Tenants of 5320 8th Street NW—a market-rate apartment complex in the quiet residential neighborhood of Brightwood Park—say in court that they’ve suffered infestations of rats and cockroaches, faulty electrical wiring, power outages, a lack of hot water, cracked walls, moldy ceilings, damaged steam pipes, improperly sealed windows, peeling paint, and damaged floors. “It’s pretty much the gamut of issues,” Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer at the Children’s Law Center who represents eight current and former residents, says. “It’s one of the worst buildings I’ve worked in at my time at CLC.”
Just since December, a fire and a flood displaced more than half a dozen families, two unrelated disasters that prompted the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to condemn the units impacted, calling them unfit for human life. In late April, during a visit to the building, stop work orders and neon orange signs, dated to December, papered tenants’ entryways: “DANGER,” “PELIGRO.” “THIS STRUCTURE IS UNSAFE,” they read, “ITS OCCUPANCY OR USE HAS BEEN PROHIBITED.”
Tenants, many of them non-English-speaking Latinx immigrants who have lived there for years, are infuriated by the conditions of the building.
Hundreds of pages of DCRA inspection documents, photographs, and tenant testimony indicate that, over time, many units have fallen into deep disrepair. DCRA has issued six notices of housing code violations in units across the building in the last three months, and 15 in the last three-and-a-half years.
Some tenants have filed a lawsuit with D.C. Superior Court. Others organized rent strikes, while the property management company, EADS LLC, sues to evict them. In court, tenants say EADS has not made critical repairs. The property manager alleges that tenants have illegal long-term guests, and that it is the tenants themselves who caused damage to the building.
On December 14, 2017, a fire broke out on the top floor of 5320 8th Street NW. The blaze directly affected six families living across two floors of the horseshoe-shaped building, who were “de facto evicted” immediately afterward, per a characterization of their situation by D.C. Superior Court judge Robert Tignor. The families, none of whom had renters insurance, lost everything they owned. D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate and Department of Human Services paid for them to relocate in the short-term to hotels on New York Avenue NE, some of which the city uses for emergency overflow homeless shelters—an experience Zeisel calls “traumatizing” for their children. Two women, displaced by the fire, gave birth during the time they were staying in shelter.
Those six families are collectively suing EADS LLC for damages stemming from “unsafe and unsanitary conditions in [the] rental property,” like “issues with electrical wiring,” which plaintiffs say were concerns before the fire.
Delores Johnson, EADS LLC’s property manager, says the tenants should have obtained renters insurance, which at $95 per year, would have been less than DHS spends on one night in a motel. Then the city’s subsidies “could be given to people who really need it,” she says. She adds that it’s unfair the families didn’t have to pay $5,400 in rent over two months last winter.
Both Zeisel and Johnson agree that the fire department ruled the blaze accidental, though Johnson thinks that a wall she says tenants erected in apartment 207, where the fire started, was a factor. During a January 19 hearing, Tignor would not permit EADS’ attorney to call any witnesses forward to discuss the wall, “because I don’t frankly see how that’s relevant,” he said.
An independent fire investigator Children’s Law Center hired to determine the cause of the fire, who worked for 11 years as the Chief Fire Marshal of Stafford County, Virginia, testified in January that electrical wiring in the unit is “sheathed by an asbestos coating, which I would estimate probably circa 60 or 70 years [old].”
The investigator, Donald Alvis, said the fire patterns indicate that the blaze began when electrical cables sustained “significant electrical activity” inside of them. When asked what could trigger that electrical activity, he said, “a failure or degradation of the coating on the wire.” He added that the concerns tenants describe with the building’s electrical system, like only being able to use one appliance at a time, makes it “obvious to me there’s obvious issues with the electrical system that needs further attention.”
At the end of the initial hearing, Tignor said that Johnson’s testimony “does not in any way, in my view, credibly refute the testimony” of the tenant living in the apartment where the fire started. He added that he “believe[s] complaints were made to management with little to no meaningful response.”
Johnson denies that EADS didn’t respond to electrical maintenance requests before the fire. During a meeting with City Paper at the property this week, she pulls out thick stacks of receipts from her van for maintenance work completed on the property. She estimates that the company receives and responds to about two maintenance requests per month.
A DCRA inspection report summary dated January 12 shows the extent to which that fire damaged the building. “Sleeping room has water damaged walls and ceilings. Exposed ceiling and walls. Repair or replace fire and water damaged walls, carpet and ceilings,” the report reads for all six units. “Check electrical wire connection; repair defective wire connections, lights, radiators and electrical outlets.” Some windows were “shut. Not openable.” Others had extensive mold and dry rot. DCRA property code compliance records show that inspections completed in 2014, 2015, and 2016, each resulted in either notices of violation filed against, or repairs made in, four of the six units affected by the fire.
Property records, lien documents, and financial statements from the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue Recorder of Deeds show the business that owns 5320 8th Street NW, EADS LLC, has a history of late or non-payments to water, gas, and electric companies.
Between 2015 and 2017 alone, three different city agencies levied liens against EADS LLC for its failure to pay water sewage bills, home improvement fees, and litter fines for the complex. Those amounts ranged from $75 to $8,887.
DCRA itself extended a $4,800 lien on the building in June of 2017 for failing “to pay all outstanding fines, penalties, or other costs” associated with failing to abate code violations.
Who was on the hook for those fines? It’s difficult to say who owns EADS, which is registered as a limited liability corporation in D.C., where LLCs do not have to disclose their majority stakeholders.
Business registration filings with DCRA show that Lorraine Johnson and Jason Sanders are the “governors,” or business managers, of EADS LLC. Johnson frequently uses the first name “Delores” to sign EADS’ financial paperwork with D.C., and testified that her middle name is Lorraine. In an interview, she denied having any involvement in EADS beyond her role as the company’s property manager. In a separate conversation in person, she did not dispute that she was registered as a governor of EADS.
The address listed next to Lorraine’s name in those DCRA LLC records is the same address listed for a separate business, Kentucky-Scott.
Kentucky-Scott is a limited liability company that received a $2 million loan from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) in 2007. Kentucky-Scott promised to use money it secured from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund to create about two dozen affordable housing units for low-income seniors in an apartment building at 135 Kennedy Street NW. But the business never offered leases to those lower-income tenants, according to a 2017 report by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson. The process of screening for lower-income tenants was required as part of its HPTF agreement. Public property records provided by the Office of Planning show that Kentucky-Scott still owns that building.
The governor of Kentucky-Scott, listed in DCRA’s LLC registration documents, is Jason Saunders, spelled with a “u.”
Jason Saunders is also the president of a company called BHI International, Inc., a construction and real estate development firm listed in the 2007 DHCD covenant granting Kentucky-Scott $2 million from the HPTF, which he signed as a “Managing Member” of Kentucky-Scott. Saunders also signed, in his capacity as president of BHI, a 2002 financing statement between DHCD and EADS. Saunders wrote in an email that he and BHI “once ow[n]ed percentages in EADS but have NOT done so for years.” (A spokesman for DCRA notes that businesses are required to update their registration documents every two years. Sanders is listed as a governor of EADS in the city’s online portal as of press time.)
A fourth LLC, Minnesota Group, is listed as an additional managing member of Kentucky-Scott. Delores Johnson is a registered governor of Minnesota Group in DCRA’s system.
Both EADS and Kentucky-Scott use a handful of different business addresses, many of which overlap. EADS has used at least five different D.C.-area addresses in financial documents with the city. Delores expressed familiarity with Kentucky-Scott and BHI, but declined to comment on their ownership structure, beyond saying that the companies are distinct from EADS. Reached by email, Saunders denied owning EADS and said that BHI is not a member of EADS. (A “member” of an LLC is essentially an owner.) He wrote that neither he, BHI, or Kentucky-Scott are “included in any ownership of EADS or vice versa.”
In the basement of 5320, a few doors down from the building’s hulking boiler room, is the old apartment of a former tenant named Reina. The mother of two complained about faulty steam pipes in her unit regularly, she says, showing City Paper a video of steam rising from cracks in the parquet floors.
About four months ago, water damage in the ceiling over her living room (a result of the fire department’s effort to extinguish the fire, Johnson says) caused it to cave in with her younger daughter underneath it. Reina says her older child pulled her sister out from underneath the pounds of debris before she was seriously injured, a story she shared in late April with residents and tenant advocates involved in the rent strike.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 2017, the building’s hot water tank, located in the basement, burst. One of its pipes wrapped behind Reina’s wall and exploded in her kitchen.
“We didn’t have to do that. Think about it now,” Johnson says, referring to the fact that EADS immediately replaced the $28,000 water tank. “This is our New Year’s Eve as well. But you’re trying to make sure people have hot water.”
Now chunks of concrete sit in rocky piles in the unit, and nearly one-third of the floor in the kitchen is gone—a gaping mouth of exposed pipes and rubble. Reina’s furniture still sits under sheets of plastic. A synthetic Christmas tree, star askew, stands in the foyer. While she has since relocated to another apartment with her daughters, she says she still gets electric bills for her old unit that reflect debts of hundreds of dollars per month.