City Paper is not for tourists
Lillie Tucker, a tenant of The Vistas Apartments in Ward 8, went on a rent strike in January to finally get repairs to her apartment. A maintenance worker fixed the bottom lock on her front door, the bathroom light, and garbage disposal on Friday after her repair requests went ignored for days.
But the repairman didn’t complete the most important request—he didn’t replace the window with the bullet hole. This window has been broken for two years.
“The bullet hole—it came through right here,” says Tucker, as she carefully opens her vinyl vertical blinds on a recent Sunday afternoon. “I even cut myself real bad on the window.”
People like to hang out right below Tucker’s window, in the parking lot. Sometimes these hangouts turn violent, as happened two years ago when a bullet broke through the window and punctured a hole in Tucker’s wall, right below a family photo. Her younger nephew was home with her at the time, crashing on a bed right by the window in the living room, but he just dodged the bullet. The bullet holes are still there—a constant reminder of that terrifying day.
“Thank God no rock hit it so far, or another bullet,” says Tucker of her cracked window. As she speaks, she becomes out of breath. “Living here, I pray a lot. I stay on my knees praying a lot. It is pretty rough around here.”
Living at The Vistas for 11 years has taken a physical and emotional toll on Tucker and her family. Tucker has respiratory and heart problems and she believes the mold in the building is exacerbating these conditions. She claims her granddaughter even contracted an eye infection while visiting after residue from a hallway vent fell on her face. Tucker stays with her sisters when her nerves can’t take being in her apartment anymore. She isn’t alone in her frustrations.
The tenants of The Vistas and Forest Ridge, two Section 8 complexes near the Anacostia Metro station, say they have been living in uninhabitable conditions for some time. Conditions were so abysmal that the Office of the Attorney General filed a lawsuit in October 2018 against the landlord, Joseph “Joe” Kisha, and his various companies, including the Vista Ridge Limited Partnership, owner of the apartment complex, and Castle Management Corporation, LLC, the property manager of all 399 units.
The lawsuit sought to abate criminal activity and other housing issues that threaten the health and safety of tenants. According to the complaint, the Metropolitan Police Department responded to more than 2,020 calls between January and October 2018 at The Vistas and Forest Ridge, where there were nine gun homicides since 2007. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs also cited the property various times for “defective smoke detectors, cracks and loose plaster in the ceiling, flooding and unclean floors in common areas, and water leaks and damp walls in individual units, and holes in the walls.”
Fourteen months after the OAG sued, tenants and their advocates say life is still rough at The Vistas and Forest Ridge. Continued problems at the property show the limitations of litigation in resolving landlord disputes.
City Paper repeatedly called Kisha at Castle Management for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.
“I’ve been looking for some change, I aint seen no change yet,” says Tucker.
“The maintenance and safety concerns at the beginning are the same ones that they’re dealing with now because it hasn’t gotten any better,” says Sarah Maceda-Maciel, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, a tenants rights campaign under Democratic Socialists of America. “It’s things like the water will be shut off for days on end without any notice.”
Maceda-Maciel has been meeting with Forest Ridge tenants since the fall of 2018 and goes on to list a number of unresolved issues: pebbles coming out of a few tenants’ faucets and light fixtures falling from some tenants’ ceilings, sometimes on them. A few tenants Maceda-Maciel meets with even suspect maintenance workers of stealing their personal belongings when someone does come around, without notice, to fix something.
Security concerns persist. Anyone can get into the buildings because none of the entrances are locked. That’s a problem when the sounds of gunshots are common. City Paper spent six hours on the property on Sunday and heard them. In 2019, one young man was murdered near the property, a police report shows.
“A few people said that they felt like the security guards were kind of making more rounds, more frequently,” says Maceda-Maciel. “But other than that, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’ve experienced a major difference in how safe they feel.”
Cereta Jackson, a tenant of The Vistas, agrees: “To me, it didn’t get no better.” Jackson has been trying to get her cabinets replaced for years. The cabinets are worn out, they’re the same cabinets she’s had since she first moved in more than three decades ago. There’s even a hole in her cabinets where rodents come in and out. Be it a request for new cabinets or air filters, maintenance is rarely responsive. She says it’s only ahead of an inspection from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that maintenance comes by and makes sure everything is OK.
“They take the tickets but I’m thinking somebody must be signing the tickets out like they’re doing the work. I even called down there and told the lady, ‘Are you signing the tickets out? Because this has not been done.’ I’ve been calling numerous times to get this done—this is ridiculous,” says Jackson. “It’s just a respect thing.”
Jackson adds, “It’s about them not doing their job—[these] people need to stop being in office, being in management, and people need to stop buying real estate. When they’re supposed to own something, they need to take care of it, they need to treat people like human beings.”
Tucker and Jackson are two of four tenants in The Vistas who went on rent strike on Dec. 31, 2019 with help from Stomp Out Slumlords. Tenants sent a collective letter to Castle Management in mid-December, asking them to make repairs they’ve known about for years. Each had specific issues in their respective units and common areas; often-cited problems include rodent and cockroach infestations, mold, and water leakage. When management failed to comply with the list of demands, tenants paid rent for January into an escrow account. Tenants’ efforts are proving fruitful so far; for example, a maintenance worker finally visited Jackson on Tuesday to measure her cabinets to possibly replace them.
Tenants feel the rent strike is necessary because the OAG lawsuit only modestly changed management’s behavior. Tenants and their advocates acknowledge some security improvements, like more lights outside the complex. But management’s response to apartment repairs hasn’t changed—it’s still a headache to get anything done, tenants and advocates say. The lawsuit, however, did motivate tenants to organize, says Stomp Out Slumlords organizer Yvonne Slosarski, who’s been visiting The Vistas for nearly two years. After the lawsuit was filed on Oct. 16, 2018, tenants were more willing to meet with one another and relaunch the tenant associations.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the OAG. They’re very responsive and they are clearly doing what they can to hold the landlord accountable,” says Slosarski. “I don’t know where their hands are tied and what they’re legally allowed to do and not allowed to do, especially with the bankruptcy.”
Vista Ridge Limited Partnership filed for bankruptcy on March 1, 2019, court records show, before the OAG had a chance to request a court-ordered receiver. In D.C., a “receiver” is a third-party entity that essentially becomes the property manager. The OAG says bankruptcy complicates the legal process, but it’s still working to get some of the problems resolved. The OAG reached a security agreement in the spring of 2019, and worked out an abatement plan with Kisha and his lawyers the following summer. The security agreement, for example, requires that the landlord install security cameras, increase private security personnel, and improve coordination with MPD. It also demands trash pickups.
“Since those agreements have been entered, we’ve been monitoring and trying to ensure compliance,” says the OAG. Lawyers for the District are hoping for a resolution similar to that of the Terrace Manor Apartments in Southeast D.C., where Attorney General Karl Racine and his team secured renovations and returned rent to tenants who lived in squalor.
The Vistas and Forest Ridge tenants, meanwhile, have had to fix their units themselves. Veronica Carter, a renter at The Vistas, hired a day laborer outside a Home Depot because maintenance wouldn’t respond to her request regarding water damage for a month. After paying him $180, the worker she hired replastered and repainted the wall in her children’s bedroom. Carter is still experiencing problems with water damage in the walls of her bathroom.
“They came and did a bumrush fix up,” says Carter of Castle Management’s overall behavior since it was sued.
But Carter is cautiously optimistic about the new landlord—a few tenants and their advocates are, as they feel a new landlord is the last hope for meaningful change. Belveron and Redwood Housing are slated to become the new landlords, after the current landlord declared bankruptcy; they are expected to close in March.
“People want to believe that the new landlord is going to make a difference,” says Maceda-Maciel. “And I am one of those people.”
Some tenants are still trying to get out—tenants like Tucker. “I had all kinds of promises from everybody and it’s still the same,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get out of this hell hole. This is the worst place I have ever been in my life.” Tucker applied for a new apartment and expects to hear back in February.
Tenants and their advocates say they are already encountering some problems with the new landlords. They are trying to get Belveron and Redwood Housing to put in writing the promises they’ve been making in meetings with tenants, in the form of a contract with the tenant associations, says Slosarski. But the landlords say they can’t. City Paper reached out to Belveron and Redwood Housing for comment but did not hear back.
“Tenants were the ones who said, ‘You can’t just move us one building by one building when you’re doing renovations because then the next building over will just get all the rats,’ and that’s not something you really know unless you live here,” says Slosarski, as she explains why tenants need to be involved in the process.
“This has to be a gut rehab, right. There’s no sort of alternative because the mold is so far into the walls,” says Slosarski. “We’re trying to organize tenants to have a say in that process, have a say in how these buildings get reconstructed because they’re the ones who live here.”