Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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An announcement the office of Attorney General Karl Racine made this week on its enforcement actions against negligent landlords drew ire from some advocates for sex workers, people of color, and low-income residents. It marks another point of tension in a months-long debate about how best to hold building owners accountable for the activities occurring on their properties.

Citing a 1999 law called the Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Nuisance Abatement Act, Racine’s office on Monday said it filed four new lawsuits against building owners who had tacitly allowed significant drug and gun-related activity in buildings in Anacostia, Eckington, and Petworth.

In one Eckington apartment building, which OAG referred to as a “drug haven,” Racine’s office alleges that two search warrants executed in the last 10 months resulted in the seizure of 234 grams of pot, 68 zips of crack cocaine, and more than three vials of PCP. Another property, whose owner reached a settlement with OAG in June, saw over 700 service calls from local police in the last two years. 

Taking legal action against property owners who don’t install basic security measures “to deter criminals” is part of what Racine called a broader effort to “hold neglectful property owners accountable for keeping District tenants and residents safe.” D.C.’s nuisance abatement act enables the attorney general to file charges against property owners who allow drug and gun activity, as well as acts of prostitution, to occur on the premises. 

But advocates say this amounts to increased policing of vulnerable groups, particularly in communities where rapid development has driven rental prices up and made it harder for longer-term residents to remain living there. 

“The community want[s] solutions to violence not rooted in strategies that criminalize and displace D.C.’s communities of color, but rather provide these communities with more resources,” says Jessica Raven, executive director of the advocacy group Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

None of the enforcement actions Racine announced this week involve prostitution offenses, but when he tweeted that his office would target building owners who “turn[ed] a blind eye to persistent illegal guns, drugs, and prostitution activity on their property,” Raven and a coalition of sex work advocacy groups responded with a flurry of criticism. They argued that those legal tactics would cause sex workers further harm.

Raven’s group, CASS, wrote: “We’re deeply concerned about @agkarlracine’s actions that seek to displace sex workers from their homes, pushing people in the sex trades into homelessness & at greater risk of violence.”

“We’re going after neglectful landlords who endanger their tenants by refusing to address dangerous activity at their properties,” Racine said in an email statement to City Paper. “District residents should feel safe in their homes, no matter where they live or how much they pay in rent.”

In March of 2017, Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) and Jack Evans (Ward 2) tried to expand the existing nuisance abatement law. They introduced an amendment to the bill that would allow the attorney general to prosecute commercial tenants in addition to their landlords. It’s currently under Council review. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union-DC, Legal Aid Society, Black Youth Project 100, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, and HIPS have all warned against it.

At an at-times contentious January hearing on the bill, the policy director of ACLU-DC, Nassim Moshiree, argued that the Council shouldn’t expand nuisance abatement laws without understanding how the original legislation affects communities.

“The same problems that we are experiencing with the current law as it relates to residential tenants, as it relates to property owners, will impact the enforcement” of this amendment, Moshiree said, “even if it’s limited to commercial properties.”