Verna Clayborne calls the police at least once a day, and often more than that.
The estate sale agent has lived in Brookland for 47 years, and for the past decade, a commercial strip by her property has turned into what she describes as an “active open air drug market.” The issues, including robberies and shootings, have gotten worse in the past few years, according to her and her neighbors.
“I’ve found bullets on my lawn,” Clayborne says. “I can’t have company in my backyard in the summer sometimes, because the smell of people using the alley as a toilet is just overwhelming. I don’t come home late at night anymore, because you just don’t know what’s going on in that area.”
Clayborne and her neighbors blame some of the businesses on Brentwood Road NE, off Rhode Island Avenue NE, for aiding and abetting the illegal activity—in particular, a Chinese carry-out and a 24-hour store.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who represents Clayborne’s neighborhood, says he’s walked into establishments on Brentwood Road NE with his children and seen drug deals take place with the knowledge of management. When police respond to residents’ complaints, those businesses let the people committing illegal activity hide inside, says Clayborne.
Clayborne, her ANC, and members of local civic associations in Brookland, Brentwood, and Edgewood took their concerns to the Office of the Attorney General of D.C., hoping to use a city law to kick out the offending businesses.
The Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Nuisance Abatement Act, passed by the council in 1999, empowers the city to file civil charges against property owners who allow illegal activities related to drugs, guns, and (as of 2006) prostitution to flourish and have an “adverse impact” on the community.
But the Nuisance Abatement Act wasn’t a good fit for the Brooklanders. The property owner, a Bethesda resident named Greg Fernebok, was, by all accounts, cooperative after learning about their woes.
Fernebok installed lights, security cameras, and a fence to deter illegal activity. The commercial tenants, however, wouldn’t turn on the lights or close the fence, rendering the fixes moot.
At a public safety meeting last March attended by Mayor Muriel Bowser, McDuffie, and public safety officials after several area shootings, Clayborne suggested a fix: expanding the Nuisance Abatement Act so it could target commercial tenants in addition to landlords. McDuffie introduced the Drug-Related Nuisance Abatement Amendment Act of 2017 that month.
But at a Judiciary Committee hearing this Thursday to discuss the amendment, a slew of advocates from organizations including the Washington Lawyers Committee, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Legal Aid Society of D.C., HIPS, and Collective Action for Safe Spaces came out in opposition. About a half-dozen people held up pink signs accusing the amendment of “criminalizing our communities.”
The major problem, according to opponents, is the underlying Nuisance Abatement Act, which April Goggans of #KeepDCForMe and Black Lives Matter DC called “a relic of tough-on-crime policing.” Many of the same people who want safe neighborhoods are also targeted by law enforcement with nuisance laws, she said.
The law is vulnerable to people’s biases, argued Emmelia Talarico, a trans woman on the steering committee of No Justice No Pride. She said that people often call the police on groups of trans women, assuming they’re engaging in sex work. “To some people, my existence is a nuisance in itself,” she said at the hearing.
Nassim Moshiree, the policy director for the ACLU of D.C., wants lawmakers to reexamine the underlying legislation before they decide to expand it. “You can’t divorce the effects of this bill from the effect of the enforcement of the current law,” she testified.
A 2016 Washington Post investigation found about three dozen people were evicted after the Office of the Attorney General sent nuisance-abatement letters to their landlords, though they were charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses, like possessing a joint, or had no charges filed against them at all.
The Attorney General’s Office has since changed its policies and procedures to clarify that “the letter itself isn’t a get-an-eviction-free card,” testified Assistant Attorney General Argatonia Weatherington, who added that the cases her office takes on are “substantial.”
McDuffie acknowledged that the amendment could have been drafted more clearly. Confusion abounded, for instance, over whether the change would affect residential tenants in addition to commercial ones. He clarified it wouldn’t.
But in an at-times heated exchange with some opponents, he asked for their solutions to the problem Clayborne and her neighbors face.
McDuffie listed his record in criminal justice legislation, like the NEAR Act and Ban the Box legislation, as proof of his “commitment to addressing deep inequities in the criminal justice system,” as he told City Paper after the hearing.
“The next step is refining the amendment,” McDuffie says. “And to the extent that the underlying statute is being discriminatory and targeting communities of color, I will work with my colleagues to address the issue.”
Daniel Schramm, the president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, testified that the hearing educated him on some of the issues with nuisance abatement laws. He added that he and his wife are afraid of the troubled properties, and while there can be bias in fear, there was also the objective fact that it was the site of multiple shootings.
Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Allen told City Paper that the amendment needed more work before any vote could take place.
Still, he was heartened that the hearing showed two groups of people who “all want the same outcome”—safe communities. “Through the course of the hearing, I thought I saw understanding among the groups,” says Allen.
Did Clayborne agree?
“If you’re asking me if I left there with a case of the warm fuzzies, no, I did not,” she says. “We can talk about providing services, providing education. Give me a solution to how we address how people who have worked all their lives, paid for their properties, raised their children and grandchildren, can be safe in their neighborhood.”