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In her tiny sliver of Edgewood, just south of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the periodic tolling of the shrine’s bell rings clear at every hour, on the hour—a reminder, for resident Heather Benno, of the Catholic Church’s “huge, looming presence” in her neighborhood.
Benno, a three-and-a-half year tenant of a one-bedroom apartment at 636 Girard St. NE, where she lives with her 2-year-old daughter, her partner, Juan, and a charming array of pets, is now taking on the mammoth entity. The four-unit building she lives in is up for sale by a holding corporation owned by the basilica.
In January, the former owner of Benno’s building died, bequeathing the building—in a move that surprised its residents—to the basilica, the largest Catholic church both in the U.S. and North America.
Almost immediately, the tenants became aware that the church intended to sell the property. “They don’t want to know we exist, and we live two blocks away,” Benno says.
Communications between Benno and an employee of the basilica’s holdings corporation, BNSIC Title Holding Corporation, show why: As a Roman Catholic church, the basilica “is not permitted to manage or own rental properties as a trade or business,” according to a letter that BNSIC Treasurer Kevin Kavanaugh sent to Benno. “Unfortunately, there is no way for the Shrine to intercede on these issues and/or impose additional demands on the buyer regarding the tenants.” (A representative for the basilica’s holding company did not return City Paper’s request for comment.)
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.
So it wasn’t until BNSIC Title Holding Corporation entered into a contract of sale with a potential buyer that the Girard Street tenants could legally intervene. In mid-June, BNSIC did just that. Tenants obtained a copy of the sales contract, which Benno shared with City Paper, showing that a woman named Ongelle Higgins plans to purchase the four-unit building for $675,000.
Complicating matters was how tenants received the contract. Benno says a copy was unceremoniously dumped in the entryway of their apartment building and that nobody was notified that it was there.
By late June, every tenant in the building signed onto a letter of interest in purchasing the property, and submitted it to the Department of Housing and Community Development. “Please note that while one tenant found an Offer of Sale dated June 21, 2018 on the floor of the property … [it] was not properly posted to a conspicuous common area, or properly issued to all tenants via Certified Mail, as required by D.C. Code,” the letter points out.
Benno describes the intervening week as wrought with anxiety.
The Girard Street tenants haven’t had contact with Higgins, which isn’t to say they haven’t tried. Though Higgins lists her name as “Ongelle Higgins” on the document, as well as an email address that includes “Higgins” in it, some of her signatures on the contract say Ongelle Hickens. (City Paper’s email to the listed contact address that includes “Higgins” bounced back.) The tenants are wary of her taking over the property.
A copy of the contract of sale indicates that Higgins plans on occupying 636 Girard St. NE as her principal residence, indicating that residents will also be put out. “Once the property is sold, what happens next is between the buyer and his/her new tenants,” Kavanaugh’s letter says.
The tenants have tried, unsuccessfully, to find a nonprofit or affordable housing developer to manage and develop the property. They’re interested in buying the building and converting it into a co-op. One affordable housing developer they got in touch with advised that it would cost over $200,000 per apartment to purchase the building and that it would be difficult to receive financing for the endeavor, given DHCD’s guidelines requiring private loans to finance at least 34 percent of a TOPA sale.
Additionally, the affordable housing developer told them in a letter obtained by City Paper that a four-unit co-op would likely be viewed as risky from a long-term management perspective, should even one tenant refuse (or struggle) to pay rent. “I am sorry I can’t be more optimistic,” the rejoinder concluded.
Benno says, of the church, “They’ve done the bare minimum as required by law. That’s what’s disgusting. They definitely could help us or try to find a buyer. There’s nothing preventing them from using their power for good.”
In the meantime, Benno says, the basilica has sent priests to the building to do walkthroughs of each unit. They give tenants, at best, a day’s notice, sometimes just knocking on apartment doors during dinner, or in the mornings as families prepare for school and work, the tenants say.
And in the months of legal drama since the basillica acquired the property, tenants say, maintenance requests have begun to go unanswered, and once-routine pest management treatments have become less frequent. Mice, cockroach, and ant sightings have become more common, Benno says.
Joy Hazuka moved into 636 Girard in 2010, right across the hall from Benno. Like Benno, she loves the neighborhood. Her son, who’s in high school, has easy access to the bus, and she thinks the neighborhood is safe enough to raise a family. She’s worried that if they’re forced to move during the academic year, they’ll have to find him another school.
Her patience is waning, and she’s sick of strangers barging into her apartment without any notice.
“Up until now we’ve been confused––we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have any defined answer,” she says. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘What are we going to do?’” Some tenants are just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Hazuka maintains a fighting spirit. “I believe we should go out forcefully,” she nods. “When they come and say ‘get out,’ we will. But we hope something will change.”
The distress of this year has pulled the tenants closer together, as they gather to strategize and lament. Hazuka says of the 636 Girard St. residents: “Now, we’re family.”