Recent stories by The Post and Washington City Paper did more than expose the flow of D.C. tax dollars to owners of some of the most deplorable housing in the city. Post reporters Fenit Nirappil, Jonathan O’Connell and Shaun Courtney also unmasked a city government embarrassingly flummoxed by a mess it helped to create. The poor and formerly homeless residents living under wretched conditions described in the story — and D.C. taxpayers who are footing the bill — deserve better.
It’s bad enough that landlords such as the owners of Sanford Capital can rack up hundreds of warnings from the city about housing code violations. And it’s disconcerting that Sanford owners have not paid all the fines imposed by the city.
What really ought to outrage D.C. taxpayers is the revelation that their government is keeping such landlords in business.
It is the supply of poor and formerly homeless residents showing up in Sanford rental offices with city-provided housing vouchers that keeps money flowing into the owners’ coffers — reportedly millions annually in rent subsidies for tenants living in Sanford’s 19 apartment buildings concentrated in the city’s poorest areas: Wards 7 and 8.
And what does the city have to say for itself?
Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services which oversees homeless programs, whined that her hands are tied. “When you have somebody who controls a large portion of the affordable housing in the city” — Sanford owns 1,300 units — “and we have a problem with them, there’s no way that we can say we are never working with that company again,” she said.
And what is the city now doing?
Awakened by the glare of the media’s spotlight, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has sprung into action. Her first bold move? She ordered inspectors to examine all of Sanford’s apartments. Wait a second. Hasn’t something like that already happened?
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for making sure apartment buildings meet code requirements, has been on Sanford’s case.
It has issued more than 200 warnings to Sanford for housing-code violations during the past eight years and levied more than $150,000 in fines.
Madam Mayor, the city and Sanford aren’t exactly strangers.
The Post found that among the fines levied against Sanford, the company has yet to pay nearly a third — more than $40,000. The department, The Post also discovered, has stopped short of taking enforcement action with teeth — placing liens on some Sanford buildings with unpaid penalties.
Now, however, the Bowser administration talks as if it is putting on a full-court press. “We are going to make an urgent plan to get a clearer picture of the conditions,” Bowser declared. “We will make sure we get all the properties inspected.”
Sounds more like a four-corners stall offense.
Because, in truth, Sanford has been given the upper hand. The Post reported that at least 170 previously homeless families and an additional 235 individuals were living in Sanford properties using housing vouchers in 2016. Updating that, Bowser said this week, “There are over 350 people who are using a voucher in Sanford properties.”
What happens to them if Sanford leaves the scene?
One tenant, living with rodent infestations and lack of heat, brought her plight to the attention of her Human Services case manager. She said she was warned that the alternative was the city’s homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital.
Hence the unpleasant truth: Under the auspices of the D.C. government, and as with the case of dilapidated, vermin-infested D.C. General, families and children with city housing vouchers live in shameful conditions.
Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) is pushing back, having sued Sanford over conditions at two of its complexes in Southeast Washington. And reportedly Sanford has agreed to court-monitored abatement plans at those buildings. (The Post reported that Sanford’s owners declined repeated requests for comment on its stories.)
But Racine’s intervention doesn’t address the scope of the problem highlighted in the story about subsidized substandard housing: namely, the condition of families and children under the city’s care.
Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs a committee that oversees the housing voucher program, said in a email that city housing options “should be safe and dignified, which is the opposite of the conditions in many of these Sanford Capital Buildings.” She said she would love to shut it down, but the consequence would be people forced into homelessness. “So we have to do what we can to make Sanford follow the law.”
Meanwhile, what about the kids trapped by this system?
Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old girl who tragically disappeared three years ago this month — March 2014 — also lived under the city’s auspices in the D.C. General shelter.
The city knew nothing about her situation until she disappeared. Just as the city knew nothing about the four sisters, age 17, 11, 6 and 5 — also under the city’s care — whose murdered and badly decomposed bodies were discovered by chance in a Southeast house nine years ago. Just as D.C. officials were ignorant of conditions — discovered recently by Post reporters — in a subsidized apartment building with a trash- and feces-filled laundry room and unsecured doors used by vagrants and druggies that the city lists as available for poor people with housing vouchers.
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