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The tenants of 2724 11th St. NW—a two-story, rent-controlled apartment building in Columbia Heights—know each other better than most of the neighborhood’s newer residents know their own roommates. On Sunday, they met in their dilapidated building’s lobby to discuss a lawsuit the District filed last week against the property’s owner and manager for years of housing code violations, shoddy patchwork, and risks to the tenants’ well-being.
Moments before the meeting, Rosetta Archie, an African-American woman who has lived at the building for almost 27 years and pays $661 a month in rent, came down the steps from her apartment on the second floor. Archie’s ceiling has repeatedly collapsed since November because of leaks in the roof. It last happened several weeks ago, damaging her possessions.
Occasionally, the building’s electricity has turned off. And after the owner began—but never finished—demolition work in the basement in 2012, rats emerged in droves. Bedbugs and roaches have also proved intractable. “I can’t afford to move,” Archie says.
Fifteen of the building’s 26 units remain occupied, and all the current tenants have lived there since at least 2009. Seven have resided there for more than a decade—constants in a changing Columbia Heights. They say they’ve consistently paid rent on time. In 2015 the tenants filed an administrative petition against the landlord, and last year some sued in D.C. Superior Court, independently from the District’s recent lawsuit. All these legal cases are pending.
“They don’t care,” Archie says of the owner, Ellis J. Parker III, and the building manager, Stan Ford Jr. Attorney General Karl Racine is seeking to hold them personally liable for damages, in addition to suing the LLC that controls the building and Ford’s company, SCF Management. (Neither Ford nor his firm, which is based in D.C., responded to requests for comment.)
The attorney general’s office wants a judge to place the property in receivership, where a third party would bring the building up to code using funds from the owner “in excess of the rents collected” there. The District is also seeking restitution for the rents tenants paid while the building was illegally neglected.
Racine—who, like his maybe-mayoral rival Muriel Bowser, says he is “committed to preserving existing affordable housing”—is pursuing arguments based on D.C.’s consumer protection laws. He is also doing that in an ongoing suit against Bethesda-based slumlord Sanford Capital. The goal is to deter landlords from making low-income tenants endure dangerous housing conditions.
Parker, 85, says he has “never been found guilty of anything.” Reached by phone at his Palm Beach, Fla. residence last week, he adds that he has fixed “every single” housing code violation at 2724 11th St. NW and has never been fined for one there. Having bought the property from his father-in-law’s estate, he says he has tried to increase the rents to fund necessary structural repairs.
Another building Parker co-owned, in Adams Morgan, was set ablaze in 2006. He and his partner sold it in 2007 for $4 million. Officials later determined the incident was arson, but charged no one. Ford also managed that building.
Parker says he owns four homes, including one in Potomac, Md., a second in Upper Marlboro, Md., and a third in Birmingham, Ala. But in Florida, according to The Palm Beach Daily News, Parker, who is an attorney, sued the town in January after it allegedly entered his condo “without consent or probable cause,” then fined him $25,000 over regulatory non-compliance. “That’s a violation of my civil rights,” Parker said in a follow-up interview Tuesday.
Last June, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs cited the Columbia Heights building with 163 housing code violations, of which almost half “constituted a serious threat to life, health, and safety,” among them pest infestations and broken smoke detectors. DCRA re-inspected the property in September and recorded 36 unabated violations, categorizing 15 of them as serious threats.
Racine’s lawsuit says “the most egregious violations remain uncorrected” still. Mold has contaminated so many of the building’s vacant units that tenants say they can smell it.
“Tell me this: Doesn’t that indicate to you the building needs to be redone?” Parker says, noting that not all the tenants’ issues fall on him. “If you’ve got bedbugs, you’ve got bedbugs. I don’t rent beds, and I don’t rent bugs. I have a contract with an exterminator—every week he comes.”
“The District is disingenuous,” he continues. “They’re not looking out for the interest of the tenants. Otherwise they would let me fix the building. … Now, if the tenants will not let me do the substantial work and they want to complain one step at a time, then all I can do is fix it one step at a time.” Parker says he lost $7,000 on the property last year, and the complaints started after he sought to increase rents through an exemption to rent control.
The tenants and their advocates counter that Parker wants to redevelop a vacant building. “The land will become more valuable if it’s empty of tenants,” explains Rob Wohl, a tenant organizer at the Latino Economic Development Center who has worked with the building’s residents since 2014. “I think he’s waiting to cash it in.”
“I don’t want them out at all,” the owner insists. “This is where they lie. … I know it’s in bad shape. I see it every month when Mr. Ford tells me how much it cost me.”
Parker is a man of faith. “I’ll bet you didn’t know—I’m an Episcopalian,” he says after noting that he and his wife donate more than 20 percent of their income to charities. He remembers a D.C. bishop who had learned about the building and called him to ask about the tenants.
“I said, ‘Bishop, I have great concerns.’ That’s what bishops do. Bishops remind people that man does not live by bread alone.” Parker suggested that the diocese take over the building. He also told the bishop that the tenants would have to tidy up their units to eliminate pests. “If I have any more exterminators in there,” he says, “they’re going to think they’re living in a chemical factory.”
Archie believes in higher powers, too. “It’s been a long time coming,” she says of D.C.’s lawsuit. “I prayed on it. I know all the others did. I even prayed for the other side to have a heart, to give some kind of consideration for us. … And to be human. Because we’re human beings. We shouldn’t be treated like caged animals and treated like we’re nothing just because we don’t have a lot of money.”
A few minutes later last Sunday, Archie hugged a tenant who had showed up for the meeting. They talked with the familiarity of old neighbors at a summer stoop party.
“This building used to be full,” said tenant Felipa Arias, who has lived there since 1994 and pays $826 a month in rent. During the hour before the meeting, her seven-year-old son bolted up and down the hallway, action figures in hand, producing echoes. He kept returning to his home to trade one toy for another.