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A DC Superior Court judge on Friday handed a win to the office of Attorney General Karl Racine, who sued the registered agents of a limited liability company for neglecting to maintain an apartment building under their ownership.
Judge Elizabeth Wingo ordered a third-party receiver to assume responsibility for overseeing property maintenance and construction at 5320 8th St. NW, a 39-unit Brightwood Park apartment building whose tenants—many of them Latinx with limited English proficiency—say the complex has been deteriorating for years.
The District brought its lawsuit against EADS LLC, the company that owns 5320 8th Street, as well as its registered agents Delores Johnson and Jason Saunders. (Johnson’s lawyer successfully petitioned the judge to have Saunders’ name removed as a defendant in the suit, arguing that he divested from EADS in 2014 and maintains no financial ties to the company.)
The District has legal grounds to appoint a receiver if “a rental housing accommodation has been operated in a manner that demonstrates a pattern of neglect for the property for a period of 30 consecutive days and such neglect poses a serious threat to the health, safety, or security of the tenants,” per D.C. Code.
City Paper wrote about 5320 8th St. NW in May, shortly after an electrical fire in the building displaced half a dozen people, including two pregnant women who gave birth before being relocated to their permanent homes.
Johnson blamed the fire on the presence of a living room partition erected by tenants in one of the affected units, a position she repeated in a December court appearance. (That argument “as a matter of logic … makes no sense whatsoever,” the judge said in her decision to appoint a receiver, adding that “what is clear is that you blame the tenants for everything.”)
At the time of City Paper’s reporting, tenants described conditions that included extensive mold, rat infestations, broken heating systems, and faulty electrical wiring. One tenant testified in a December court appearance that the heat went out in his apartment, the temperature dropping in his living room to 40 degrees.
Jason Saunders is also listed as the registered agent for another company, Kentucky-Scott, that received $2 million in District loans to subsidize the operation of an apartment complex for low-income seniors at 135 Kennedy Street NW. (D.C. Auditor Kathy Pattersonpublished a report in 2017 showing that the company never actually screened tenants for the income limits required by the loan at that address.)
A separate lawsuit against EADS, brought by the Children’s Law Center on behalf of some 5320 8th Street tenants, is ongoing.
“A landlord who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars” on repairs in recent years “has not demonstrated a pattern of neglect,” Johnson’s attorney, Richard Schrager, said in court last month. Schrager also unsuccessfully argued that appointing a receiver could slow repair work currently happening on the property, further delaying critical repairs for tenants.
The receiver for 5320 8th St., Benjamin Gilmore, will provide the court with a housing code violation abatement plan by Feb. 11. Wingo ordered the defendants to pay $35,000 into a fund accessible to Gilmore by Jan. 15 for expenses incurred during the initial assessment of the property.
After Wingo announced her decision and court adjourned, a small group of the 5320 8th St. tenants broke into tears, hugging District attorney Matthew Meyer in an antechamber of the court and breaking into chants of “si se puede.”
A toddler, the son of one of the building’s tenants, ran hectically around the courtroom. Rob Wohl, a tenant organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center, squatted down to take his hand. “Vamos a celebrar,” Wohl told him.