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D.C.’s Office of Administrative Hearings dealt with two major housing cases yesterday, one yielding a victory for tenants at a dilapidated Columbia Heights building. But in the other case, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs suffered a setback in dealing with more than 1,000 housing code violations at Sanford Capital’s District properties.
The triumph involved 2724 11th Street NW, a rent-controlled, Columbia Heights building in deep disrepair. Tenants filed their case against building owner Ellis J. Parker and manager Stan Ford Jr. via their respective companies nearly two years ago. Yesterday, in a 547-page final order, OAH’s principal administrative law judgeEricka L. Pierson found that the housing providers acted in “bad faith” because they knew that the property suffered from serious housing code violations and failed to address them over an extended period of time. (An evidentiary hearing on the case took place over 16 days between February and May of 2016.)
The “bad faith” finding enabled the judge to award tenants treble (or three-fold) rent refunds under D.C.’s Rental Housing Act of 1985, the city’s rent control law. Tenants began dealing with roaches, rats, and mice as early as 2013. Tenant Rosetta Archie recently told City Paper that her ceiling had collapsed several times since last November. The judge’s order details specific housing code violations over several hundred pages. The building’s 15 tenants were awarded a total $212,778, with each tenant receiving a different amount based on rent paid.
In addition, Pierson fined the landlord $5,000 for willfully failing to address rodent and cockroach infestations for three years, and another $5,000 for failing to fix the roof even after a 2013 inspection showed it was damaged. Finally, each tenant’s rent will be rolled back by various amounts based on the problems specific to their units, retroactive to May 2016 when the case record closed.
In a different hearing room on the same day, a significant case involving landlord Sanford Capital’s 66 D.C. buildings was in mid-process. Against objections from DCRA attorney Doris A. Parker-Woolridge, administrative judge Paul B. Handy scheduled evidentiary hearings on Sanford’s housing code violation cases for early August.
Parker-Woolridge argued to have the hearings in June. “We want these violations corrected,” she said. Attorney Martin Lopez-Novillo, representing Sanford Capital and its affiliates, wanted the hearings to be in late July or August. DCRA finished a first-round inspection of Sanford’s properties in March and counted 1,083 total violations, and it is now completing a re-inspection of the properties to determine which violations are outstanding.
Judge Handy said that he would need to enlist several OAH judges to conduct the hearings, and scheduled a full week of them for July 31-Aug. 4, as well as a status hearing for June 27.
Building issues at Sanford properties move faster than the courts do. JoAnn Graves, a tenant at Oak Hill apartments, says that on April 24 the smell gas was so strong in her building that she called Washington Gas and a worker came within 15 minutes. In a two-page memo to Sanford, she wrote that the worker turned off the gas to the dryers in the laundry room and put up a “danger” sign. She says the smell returned about a week later, and Washington Gas came back to turn off another dryer.
Earlier this week, Irvina Fields of Belmont Crossing said that a property manager replaced her dead refrigerator with a used one that was infested with gnats and had an odor she could not eliminate despite cleaning it. City Paper observed the non-working refrigerator in person. Inside, it was warm and empty, save for an open box of baking soda, though the freezer was working. Though the replacement refrigerator does cool, Fields says, she has decided not to put food in it because of the bugs and smell.
Among the violations included in DCRA’s March inspection of all District Sanford properties, 15 of the 1,083 were found in another unit at Belmont Crossing. A DCRA inspector knocked on a tenant’s door and found that her bathroom and part of her bedroom had been flooded with raw sewage for about six days. Sanford tenants at several different properties report the same thing—raw sewage filling bathtubs and toilets and overflowing into living spaces—in both vacant and occupied units.