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In the war against slumlords, Attorney General Karl Racine is, by nearly all measures, winning.
Since 2016, when he became the District’s first elected AG, his office is four for four in filing lawsuits against property managers who have serially neglected to make critical property repairs. Another lawsuit against a fifth property manager is working its way through DC Superior Court.
Racine has also boosted staffing for the office’s housing unit, and garnered near- universal support from fair housing advocates for his aggressive and successful legal push against negligent landlords. But despite the attorneys’ most creative attempts to hold those landlords accountable for repairs, the aftermaths of these cases have illustrated the natural limitations of Racine’s power.
Slow court proceedings, a lack of strict enforcement mechanisms for noncompliant property managers, and high repair costs have throttled efforts to abate some of the worst known housing code violations across the District, say some tenant organizers involved in these cases. And the tenants living in buildings whose repairs are now in the care of independent executors, called “receivers,” have suffered through additional months or years of poor conditions.
“In part, the problem is that this isn’t the perfect mechanism. We appreciate that he’s filing these lawsuits, but [enforcing housing code violations] should be an executive function,” says Rob Wohl, a manager at the Latino Economic Development Center who has organized on behalf of tenants living in two buildings where a judge has ordered the property into receivership. Referring to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Wohl says that the attorney general is “not an effective substitute for having an effective regulatory agency.”
In some cases, apartment buildings fall into disrepair precisely because the property owners don’t have the liquid assets available to make significant structural upgrades to the buildings, and DCRA has failed to routinely inspect the property or levy fines against owners for infractions.
Last August, City Paper wrote about Thomas Stephenson, a former officer with the Metropolitan Police Department who was subject to a lawsuit by the attorney general. An attorney in Racine’s office described two buildings owned by Stephenson, on 49th Street NE, as riddled with housing code violations that “threaten the health, safety, and security of the tenants.”
The tenants’ list of complaints included rodent infestations, holes in their ceilings, and heating systems that didn’t function.
Public tax and deed documents indicate that Stephenson has long struggled to manage the upkeep of those buildings; the banks that own the debt on two of his properties, including one on 49th Street NE, have threatened foreclosure as far back as 2004.
In January, a judge ordered Stephenson to pay $20,000 to a court-ordered receiver. (The receiver estimates the building needs $220,000 in repairs.) But in March, Stephenson filed for bankruptcy, court records show. A summary of an April 19 status hearing shows that Stephenson is in Chapter 13 bankruptcy and was again ordered to pay the receiver an outstanding balance of some $19,000 by May 3.
The tenants, meanwhile, continue to live in units plagued by pest infestations, mold, and weakened infrastructure.
At a separate building, 5320 8th Street NW in Brightwood Park, a fire in December 2017—which degraded electrical wiring prompted, an independent fire investigator testified—displaced six families. Racine sued the limited liability corporation that owns the building, EADS LLC, last June, and a judge ordered the building into receivership in December 2018, with the understanding that EADS and its principle, Delores Johnson, would owe an initial $35,000 in emergency maintenance costs.
Wohl says that while the building’s receiver was able to repair multiple gas leaks in the building, the defendants’ ongoing refusal to fund additional repairs left tenants without heat for the remainder of the winter, as well as continued exposure to mold, among other documented violations.
In January, according to a court summary of a status hearing, Johnson told the judge that the defendants “cannot afford to pay the amounts requested by the receiver.” And in multiple hearings City Paper attended in this case since January, Johnson and her attorney argued that she could not access funds from her bank, located in California, until an agent of the bank personally visited the 8th Street NW building. By May 20, a judge ruled that the defendants, including Johnson herself, were in civil contempt of court, and that they must pay close to $40,000 by June 17 or surrender to DC Jail.
“The building is sitting there waiting, and things have gotten worse for the most part,” Wohl says. “I think, having watched the case for several months—I feel like the judge has treated her with kid gloves the whole time.”
Wohl has also watched another receivership case pan out, in a building at 2724 11th Street NW in Columbia Heights. The owner of that building also neglected to make repair payments for months. It took more than a year of litigation before a judge ruled that the building’s owner, Ellis J. Parker, was personally liable for funding the repairs. “It’s not like it never works, it’s just a very lengthy process,” Wohl says. “The receivership experiment hasn’t failed.”
But it has gotten ugly.
In one of Racine’s more high-profile tenant receivership cases, at a collection of apartment complexes on the 1300 block of Alabama Ave. SE, the receiver, David Gilmore, asked to be “released” from duty.
A judge tasked Gilmore in 2017 with overseeing the rehabilitation of the Congress Heights apartment complex, formerly owned by Sanford Capital, which possessed “persistent problems” with rodent infestations, unstable ceilings, lack of heat and hot water, and inoperable fire extinguishers.
Attorneys for the defendants named in the lawsuit, including CityPartners executive Geoffrey Griffis, have alleged in court documents that Gilmore “failed to pay real estate taxes on the property”; “failed to pay water bills for the property”; “allowed four DCRA notices of violation to issue for the property”; and “allowed a fire to occur on the property.”
In response, an attorney for Gilmore submitted in an April court filing that Gilmore “is simply tired of the personal attacks on his character, competence and integrity … the respondents’ attacks become increasingly personal, vitriolic, and irresponsible, [and] the receiver finds himself wearying of the battle.”
The District has also asked the court to formally dissolve CityPartners, which it says was “created by [Griffis], a local real estate developer, for a single purpose: to acquire and redevelop Congress Heights … since its formation in 2013.”
Thirteen people were displaced from the building in the wake of the fire. Work to repair the building, as ever, continues.