchildren. “Mold all over this bathroom. It’s up here on the ceiling. It’s on the bathtub, the counter, the walls and trying to get into the other room.”
Her rent is $942 a month. Referring to Sanford, she said, “They want your money and they don’t want to do nothing for it.”
The lawsuit, like the earlier one, was filed by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine. At a Tuesday breakfast meeting of the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Racine said his office lacks the resources to be the “landlord-tenant lawyer for the entire city.” But he vowed to pursue landlords with patterns of violations.
“Companies that have a clear record of not doing what they are obligated to do under law, which is to provide habitable and safe conditions to tenants, should, frankly, not be permitted to benefit from any District government subsidy or grant or award,” Racine said in an interview after the meeting.
“We have an affordable-housing crisis,” he said. “It would be far better for landlords to remediate problems so that folks can have full, habitable, safe conditions.”
Bowser said, “We don’t want any landlord to have squalid conditions for their tenants, so we support any aggressive action against people who aren’t following the law.”
The lawsuit, which asks for a court-appointed receiver to oversee repairs at Terrace Manor, says city inspectors found 129 housing-code violations at the complex in February and notified the landlord about the problems in March.
“The time for compliance passed on April 3,” the city said. But as of Monday, only four of the problems had been fixed. “Indeed, the most egregious violations remain unabated, including rodent/vermin infestation and lack of proper heat.”
Among other problems, according to the lawsuit, the inspectors noted “failure to maintain smoke detectors, fire extinguishing equipment and emergency lights in operable condition; failure to eliminate roach, bedbug and mouse infestations; and failure to provide adequate hot water and heat.”
Sanford has “repeatedly declined to rectify the problems, either by wholly ignoring the repeated complaints or by performing shoddy, superficial fixes,” Racine’s spokesman said in a statement, adding that “the owner also continued to demand and collect full rent.”
Besides seeking a court-appointed receiver, the city wants Sanford to provide “restitution to tenants who paid rent during the time period that the property was in violation” of the city’s housing code “or was otherwise uninhabitable.”
Turner said the daughters who live with her, ages 58 and 62, are also chronically ill. The three get by on Social Security payments. Their rent is $1,090 a month.
“The rodents,” she said, shuddering. “My God, the rodents. You can be sitting here and they’ll run right by. Now I haven’t seen it for a few days, thank God.”
One of her daughters said: “I saw them yesterday. Little rat ran right out from underneath the stove, right up there by the wall.”
Turner shivered again and, once more, said, “My God.”