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Chris Donatelli has arrived to listen. The wealthy white developer and frequent political donor met with tenants of his Park 7 Apartments last week after their list of demands went largely unaddressed for months.
Conditions at the massive building that takes up nearly an entire block on Minnesota Avenue NE have deteriorated since it opened in 2014, tenants say. More than 90 percent of the 375 units are designated as affordable housing, and about half of the tenants have housing vouchers.
A letter to Park 7 residents announcing the meeting said Donatelli specifically wanted to address one tenant’s previous accusation that he is racist. It’s “a claim he takes very seriously and personally and wishes to address,” according to the letter, and one that stems from his apparent neglect of Park 7, some residents say.
Donatelli did not address the allegation specifically, though he did take a pretty good thumping from his residents, all of whom in attendance last week were black. For more than two hours, Donatelli heard residents describe trash piling up in the hallways, chronic leaks and water damage, and mouse, roach, and bed bug infestations.
Some residents spoke about what they believe are retaliatory evictions from the property management team and the gradual erosion of advertised amenities. The “lush courtyards” advertised on the front of the building are overgrown, the outdoor grills are gone, and access to the community room is restricted to just a few hours in the evenings.
The modern, hotel-like complex once sparkled with daily cleanings, residents say. Now they come home to stained carpets and water-warped baseboards. As Donatelli listened, a light fixture fell from the wall in the community room where residents gathered. It dangled there for the rest of the meeting.
After more than an hour, one man who had been waiting patiently to say his piece, leaned over to LL.
“Do you work for Donatelli?” Ramonn Dangerfield asked.
LL does not, but it’s an understandable mistake given his pale complexion and untucked, slightly wrinkled attire.
Dangerfield played a video on his phone of water streaming into his bedroom, which happens every time it rains, he says. Because of the water damage and the possibility that mold is growing in the walls, he now sleeps in the living room with his wife and 2-year-old son.
Dangerfield says he’s lived at Park 7 for about two months through D.C.’s rapid rehousing program. He says his rent is $1,225 per month, most of which the government pays. An electrician by trade, he has recently been prevented from working due to a medical condition. He says his requests for repairs have gone unanswered.
When it was finally his turn to speak, Dangerfield told Donatelli about the piss-filled beer bottles and trash bags that line the hallways.
“But my biggest concern is this leak in my bedroom that still hasn’t been fixed,” he said. “I’m a construction worker, too, bruh. I’m just asking you to do your job.”
Donatelli promised to walk up to Dangerfield’s unit after the meeting. As the meeting continued, residents’ feelings of resentment toward their landlord began to bubble up.
“You keep your other buildings looking good, you need to keep this one looking good, too,” one resident who neighbors call Granny declared to much applause.
“If we lived in Northwest or Southwest, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” said Shanel Wilson.
Donatelli owns apartment buildings in Petworth, Columbia Heights, and on U Street NW, all of which are close to Metro stations. Earlier this year, he finalized a deal along with Blue Skye Development for a 262-unit project in Hill East, near the Stadium-Armory Metro. In 2009, the Council approved the sale of the land that would become Park 7 to Donatelli’s development company for just $10, a subsidy of about $13.1 million, WAMU reported in 2013.
(Over the years, Donatelli has showered tens of thousands of dollars on local pols, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, former Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Councilmembers Brandon Todd, Jack Evans, Kenyan McDuffie, Mary Cheh, and Brianne Nadeau.)
Last October, more than 100 Park 7 tenants signed a letter threatening to withhold rent if their demands were not met. Throughout the meeting last week, Donatelli told his staff to take notes and emphasized to the residents that he’s made some improvements—carpets were replaced, walls were painted, and a building-wide extermination has been scheduled. Some of the amenities were restricted at tenants’ requests, he claimed. That was too much for one resident to handle.
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“Excuse my French, but that’s some bullshit,” the man says. “You haven’t been able to do anything that we’ve actually asked you to do.”
Angela Kennedy has recently become familiar with Park 7. As a new attorney with the Howard University Fair Housing Clinic, she’s helped multiple tenants fight eviction. But she says other lawyers who work in fair housing are more familiar with the complex than she is.
“There are an extraordinary number of complaints they file,” Kennedy says of Park 7, “which is out of sync with the number of cases regularly filed in landlord-tenant court from one particular building.”
Starting in 2017, tenants’ rights groups took notice of the unusually high number of eviction lawsuits filed against tenants in Park 7. According to data that Stomp Out Slumlords, the housing advocacy arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, compiled from D.C. Superior Court, Park 7 initiated at least 885 evictions against its residents between January 2017 and July 10, 2019.
Donatelli says that number is drastically exaggerated. He says he’s filed 15 evictions in the past seven months.
One former tenant, Lotus Muladhara, moved into the building in 2015, and by 2017, she reached her breaking point. After her requests for repairs, including a leaking bathroom ceiling and mold in the walls, went unanswered, she and a handful of frustrated residents met with organizers from Stomp Out Slumlords. Soon after that meeting, she says, a ticket appeared on her vehicle parked in the tenants’ lot and it was later towed.
Muladhara says a D.C. police sergeant told her someone from Park 7’s leasing office called to have her car ticketed. In a cell phone video shared with LL, one of the building’s managers denies that accusation.
Muladhara says her vehicle was towed just before Christmas and prevented her from spending time with her mother, who struggles with mental health issues.
“My mom had an episode, and I couldn’t get to her,” Muladhara says. “She lives over an hour away, and it’s just me and her. That’s it. I’m all she has.”
By then, Muladhara had been posting photos and videos of Park 7 and its employees on social media. She also started a website— takeemdown.com—solely dedicated to documenting problems with the building.
In 2018, Park 7 filed two eviction cases against Muladhara. The first, filed in March, accused her of not paying rent. The second case, filed a month later, alleged that Muladhara’s yelling at property managers and her critical internet posts violated the terms of her lease. In court records, Muladhara responded with a list of several possible housing code violations including non-working appliances, pest infestation, and brown water.
A judge combined the two cases, and in August 2018, both sides came to an agreement. Muladhara was required to take down her website and social media posts and was barred from posting disparaging things about the building in the future. She also agreed to move out by September. In exchange, Park 7 forgave any unpaid rent, which, according to court records, amounted to $893.
But in January 2018, just a few months before Park 7 tried to evict Muladhara, its leasing officer filed for a temporary restraining order and sued her for defamation.
Mia Culbreth, who lived in Park 7 and was the target of multiple eviction cases herself, writes in court records that Muladhara cursed at her and called her names every time they saw each other. She also writes that Muladhara posted photos and videos of their acrimonious interactions online.
“I am requesting that she stop taking my picture and video taping me, and putting it on my company website and social media,” Culbreth writes. “I want her to stop slandering my name and every time she sees me, calling me names. My job is in jeopardy.”
The restraining order was dismissed when neither Culbreth nor Muladhara showed up for court, and a judge later dismissed the defamation case. Muladhara has since moved to California, where she says she’s “doing great now that I’m not in D.C. anymore.”
“It was targeted, it was vindictive,” she says. “That’s why they wanted me gone, because I was organizing.”
Donatelli listened for as long as his tenants had problems to share. He took over management of the building, which he owns, in January, but a walk through the building after the meeting makes it obvious that not every floor has benefited from new carpet and fresh paint.
Tyrell Holcomb, the chairperson of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7F, has lived in the building since 2014. Sometimes, he says, he dreads coming home.
“The value of Park 7 and the actual look on the inside don’t match,” he says. “The level of amenities that are communicated via the website and what you sign in your lease, I think there’s a very evident disconnect.”
He points to a bill introduced by Gray earlier this year that would give Donatelli a tax abatement, though Gray couldn’t recall the exact value. His staff couldn’t pinpoint an exact number either. Gray introduced the same bill last year, but it died in committee, and his predecessor, Yvette Alexander, introduced similar measures in the past without success.
A spokesperson for Gray tells LL that he will ask that the bill not be scheduled for a hearing until Donatelli and Park 7 residents reach an agreement over their demands.
“I have no interest in something that’s only going to accrue to the ownership of the building,” Gray tells LL. “If it doesn’t help keep business and tenants there, I have no interest in that at all.” Holcomb says before he can support the tax break, he wants to see more and consistent improvements to the building.
As for Dangerfield, whose bedroom leak went ignored for two months, he said in a follow-up interview someone recently came to seal the crack. But during Wednesday’s storm, hours before press time, he called LL to say rain was again pouring into his room.