Way up on Georgia Avenue NW, near D.C.’s Maryland border, Denise Smith stands outside her apartment, on the first floor of an almost half-vacant building, and sighs.
Smith heads the building’s dwindling tenant association, having lived there for five years. Hers is one of two rent-controlled properties on the block owned by Larnaca, a local real estate firm that shares the name of a city in Cyprus and owns at least five other apartment buildings in Ward 4. Larnaca bought Smith’s 15-unit building just under a year ago for $1.6 million. It bought the 21-unit building two addresses up for less at the end of 2013.
Under the new management, the front door to Smith’s building at last locks securely, whereas before vagrants would walk in off the avenue. But other problems persist. Tenants say bedbugs have invaded units, leaks are common, and workers inconsistently follow up on maintenance requests made via a 24-hour bilingual hotline (many of the residents in both buildings are native Spanish speakers). In recent months, a ceiling collapsed in a unit near Smith’s.
“I have a brand new grandbaby and I’m certainly not trying to have them come here,” she says. “They only respond in crisis situations … or if we sue them.” With the help of pro bono attorneys, five tenants in Smith’s building have filed suit against Larnaca over alleged violations of the city’s housing code. But as of today, just one of those lawsuits is still pending.
With development creeping farther north along Georgia Avenue, including the major changes in store for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center site, Smith suspects that the owner’s goal is to get the current tenants out and convert her building into luxury apartments. When Larnaca was acquiring the building, it offered $5,000 buyouts to tenants, which few took. The remaining residents—who pay on average $1,000 in monthly rent—agreed to let the landlord take vacant units out of rent control in exchange for renovations and security measures.
“This is a nice area and it’s going to be nicer,” Smith reflects. While she hopes to stay in the neighborhood, she says she doesn’t have options, given prices. She thinks the owner “wants to redo the whole building.”
That owner is Alexandria resident Theo Androus, who founded Larnaca several years ago. A motivational speaker, he has given TED-esque talks on self-reliance and facing the unexpected. More than a decade ago, on an NBC4 segment about his completion of a triathlon after breaking his leg, Androus offered a comment typical of his speeches, some of which are available on YouTube: “Adversity is a far better coach than success.”
Androus comes from a Greek family and, tenants say, is known to visit Greece often. Virginia property records show he owns an Alexandria home worth more than $1 million with his wife. He has also partnered with developers to build and sell a 175-unit luxury apartment project in Old Town.
As a landlord, though, Androus has a different reputation. Although he’s quick to note that many of his tenants have his personal cell phone number in case of emergencies, like when a woman got locked out of her apartment in one of his Georgia Avenue properties last week, tenants say he’s out of touch with the conditions they endure. He landscaped the building where the woman got locked out, for example, but its front door fails to lock. Tenants are afraid to use the four-machine laundry room in the basement because trespassers have accessed it.
“We have repeatedly made repairs to the locks in these buildings, and we continue to make repairs,” Androus says, pointing out that Larnaca has fulfilled the 154 maintenance requests it received for both Georgia Avenue buildings since April 12, 2016. “We are working hard to keep this building safe and secure.” He says his company has completely replaced the roofs, put in new gutters and downspouts, and redid common-area lights and paint, among other work.
Yet what appears to be water damage lines a wall in the 21-unit building’s lobby, and windows inside apartments leak when it rains. Speaking through a Spanish interpreter alongside her two young boys, three-year tenant Yesenia Jurado says she’s purchased rat poison with her own money. Jurado even recounts spreading bleach around her walls to treat bedbugs. “It would be better to live somewhere else,” she says.
In October 2014, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs placed an $11,000 lien on the building Jurado lives in for Larnaca’s “failure to pay fines and penalties,” according to property records.
Rob Wohl, who translated Jurado’s comments and works as a tenant organizer for the Latino Economic Development Center, says the “systemic issues” at Larnaca’s Georgia Avenue sites suggest that District housing code enforcement often “falls flat,” and, more broadly, that D.C.’s “lack of affordable housing means people have to put up with this stuff.”
“Landlords realize there’s a lot of money to be made if they can get tenants to go,” Wohl says. “And there’s also a lot of money to be made just sitting on a property.”
Larnaca went on an acquisition spree around the beginning of April 2015, buying an apartment building on Jefferson Street NW and two contiguous ones on Madison Street NW. It bought its first Madison Street building and another on New Hampshire Avenue NW around the beginning of 2014. Their combined value has risen several hundred thousand dollars since then.
Androus says the tenants of his Georgia Avenue properties owe him more than $41,000 in back rent, but that hasn’t stopped him from paying for maintenance work. The tenants and Wohl, however, say withholding rent is leverage for ensuring Larnaca makes repairs. “All this money they owe me has had zero impact on my willingness or attempts to make repairs,” Androus says, adding he has “no interest in selling or converting” the buildings.
Last year, the 15-unit building was assessed at $1.1 million, while the 21-unit building was assessed at $1.3 million. Tenants and advocates say Androus wanted to buy the building in between these two, but it recently became a co-op. It was also assessed at $1.3 million.
The middle property is a near-mirror image of Jurado’s building, minus the landscaping Androus installed. Cheryl Perry, who is tenant association president for the latter, says the entrance of that middle property had been treated with salt after forecasts of snow—while her building had not. Perry has lived at 7444 Georgia Ave. NW for nearly 20 years.
She says Larnaca is “the worst” company that’s owned the site, doing only “surface-level” fixes. Although she admits “some of the problems are on the tenants,” like accumulating trash, Perry blames Larnaca for security issues, like when a homeless woman stayed in her hallway for a couple of nights about two months ago.
“This is our home,” Perry says. “This is what we consider home. I want to be able to sit on my couch and not worry about mice running through or in the closet making noise. I don’t want to live like that or be afraid to go out the door because you’re afraid of what’s on the other side.”