Sanford-owned complex Terrace Manor
Sanford-owned complex Terrace Manor Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When he was running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council three years ago, local activist Eugene Puryear met tenants living in slum-like conditions at a group of buildings near the Congress Heights Metro station. They were and are owned by Bethesda-based Sanford Capital, a negligent landlord that has bought low-income apartment complexes in the District since 2006. D.C.’s attorney general is now suing the company over conditions in Congress Heights and at another complex in Ward 8 called Terrace Manor. Tenants who can’t afford to leave, or don’t want to, are forced to live in squalid conditions while Sanford profits from both market-rate and taxpayer-subsidized rents at more than 15 sites across the city.

Those facts are familiar to Puryear, who later became formally involved with the Congress Heights residents, championing their cause with housing advocacy groups like the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Housing Counseling Services. He testified at D.C. Council hearings about the tenants’ struggles—ranging from lack of heat and air conditioning to bedbugs to doors that never locked despite repeated maintenance requests.

On a 100-degree day last July, Puryear helped organize and lead residents in a march against the company’s developer partner, which had proposed to replace the derelict buildings above the Metro station with a new mixed-use project. The tenants feared that their home would be razed to make way for wealthier residents. And they no longer trusted Sanford after all kinds of broken promises.

Their activist-aided efforts have paid off, at least in part. Sanford’s Congress Heights and Terrace Manor properties are now the subject of court-monitored abatement plans negotiated between the company’s lawyers and Attorney General Karl Racine. These agreements followed city-led lawsuits and housing inspections by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. 

But as City Paper recently reported, the litigated sites aren’t the only Sanford properties in disrepair. Nor are they the only dilapidated buildings in a city that has transformed from the “murder capital” of the 1990s to a crown jewel of the mid-Atlantic, where the contrast between prosperity and privation can often be jarring.

Puryear, for one, says Sanford and its peers aren’t alone in the blame for the District’s dearth of decent affordable housing. He says the executive and legislative branches are failing to provide sufficient enforcement and subsidized housing.

“You can rap the council for not following up enough on oversight,” Puryear says. “But on both sides, it’s really a lack of vision. … When you move to a voucher model that’s subsidizing the private market, you get people that are specializing in gaming the system, who know that low-income tenants have less money and less power.” 

Then there’s the tendency among elected officials to posture without acting. “We constantly go through these similar processes in D.C. government of diagnosing the problem—administration after administration—but never looking for any long-term, serious solutions,” he argues. 

Within the Wilson Building, councilmembers agree the legislative body could perform more oversight of bad owners, but they say the legislature’s powers are limited. 

Still, the council can equip the attorney general and executive agencies with greater tools to go after absentee landlords. At the end of 2016, for example, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, urged the council to unanimously pass an emergency bill granting the attorney general authority under the District’s consumer protection laws to sue owners. Racine is doing exactly that in the Terrace Manor lawsuit.

“The Sanford case presents a real dilemma for us in that we want to protect tenants—especially low-income tenants—from hazardous and substandard housing conditions, but we also want to preserve as much affordable housing as possible,” says Elissa Silverman, an at-large member on the housing committee. This budget season, she plans to press DCRA and the D.C. Housing Authority, which issues tenant vouchers, on the frequency and depth of their inspections. Given the city’s limited resources, she says the agencies may be more effective if they target properties known to house a majority of residents who are on rental assistance or enrolled in homeless services programs.

Officials must be more “proactive” in addressing slumlords and deferred maintenance, she says. “This is like Stage 4 cancer, where we’re catching issues [like having] to replace a boiler system, or rodents have completely penetrated the building, rather than Stage 1,” Silverman explains.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says there isn’t a legislative panacea to combat Sanford or other negligent property managers. Rejiggering the low-income programs that the company exploits isn’t the right answer either. He says “judicial and code enforcement” by the attorney general and DCRA is necessary, and he cites a “Clean Hands” law that might preclude slumlords from obtaining business licenses and permits if they owe fines to D.C.

“The council should turn up the heat by having some oversight hearings,” Mendelson contends. “And the mayor can turn up the heat by using every tool. And Karl should go after them in court. What we can do is make the District an unpleasant place for Sanford to do business.”

In other words, the city can put inattentive landlords on notice. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who sits on the housing committee and chairs the committee on human services, says the District may want to reconsider how it administers fines for housing code violations, because large companies like Sanford Capital view these penalties as “just a cost of doing business.” 

“We have to go back and ask if we have the right fine structure,” she notes. “If we have multiple fines in a building, should we be examining a certain class of fines?” In her time on the council, Nadeau has successfully pushed for funding to hire three more DCRA inspectors as well as two full-time staffers at the Office of the Tenant Advocate. Under a new law she proposed that becomes effective later this month, OTA has the authority to recoup tenant relocation costs when a landlord is at fault for their displacement.

Nonprofit groups often serve as “boots on the ground,” as Nadeau puts it, when it comes to particular housing conditions or delinquent owners. Philip Kennedy, who works at the Latino Economic Development Center as a regional tenant organizing manager, says the District “should be more aggressive about using tools like receivership”—in which a property comes under a third-party’s purview to ensure dilapidated buildings are rehabbed. He says it should also find ways to discourage landlords from emptying their buildings to turn redevelopment profits, such as tightening vacancy exemptions and other loopholes to the city’s rent-control laws.

“Underlying any of these strategies is effective tenant organizing,” Kennedy says. Meanwhile, D.C. has yet to deploy a law known as the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, which then-Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry introduced in 2008. A counterpart to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, the underfunded DOPA allows D.C. to buy at-risk affordable housing.

“It’s frustrating because we have incredibly strong tenant protections, and yet negligent landlords still find a way to persist,” Nadeau says. “That’s one of the biggest challenges that we face.”