No one is blameless in the controversy surrounding Park Southern Apartments — not Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) administration, the D.C. Council or the building’s nonprofit owner. The sordid story suggests yet another “pay-to-play” scenario while providing insight into a cannibalistic environment in which one set of African Americans seemingly feeds on another, less fortunate group.
A little background: The 359-unit Ward 8 apartment complex was developed specifically to house poor and working-class people. In 2006, the D.C. government made a $3 million loan to the nonprofit Park Southern Neighborhood Corp. (PSNC) to refinance and rehabilitate the building. Based on reporting by The Post’s Aaron Davis, it appears that, eight years later, the place is rife with housing code violations and the corporation hasn’t made loan payments as agreed — even as select PSNC board members lived rent-free and the tenants question where thousands of dollars meant for repairs and upkeep ended up.
Rundown apartments aren’t new. Defaults on government loans happen all the time. The problems with the Park Southern Apartments have been elevated, however, because the complex offers critical low-cost housing in a city desperate for it; there have been allegations of malfeasance; and politics permeates the case.
Truthfully, politics has always intersected with this property. Robert Yeldell, a former president of the nonprofit, came from a family with strong historical ties to elected officials. A company owned by former council member H.R. Crawford has provided management services there. After Yeldell’s death, the Rev. Rowena J. Scott took the helm of the PSNC. Some have called her a big wheel. “I’m not a political power broker,” she told me.
For years the D.C. government failed to enforce the loan agreement. Why?
Housing department spokesman Marcus Williams told me that monitoring of such publicly funded properties is “done on an ongoing basis through our Portfolio Asset Management Division.” But actual site visits to Park Southern happened only on three dates in 2013. Williams later clarified that, because the loan had been made from the Housing Production Trust Fund, site visits weren’t mandated. Beginning this fall, he said, the agency intends to conduct visits regardless of the funding source for loans.
Better late than never, right?
Scott told me that she reached out to Gray; the government didn’t come to her. The building had aging pipes and destructive tenants, and rents hadn’t been raised sufficiently. “I am no slum landlord,” she asserted.
In response to her plea for help, Scott said that Milton Bailey, chief of staff to the D.C. housing director, urged her to bring in Vesta Management Corp. “He told me their relationship went back 25 years,” she said.
On Jan. 24, there was a telephone conference call among Scott, housing officials and Vesta. While the company was hired by the PSNC, it was just as quickly fired, housing officials said. Officials met with Scott and members of her group on Feb. 24 and 28. Two months later, in April, default notices were issued.
In May, as permitted under the terms of the loan, the city took control of the building, reinstalling Vesta to manage daily operations while allowing the nonprofit to retain ownership. “Pastor Scott did not follow through on commitments she made to DHCD,” explained Williams, the housing department spokesman.
Scott told The Post that the default notices were political payback for her decision to switch her support in the spring Democratic mayoral primary from Gray to council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4). In late March, as the housing agency was bearing down on the PSNC and the primary campaign was drawing to a close, she held a meeting at Park Southern, introducing Bowser to about 100 potential voters. “There were no tenant complaints coming out of that building,” Bowser told me. “People talked about schools and public safety.”
A couple of the most troubling things about this whole episode: Poor and working-class African Americans were living in squalor while some board members, many of whom are black, neglected many of their responsibilities and engaged in practices that raise serious questions about possible self-dealing. There also is the scent of “pay to play.” In addition to Scott’s organizing, Phinis Jones, head of the management company previously used by the nonprofit corporation, worked to deliver votes and money to Bowser; both say there was no connection between their political activity on Bowser’s behalf and Park Southern.
Upon learning of the default notices from one of her colleagues, Bowser attempted to intervene. She sought unsuccessfully to bring all affected parties together in a closed-door meeting.
That may be Bowser’s standard problem-solving practice, but she’s not in Kansas anymore: She’s a mayoral candidate in a city reeling from corrupt and unethical behavior by elected officials. Complicating matters, she refused the housing director’s request, one reiterated by her opponent in the mayor’s race, council member David Catania (I-At Large), to hold a public hearing on the matter. Instead, she asked the inspector general to investigate. The current inspector general is interim; if Bowser wins the November race, she would be the person to decide the IG’s fate.
Bowser’s ill-advised responses have created concerns among some residents about how she would handle such matters if she were mayor. Would a Bowser administration be transparent and ethical?
She dismissed all of that in an interview as a “political show,” arguing she’s more concerned about Park Southern tenants. “The only way to protect [them] is to make sure there is stable ownership. What happens if that building is sold? If there is new ownership, we have to be concerned that it remains affordable.”
Shouldn’t those issues be explored in a public hearing, particularly since there already is a behind-the-scenes-fight over ownership?
Scott said Vesta made an offer to purchase the complex, which the nonprofit rejected. Jones’s company also has made an offer. By law, tenants have the first right of purchase.
Folks, the political fighting is just getting started.