City Paper is not for tourists
As Sanford Capital and District lawyers engage in a protracted courtroom battle over Terrace Manor—an 11-building Southeast D.C. property in deep disrepair—tenants at other of the company’s 16 D.C. properties face harrowing conditions too.
This spring a particularly disturbing set of photographs from a 275-unit, Sanford-owned complex called Belmont Crossing showed a vacant apartment covered in raw sewage, which the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs considers an emergency that must be addressed within 24 hours.
Feces coagulated like cooled lava along the bathroom walls, and debris-laden brown liquid filled the bathtub and spilled out the bathroom door.
This is a pattern. In January, a tenant at G Street Apartments, about six miles away from Belmont Crossing, showed City Paper photos of his own bathtub filled with feces. Timothy Harper, who took the photos of his unit, says his tub has overflowed with sewage three times, and that the last time it happened the mess was there for four days before a worker came to clean it up.
“I hear my neighbors talking about the same issue all the time,” he says.
That’s the case at Belmont Crossing too. Pamula Glover photographed raw sewage in the vacant apartment below hers in February after becoming sick from the smell. “I don’t sleep in my bedroom. Because where the feces was? It was in the bedroom below mine,” says Glover, who instead sleeps on her couch. “I can still smell it through the crack in the wall.”
Glover keeps her own apartment Marie Kondo-clean—not a bit of dust on her glass coffee table, not a nugget of cat food fallen out of the bowl. Smells emanating from the apartment below started to bother her in the summer of 2016, but when people finally came to deal with the issue at the end of the summer, she says, their solution was mothballs.
“It seemed like they took a whole grocery cart of mothballs and threw them in that apartment,” Glover says. “And the scent was so bad, I kept coming and going from the hospital.”
Another Belmont Crossing tenant, who asked to remain anonymous, says she hears banging sounds in the pipes behind her walls and that her toilet shattered on a day the banging was especially loud. Sewage filled her toilet and tub and gradually flooded into her bedroom. She says she made calls to the property manager at Belmont Crossing when it happened, but no one came to fix it or even look at it.
The tenant did not get help until six days later when Janet Hernandez, a city inspector with DCRA, knocked on her door. DCRA was in the process inspecting Sanford’s 66-building D.C. portfolio after City Paper and The Washington Post published investigations of the company. DCRA completes both complaint-based and proactive inspections. This one was proactive.
Hernandez did not know what she would find, and the tenant, who works unpredictable hours at a 24-hour fast-food restaurant in Tenleytown, was home by chance. “I work any time they let me work,” she says. “Any time they have hours for me, I accept.”
When Hernandez entered, the carpet still squished under foot. She found 15 housing code violations in the unit. Among them: an obstructed bath drain; a defective shower head; a leaking or defective faucet; a broken towel holder; and a toilet with leaks and missing parts.
The fines for the violations totaled $6,400, which represents about 1.2 percent of the total potential fines DCRA tabulated while inspecting Sanford’s D.C. properties in March. A status hearing on Sanford’s 1,083 housing code violations is scheduled for May 11 at D.C.’s Office of Administrative Hearings.
Sanford Capital owner A. Carter Nowell responded to an initial email requesting comment, indicating that he would look at City Paper’s questions, but did not respond to a follow-up email. Nowell’s 7,956-square-foot Bethesda home has six full bathrooms and two half-baths.
His tenants are less fortunate. “I was sitting on my toilet when an exhaust fan came out of the ceiling and fell on me,” Harper says of a recent incident. His towel rack also fell out, and then a series of fix-it men struggled to even reinstall the towel bar. “I’m sitting here looking at 13 holes in my wall that fix-it men made,” he says. “And I used to work for these people.”
A few years ago, Harper was a maintenance supervisor for Sanford, looking after 27 buildings and managing two employees.
Before leaving the company in 2015 after an injury, he watched a building at another property, Elsinore Courtyards, leak raw sewage from its back drain pipes for more than a year. “The entire building smelled like sewage, to the point where they had raw sewage flowing out of the building, across the parking lot, and into people’s backyards,” Harper says.
Eventually, Harper says, Sanford paid to run a high-pressure jet through the pipes to clear them out. “The buildings are so old, that over years and years you’re going to have buildup—like cholesterol in an artery or silt on a river,” he says.
The cleaning didn’t last. A member of Elsinore’s tenant association says the leaking building was the topic of a recent meeting. During a visit to Elsinore two weeks ago, a tenant whose unit faces the parking lot said that raw sewage had last run off the building and down into the neighbors’ yards about three weeks earlier. That day, however, soapy water ran out the building’s pipes. The tenant speculated that someone had come to fix the issue but wasn’t sure. “You’ll see it running again,” she said.
Raw sewage is also a problem at Terrace Manor, one of the two Sanford properties subject to the D.C. attorney general’s litigation. In February, DCRA inspector Michael Lampro found a burst pipe and an inch of standing water in the basement of a building there.
“Respondents took a total of three weeks to address a raw sewage leak at the Property,” District lawyers wrote in a March 31 memo to the court. Less than two weeks after they wrote that memo, the problem had returned: Two basements at Terrace Manor were filled with filthy water, one of them about 18 inches deep. The basements were unlocked, unlit, and the air inside them hung heavy with moisture and the stench of mold.
At Oak Hill apartments, another Sanford-owned complex, it’s the smell of gas that has most disturbed residents as of late, but they’ve been through raw sewage too.
“A couple of years ago, I went to church and came home and my bathtub was full of black sewage,” says Oak Hill tenant JoAnn Graves. “I didn’t take pictures at the time because I was so fucking mad.” Graves says two of her neighbors have experienced the same problem.
Those tenants are now focused on the gas issue. Graves smelled gas on April 24 while she was off from work. Knowing it was unlikely she’d get a response from Sanford, she called Washington Gas. In a two-page memo to Sanford, Graves describes what happened. A Washington Gas employee said that “the least little spark could start a fire if the smell was as strong as I’d stated,” she wrote.
Graves, who has lived at Oak Hill for 11 years, says she pays $1,002 per month in rent and is not on government assistance. She says a man from Washington Gas arrived within 15 minutes, found the leak in the laundry room, and turned off the gas to the dryers. To relieve the building of the smell, he propped the front door open because the windows on the top floor of the building would not open. Nine days later, Graves could still smell gas, and Washington Gas returned and turned off another dryer.
The Belmont Crossing tenant whose apartment was soaked in sewage says the mess is now clean. Inspector Hernandez called the property manager during her visit, and someone came to snake the toilet that day. “I cut the carpet out myself,” says the tenant. A crew later came to clean, and Hernandez returned on March 24 to check on the unit.
Though her bathroom works, the mice still come in her front door. “At around 10 at night, it’s their turn, not mine,” she says.
On March 30, after the citywide Sanford inspection was complete, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Brian T. Kenner, said in a phone interview: “None of the violations that were noted during this review would have caused any units or any buildings to be condemned. So there were no violations that rose to the level of life, safety, or health-related reasons.” DCRA director Melinda Bolling added: “If, in fact, you had broken pipes and sewage backing up into the bathtub, that would be a reason to close a unit.”
The unit below Glover’s is not leaking sewage now, but the woman living across the hall from it has a new set of troubles.
On Easter Sunday, Irvina Fields says, her stove made an explosive noise and sparks came out of the top. The explosion was spontaneous—she wasn’t cooking at the time. The next day her refrigerator died. Two weeks later management brought her another refrigerator. It was used, wet, and infested with gnats. Her son cleaned it with bleach water, but the bugs and odor remain. She won’t put food inside. When management asked her if she wanted a replacement stove, she asked if she could see it first.
Andrew Giambrone contributed to this report.