Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Last month, City Paper reported on 636 Girard Street NE, a four-unit apartment building in residential Edgewood, just a 15-minute walk from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The basilica is the continent’s largest Catholic church, and it’s also now a prolific local property owner—at least temporarily. Deceased D.C. resident Joanne Doyle bequeathed 13 properties, including half a dozen four-unit apartment buildings, to the church just before she died. The buildings are largely concentrated between Trinidad and Edgewood, in neighborhoods seeing rapid appreciation in property values, on Girard, Bryant, and Raum streets NE.

On Feb. 20, the executor of Doyle’s estate transferred the deeds of these properties to the basilica for a sum of zero dollars. The tenants found themselves in an unusual bind, caught in legal limbo by both District rental laws and those applying to religious institutions. Though D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act gives tenants a first right of refusal to purchase their buildings when they go up for sale, TOPA doesn’t apply when the building changes hands through a deed transfer from a decedent to a charity.

And as the Roman Catholic Church, the basilica “is not permitted to manage or own rental properties as a trade or business,” according to a letter that Kevin Kavanaugh, treasurer of basilica subsidiary BNSIC Title Holding Corporation, sent to 636 Girard Street NE resident Heather Benno this summer. Kavanaugh is also the comptroller of the basilica. 

“Unfortunately, there is no way for the Shrine to intercede on these issues and/or impose additional demands on the buyer regarding the tenants,” he wrote. 

But tenants, and advocates fighting for them to stay in their homes, say that’s not true. They’re lobbying the church to sell to an affordable housing developer, or another similar party with a vested interest in keeping the apartments affordable. Tenants’ biggest concern, they say, is that a new owner would mean rent hikes and—if they couldn’t afford those—eviction. At least one buyer who purchased one of Doyle’s four-unit buildings in Southeast has claimed a rent control exemption, tenants say.

“My building was … recently sold to a new owner who states he is exempt from participating in the rent control program. He wants to raise the rent about 40 to 50 percent. It will go from $780 to $1200 [per month],” one resident of Doyle’s former property wrote in an email to Justice First, a social justice and housing advocacy organization. “The building has been under rent control for over 25 years and I was told that the rent control status can change. I never received any documentation to purchase the building but yet they want me to sign something stating I did. What is the best step?” the tenant asks. (Property owners can apply for rent control exemption through the Department of Housing and Community Development if they own no more than four rental units, another factor that makes Doyle’s former properties uniquely vulnerable.)  

In all, the transfer of Doyle’s properties to the basilica and the confusion it has stoked has left dozens of tenants worried in recent months that they’ll face housing instability because of TOPA loopholes and a lack of communication from the church’s leaders.

And while the sale of three of these four-unit apartment buildings were recently finalized, at least two others have not yet executed a sale—giving tenants and their advocates mere weeks, if not days, to find a buyer before their TOPA rights expire.

In addition to housing organizations like Justice First and Housing Counseling Services, a group of local faith leaders and members of the Catholic community in D.C. have organized, too, on behalf of 636 Girard Street NE and 1364 Bryant Street NE tenants.

In a letter they say they hand-delivered to Kavanaugh and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a group of Catholic residents who call themselves Archdiocese of Washington Catholics for Affordable Housing urges basilica rector Walter Rossi to “immediately hear the plea of tenants … who are again reaching out to ask that the Basilica follow gospel mandates and Catholic Social Teaching and not make these tenants, who live in the shadows of the Basilica, without a home.”

They lay out three asks: that representatives from the basilica “sit down with tenants … to work out a mutually agreeable deal”; that basilica leadership make these tenants’ concerns known to its board of directors; and that the basilica immediately enter a conciliation process with tenants.

The letter quotes extensively from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops treatise on affordable housing called “The Right to a Decent Home: A Pastoral Response to the Crisis in Housing.” It reads, in part:

“We take this opportunity to reflect on the consequences of poor housing. The physical and social environment play an important role in forming and influencing the lives of people. We cannot ignore the terrible impact of degrading and indecent living conditions on people’s perception of themselves and their future. The protection of the human dignity of every person and the right to a decent home require both individual action and structural policies and practices.”

By the next day, a representative from the basilica reached out to 636 Girard Street NE tenants to offer a meeting at the church itself, with Kavanaugh and two of the basilica’s lawyers. This meeting will, of course, only benefit the tenants living in buildings whose sales to new owners have not yet been finalized. (A spokesperson for the basilica confirmed to City Paper that this meeting will take place, but did not respond to the allegations that its perceived unwillingness to find a buyer interested in preserving the buildings’ affordability would likely displace many families.) 

Yasmina Mrabet, an organizer with Justice First, calls it the church’s “moral responsibility” to “uphold the Catholic Church teaching that housing is a right.”

“Despite ongoing obstacles including strict TOPA timelines and in some cases failure to receive TOPA notices at all, tenants in the Rhode Island Ave NE corridor are fighting to protect their homes and families from displacement,” she says.