Southeast Residents Tell Council “Slum Lord” Forcing Them Out

Angry residents and community representatives  told City Council that they are being forced out of their homes. Photo by Leanna Commins, HU News Service

WASHINGTON — Angry Congress Heights residents and community representatives told D. C. City Council members that the property management company responsible for four affordable housing units in Southeast Washington is purposefully not repairing the property in an attempt to force out residents so it can develop the units into a more lucrative property.

Residents and Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Affordable Housing Initiative for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, told council members Phil Mendelson, Anita Bonds, LaRuby May and Elissa Silverman last Thursday that Sanford Capital had intentionally and criminally failed to provide basic services.

Residents said the company intentionally failed to prevent or fix sewage backups in the basement of the buildings, provide heat and hot water in the apartments during winter months, and sufficiently address rodent and bug infestation.

“I firmly believe that Sanford’s neglect in these properties is absolutely intentional,” Merrifield said. “Over the course of my representation, there has been a clear pattern engaged by Sanford Capital whereby once pressure is applied to them, they make very modest repairs in order to seem like issues have been addressed, only to intentionally allow things to fall apart a few months later.”

Nearly 20 residents and community representatives testified during a public hearing at City Hall.

The hearings follow the District attorney general’s decision to file a lawsuit against Sanford Capital for engaging in “repeated neglect, delayed response, or total inaction.”

The lawsuit asks that the property be placed in the receivership due to Sanford Capital’s pattern of neglect, which has led to health and safety issues for the tenants.

Even before the testimony, Silverman told the audience that the residents’ issues and Sanford’s management style was cause for concern.

Council members listen intently as residents testify.
Photo by Leanna Commins, HU News Service

“It should be concerning to all of us — to the council and to the city- about what’s happening to these residents around the Congress Heights Metro station,” the councilwoman said. “It’s outrageous, it’s unconscionable and, if our attorney general is correct, it’s criminal. We, as a government, should not stand for it.”

No representatives from Sanford Capital, which is based in Bethesda, Md., spoke at the hearing.

The management company owns the four buildings in Congress Heights and is looking to utilize a fifth for redevelopment. Its plans require demolition of all of the existing buildings to make way for a 442,000-square-foot, multi-use project that would include apartment buildings and retail.

Congress Heights resident Robert Green, one of the few tenants left in the buildings, testified that the ailments at his property could be easily fixed by a good landlord.

“The real problem is that Sanford doesn’t fix up the building, because they are trying to get us out of our homes anyway they can,” Green said. “If the housing authorities make me move, Sanford will get exactly what they want; empty buildings to tear down and then luxury apartments for rich white people.”

Green said he wanted to stay in the area because it allows him access to grocery stores, a library and other amenities.

“I have neighbors who check in on me,” he said.  “The list goes on and on, and I and other tenants like me should have the right to enjoy these benefits.”

According to the city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), the owner of a multi-unit apartment building must send a written offer to tenant to purchase a unit in the building and the mayor prior to selling or demolishing the building. Sanford Capital is required to give TOPA notice to remaining residents, but only if they give notice of demolition.

Residents told the council members that they want to exercise their TOPA rights so they’ll be able to afford to rent their Congress Heights apartments, even with redevelopment.

Residents said they feel Sanford Capital is taking advantage of a loophole in the TOPA that allows Sanford Capital to hold off on giving demolition notice until they’ve run residents out of the buildings.

“Sanford is very intentionally trying to wait people out before they have to give TOPA notices,” Merrifield said.  “They’re trying to empty the building so they don’t have to give TOPA notices.

The hearing also explored the broader implications of economic development in the District.

William Michael Cunningham, a witness, told council members that he felt that Congress Heights was another example of systematic efforts to remove certain populations from the District, and the City Council is doing little stop it.

“From an economic analysis standpoint, all this points to is the basic thesis here is that the city is getting rid of its black residents,” Cunningham said. “This council could go in and condemn that building and sell it to the tenants tomorrow if they were white.”

May, who represents Ward 8 and the Congress Heights community, expressed similar sentiments at the beginning of the hearing.

““The black residents in all of the properties where we have slum lords know, very real, that this council would have never let white people in any other part of the city live in conditions like this for as long as poor black people have been living in this building,” she said, “and it is unacceptable for that to happen.”

The councilmembers vowed to assist residents of Congress Heights and other affordable housing throughout the city to make sure developers don’t push them out.

“Development is critical to the vitality of our city, and to Ward 8,” Silverman said. “We need more jobs in Ward 8. We need more Ward 8 residents in jobs. We need more businesses, and better housing options, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of our residents. Development should benefit all of our residents- not just those who are thriving in our economy.”