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Warren Branham looked at his 38-year-old brother lying on a hospital bed at the decrepit G Street Apartments last Friday. “He’s been hospitalized twice because of the ventilation,” Branham said. Steps away, their refrigerator was dead—room-temperature inside. The apartment smelled like mold and thousands of decaying cockroaches. His brother suffered a stroke as a baby and seizures as a child, Branham explained.
Twenty-four hours later, Branham’s brother was rushed to the hospital a third time. Again, Branham blamed the ventilation. “My baby is dying,” his mother sobbed over the phone from a waiting room at Washington Hospital Center. She said doctors had resuscitated him four times, but he was flatlining. He was dead within two hours.
And yet, freshly refurbished first-floor units stand empty at G Street Apartments. Branham and his family were stuck on the second floor, forcing Branham to carry his brother up and down stairs to get to doctor appointments. But tenants say the landlord has explained that these units are reserved for new, market-rent residents.
At least six other units are vacant and unsecured. Inside they are smeared with feces, littered with condoms. In one unit there’s a burn mark on the carpet. “I put out a fire there about three months ago,” says Timothy Harper, a former maintenance worker.
Harper says he kept G Street Apartments nice back when he took care of them. But his mandate gradually changed. For him, the most stunning moment came when the boiler broke. He was down in the basement with his boss, Todd Fulmer. A contractor explained the options. “The contractor said, ‘I can put a brand new boiler in here and save you $5,000 over rebuilding this one completely, and have it fixed in a week,’” Harper recalls. “Then Todd said, ‘No. Just rebuild it.’” This process would take months.
Which meant residents there didn’t have heat beyond ineffective space heaters for the winter of 2015. Some of them still don’t have heat. “My oven is what I use to heat my home,” says Karen Hamilton. “And I have a 6-year-old daughter.”
This is not an isolated story. Mold, vermin, broken refrigerators and toilets, children and elderly living without heat and air conditioning, units open to vagrants no matter how many times tenants complain—these are standard conditions at buildings owned by Sanford Capital, the company that owns G Street Apartments and at least 16 other D.C. properties, amounting to hundreds of units across the city.
Sanford Capital has been buying apartment complexes that are home to the city’s working poor for more than a decade. In extensive reporting on the company’s practices, City Paper found that Sanford employs a systematic strategy for allowing buildings to become so squalid that residents are forced to leave. The company also files for evictions in bulk.
In some cases, Sanford has rushed to replace the modest rents of the working poor with those of very low-income people who hold government-issued vouchers set at similar or higher rates—the District footing the bulk of the rent bill and ensuring a guaranteed stream of revenue for the company. In other cases, when a property is more valuable to a future developer vacant, Sanford has left buildings with only a handful of tenants who can’t or won’t move. And at Tivoli Gardens—a complex predominantly occupied by Spanish speakers, some of whom pay more than $1,300 a month for one-bedroom apartments—Sanford keeps occupancy high while letting the property rot. Not a single outer door at Tivoli Gardens locks.
Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of city government agencies, nonprofits, and the D.C. courts have become Sanford Capital’s de facto babysitters. The company makes few repairs on its properties unless fined or ordered to do so. And even then, the repairs often break within days or weeks.
“Any Sanford property—you just walk into it and you know what it’s going to look like,” says Caroline Hennessy, tenant services coordinator at Housing Counseling Services, a D.C. advocacy organization funded in part by local and federal dollars. She has worked with tenants at five different Sanford properties, while her organization’s staff as a whole has worked on at least eight over the years.
According to D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), Sanford has amassed nearly $150,000 worth of fines since 2009 across 26 addresses. The agency says it administers “proactive and complaint-based” inspections by building, not by landlord, and therefore the 26 addresses may not represent all of Sanford’s violations. DCRA adds that Sanford has paid nearly $98,000 of the fines, with the balance either overdue or not yet due.
And that’s not all. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit against Sanford Capital in October, seeking a court-appointed receiver to oversee a rehabilitation plan for Terrace Manor, a Sanford property in Southeast. Racine is also asking the company to abate housing code violations and for restitution of rents tenants paid while Sanford was illegally neglecting apartments.
In other words, the city is simultaneously enriching and suing Sanford. The District’s Department of Human Services says there are 114 households currently living in Sanford properties and receiving rent subsidies from programs that the agency administers. In addition, the D.C. Housing Authority says that at least 225 of its voucher clients are now living in Sanford properties. Estimating conservatively that vouchers average $1,000—some are more, some are less, and they depend on family income, among other factors—Sanford is being paid about $340,000 a month, or $3.7 million a year, by District and federal programs.
The Terrace Manor lawsuit isn’t the first that Racine has lodged against Sanford. It followed one last January over a Sanford property located above the Congress Heights Metro station. The first case precipitated the second. When Terrace Manor tenant Monica Jackson attended a hearing for Congress Heights tenants, she was amazed.
“I listened to the tenants, and it was like they were telling my story,” Jackson says. “Everything they were saying that they were experiencing—I was experiencing the same thing.”
The Sanford-owned buildings in Congress Heights had many of the same problems as Terrace Manor and the company’s other properties. Of 47 units at Congress Heights, 32 were vacant as of the suit’s filing, several years after Sanford acquired the rent-controlled site. The company had planned to redevelop it with D.C.-based City Partners into a mixed-use project to feature more than 200 modern apartments and commercial space. (Those plans were displayed on Sanford’s website. While they are still available on the D.C. Zoning Commission website, Sanford’s own site was deactivated shortly after the lawsuit was filed.)
Meanwhile EagleBank, whose website boasts it’s “taking care of our communities,” has provided Sanford Capital and its partners more than $46 million in loans to purchase District properties. And last year, it increased Sanford’s loan on Terrace Manor by $2.4 million. This was after the attorney general sued Sanford over Congress Heights and The Washington Post published photos of that waste-strewn property in an article about the lawsuit. The bank provided the additional funding despite the fact that a provision in the original loan agreement for Terrace Manor, which by then was in desperate condition, mandates that Sanford “keep and maintain the Improvements and the Equipment in good condition,” and “make all necessary or appropriate repairs, improvements, replacements and renewals.”
Aubrey Carter Nowell co-founded Sanford in 2006, and he has been the company’s one consistent leader over the last 11 years. His 7,956-square-foot Bethesda home sits on an ample, well-landscaped lawn. He bought the house, which is valued at $2.9 million and has eight bathrooms, with his wife around the time he founded the company.
Tenants and attorneys City Paper interviewed describe Nowell as reserved, even poker-faced. “He’s very quiet. Always the same,” says Jackson, who has met Nowell at tenant meetings and court hearings. Says Hennessy, “I’ve never seen him get visibly upset or agitated.”
Neither Nowell nor Fulmer, who heads Sanford’s property management arm, responded to calls and emails requesting interviews.
Racine says that, especially amid a citywide affordability crisis, the lawsuits aim to bolster deterrence against negligence by D.C. landlords. “We were able to put together a pretty simple case that showed a consistent record of housing violations that were not getting abated,” Racine says of Congress Heights. “And there was a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game where maybe 10 conditions were abated, another 15 would appear. It seemed as though the tenants were kind of getting jerked around.”
The Congress Heights litigation resulted in an abatement agreement requiring Sanford to repair maintenance problems recorded by District inspectors within specific time parameters, to regularly inspect abandoned units, and to provide security across the buildings. The case is pending while a judge monitors Sanford’s compliance. It has also thrown a wrench into the site’s redevelopment plans.
Before the suit was filed, Congress Heights tenant Tujuanda Blalock says she was forced to defecate in a bucket for a few days after her toilet broke in July 2015. “What our landlords should have to do is live in one of their buildings for a certain amount of time,” says Blalock, who called the property’s rental office and maintenance line half a dozen times, leaving messages. “I was so humiliated about having to use that bucket.” After five days a maintenance man made a temporary fix, but the toilet still didn’t always flush. Someone came to fix it properly about six months later, after the attorney general sued.
“The only way you can get them to do something is when the judge gets them to do it,” says Blalock.
Ernestine Turner, an elderly Terrace Manor resident, remembers a time when she was not so ashamed of where she lives. She recalls smelling the roses—actual roses—in the bushes downstairs from her apartment. As wretched as her surroundings have become since Sanford took over her building, Turner has made her unit a kind of sanctuary from the outside world. Small figurines—a frosted glass swan, a blue dolphin—are among her cherished tchotchkes. A lifetime of framed family photos cover her walls.
These days only about a dozen units at Terrace Manor remain occupied, the apartments shells of their former selves. When Sanford bought the property in 2012, more than 50 of the property’s 61 units were occupied. The on-site rental office is now boarded up.
“We really wanted to believe” Sanford would improve the property, Turner says. “My daughter kept saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’” It wasn’t.
Sanford made a series of changes after purchasing the property. Workers removed the benches that sat outside each building’s front door. They razed the little playground and replaced it with a Terrace Manor sign. Gradually, the laundry rooms closed. Heat and air conditioning broke down. Tenants began moving out in droves.
“It’s like ghostville now,” says Monica Jackson, president of Terrace Manor’s tenant association. She is one of two tenants in her building, and her sister Pamela is the only tenant in the adjacent building. Monica says she pays $874 a month in rent, while her sister pays $990.
Eventually their building doors stopped locking. “You would find people asleep, doing drugs,” Monica says. “You’d have to run them out of the building. We would ask, ‘Do you live here?’” She and her sister would find evidence of squatters in the basement.
“Feces and urine and drugs,” says Monica.
Before the purchase, Sanford and Terrace Manor’s tenant association signed a legal document known as a “memorandum of understanding,” spelling out upgrades and repairs that were to be completed, so “all buildings and units [would be] in compliance with the D.C. housing code” within half a year of closing. The parties met and reviewed the tenants’ bullet-point needs.
“I remember [Nowell] specifically saying, ‘We’ve done our research and we know what needs to be done,’” Monica Jackson recalls.
Former Terrace Manor “community manager” Richard Horchner worked there in 2014 and 2015 as the property declined. “When they say that Sanford Capital is a slumlord—for some of the buildings, yes they are,” Horchner says.
“From the time I started, all I was told is that Terrace Manor was going to be sold,” he says. “So I took care of the residents that were there, but that was all I could do. I was not permitted to move anybody in.” Horchner says he wasn’t allowed to perform major maintenance work either. Fix a broken stove or replace a light bulb? Yes. Address a chronic leak in the basement? No.
Only government enforcement seemed to spur maintenance. “The urgency to get anything done before a citation just wasn’t there,” Horchner says. “Once there was a citation, it all went to hell. Like everybody was screaming, scrambling. I had to work nonstop.”
Two years later, Terrace Manor still hasn’t been sold. But a buyer recently expressed interest. In June, D.C.-based real estate firm Equilibrium and Sanford drew up a contract, obtained by City Paper, that lists a purchase price of $5.9 million. Dan Crosby, the buying broker on the deal, is a former Sanford property manager and stands to make roughly $176,000 in commission on the sale. (Crosby did not respond to requests for comment.) But the tenant association has decided to seek an alternative buyer.
Equilibrium managing director Sofonias Astatke says his firm heard through its “agent network” that Sanford wanted to unload the site and also that he met Nowell briefly in 2016 to discuss the property. The deal is in a “holding pattern,” he says. If the transaction goes through, Terrace Manor would become Equilibrium’s biggest D.C. project.
Although the property “is not in good shape,” Astatke says, “it has a lot of potential.” Terrace Manor might not be right on top of a Metro station, but its size and mix of unit types make it rare.
“The price for the asset is higher when there are fewer tenants in there,” says American University professor Derek S. Hyra, who spent six years researching the redevelopment of Shaw and U Street for his forthcoming book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City. He sees all the signs of development pressure in and around Congress Heights. “When there becomes more of a population demand for the area, the landlords and the owners are going to look to get out the low-income population that are living in these buildings.”
Sanford Capital has only owned Belmont Crossing for 16 months, but the similarities to Terrace Manor are striking. Sanford removed the playground and benches and cut down trees. Beverly Wright, president of the Belmont Crossing Tenants Association, says residents also receive notices on their doors. “The fliers said we would be fined and given a 30-day notice for eviction for sitting outside,” says Wright.
Oakmont Management, which is Sanford’s building management arm, has filed 95 eviction cases for failure to pay rent at Belmont Crossing—a 275-unit complex. It filed 49 of these evictions in one day alone, just three months after purchasing the property. Most of these eviction filings were for amounts over $1,000.
“They close the rental office any time they feel like, even if it’s rent time,” Wright says. “And if you miss a payment, you’re late, and you have to pay a fee.” She says the fee is $20 for anything beyond five days late. Late fees are $100 for some other Sanford properties.
The locks are broken on the outer doors of nearly every building. In November, when a maintenance man came to fix the lock at one building, a minor crisis ensued. Anabell Brown, who has lived there for 13 years, heard her neighbor struggling with that outer door. Management had issued the neighbor a new key, but it wouldn’t work. Brown had an old key stored away, so she tried it, and it worked.
But when the woman brought the maintenance man back to show him how the new key didn’t work, he solved the problem by breaking the very fix he’d just installed. “He just took a screwdriver and pulled this back,” says Brown, pointing to the metal plate on her building door, “and it’s been like this ever since.”
If Belmont Crossing goes the way of Terrace Manor and Congress Heights, it will soon be near empty. But the property may also go in the direction of Oak Hill Apartments, where Sanford has filled vacant units with tenants who come with guaranteed full-market rent via government-issued vouchers or are receiving aid from human services agencies.
Diane Wilson is back in class getting her high school diploma. But before living at Oak Hill, a multi-building complex Sanford Capital owns on Wheeler Road SE, she spent two months at D.C. General, the District’s largest family homeless shelter. Both are falling apart.
“D.C. General was faster than these people,” says Wilson, who’s lived at Oak Hill for nine years. There hasn’t been a lock on her building’s front door since 2015. Fire extinguishers go missing, the result, Wilson says, of youth who have walked into the buildings and sprayed them all over.
“People sleeping in the hall, having sex in the laundry room,” recounts the D.C. native who grew up in Northwest. “We’ve written letter after letter after letter to Sanford. There are no lights on the parking lot—that’s been three years. A young lady almost got raped out there.”
Wilson’s oven and a garbage disposal have been broken for weeks, and she has had to spend her own money to spray for bedbugs.
Recently her toilet backed up, and although Sanford sent someone to plunge it right away, the next day her building’s water was off, with no communication from management. “They leave notes when they’re going up on the rent, or when you’re late for your payment,” she says. The shutoff happened, Wilson says, because sewage had flooded the rental office downstairs.
Never mind the birds—or squirrels—that have found their way into her building’s walls, died, and putrefied. Wilson recalls that Oak Hill has had four different property managers since she moved there and says fights in the rental office between tenants and management staff are common.
And just Monday, firefighters were dispatched to put out an electrical fire at Oak Hill inside the walls of a building. While no residents were injured, a firefighter was treated for an unspecified medical condition, according to D.C. officials. A number of tenants were also displaced because the gas had to be turned off, and the Red Cross arrived to help them find temporary accommodations.
Sanford has owned Oak Hill since 2006, when it bought the complex for $6 million. Wilson moved there after exiting the shelter system. She had seen the complex while walking her daughter to school and was drawn by its balconies. Rent-assistance programs helped Wilson pay her bills. As of today, her rent is $1,150 a month for a two-bedroom unit that she shares with her husband. “I wouldn’t mind paying it if they kept it up,” she says.
Many residents in Sanford’s properties receive housing vouchers or other forms of rent assistance that are bankrolled by taxpayers. A 2016 email from a Department of Human Services staffer to the attorney general’s office—sent after the Congress Heights suit was filed—states that 170 of the agency’s homeless services clients were “being housed in units owned and or managed by Sanford Capital.”
“In addition,” the staffer wrote, “there are three DHS homeless families that are currently occupying units that are part of the lawsuit.”
Advocates say Sanford accepts formerly homeless and low-income voucher tenants because the company is guaranteed to make money from them, at least for the duration of the benefits those tenants receive. The District’s rapid rehousing program, for example, helps people move into more stable environments than shelters, but the subsidy is time-limited so some landlords are reluctant to welcome participants. Nonprofits have even praised Sanford’s willingness to house people transitioning out of homelessness. In 2015, two of them sent letters to D.C.’s Zoning Commission in support of the company’s plans to redevelop its Congress Heights property.
Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, which submitted one of the letters in support of Sanford, says her organization currently has fewer than 50 clients who live in Sanford properties. Respress adds that Pathways does not run a rapid rehousing program but does act “like a broker” for D.C. Housing Authority clients looking for landlords who accept vouchers. “It’s just harder and harder to find decent and affordable housing in the District,” she says.
Clarence Stewart, chief of housing at The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, wrote to zoning officials that Sanford had housed “more than 300 individuals and families” as part of the organization’s supportive services programs since 2008. He called the company a “leading landlord partner.” (Stewart did not respond to requests for comment.)
For Yvette Oakley, an Oak Hill resident who receives a housing voucher that covers the $1,115 in monthly rent for her one-bedroom unit, the past three years have been a series of challenges. She initially lived in a unit where the heat often went out and where there was no air conditioning. Instead, Oakmont provided her and her daughter three fans in the summer.
In her former unit, when a voucher didn’t cover her entire rent, Oakley got $1,500 behind on her rent. Sanford sued to evict her while she was waiting to be transferred to a more habitable unit on the premises. Her father eventually paid off the debt.
“I was surprised they were doing this because I told them I’ve been in here suffering, sleeping with extra blankets and stuff, cold,” notes Oakley, who has a hip problem. Her daughter’s old bedroom was infested with bedbugs.
She wishes she had a handicap rail in her bathroom to help her get in and out of the shower, but beyond that wants Sanford’s maintenance crews to keep up the property.
“I’ve been considering moving, but when you get a certain age, the only way I move is if I get put out or they close these apartments down,” she says. “Some [people] are moving in. I saw them moving in, but they just don’t know they’re moving into something where they may have problems once they get in.” Oakley says her current building is the only one on the site where the front door securely locks.
Given the rents they pay and the number of buildings at Oak Hill, residents question where their money is going. Says Wilson, “You ain’t gonna tell me they don’t have money to do what they need to do.”
Though Oak Hill is not the subject of litigation by the attorney general’s office, Wilson’s neighbor Joann Graves, who has lived at the property for 15 years and once served as the secretary of the site’s now-disbanded tenant association, says it should be. “We need to get some real property management over here,” says Graves, who characterizes the living conditions as “deplorable.”
At Tivoli Gardens, about a half-mile walk from Metro’s Fort Totten station, the vacancy rate is low. The majority of the residents speak only Spanish, and the average rent is about $1,120 a month for small one-bedroom units, according to a June 2016 rent roll for the property.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in January, water was streaming off the roof into a puddle about five inches deep along the building wall. A few steps away, the trash dumpsters were overflowing—at least 15 bags on the ground. A box spring, a comfy chair, a grocery cart, and a pile of old and splintered wood lay on one side. Resident Esmerelda Posadas estimates the box spring has been resting on the dumpster for two years.
Caroline Hennessy, who works with Tivoli residents through her job as a tenant advocate, recently emailed Sanford’s property management arm with photos of water damage on the ceiling and walls of a tenant’s bathroom, and was taken aback by the response from Sanford’s Todd Fulmer.
She implored Fulmer to consider a permanent fix instead of just “patchwork repairs.”
Ten minutes later, Fulmer replied. “It’s just the units where tenants wash and hang there cloths to dry,” he wrote. “All that moisture from the cloth evaporates into the air and has to go somewhere. Which is the floors and walls. We have notified tenants numerous times but they continue to do it over and over.” He offered to make a drywall repair “for the last time” but predicted tenants would continue to hang their laundry “because it free and the laundry mats cost $.”
Posadas, who has small children, says she was most baffled when workers came to repave the complex parking lot. “Of all the things they could have fixed, the parking lot was the least of our concerns,” she says.
“The thing we think is the most dangerous, the most nasty, is the infestations. I’ve seen silverfish, I’ve seen roaches, I’ve seen bedbugs, I’ve seen spiders. I have an economy-sized bug repellent in my apartment, and I go over everything,” says Posadas. “And that doesn’t count the mice. There’s a stray cat problem here, and we feed them because of the rat problem.”
Elias Hernandez took a video of four mice as they died on a sticky pad in his apartment. He and his wife are currently fighting eviction with the help of a legal aid attorney.
Like Terrace Manor, Tivoli Gardens is for sale. Attorney Eric Rome is representing the tenants in their effort to choose a developer that will revive the property, which is their right under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA. “Over 30 years and hundreds of buildings, it is one of the worst that I’ve ever seen,” says Rome, a veteran TOPA attorney. “It shows an utter neglect by the owner and a disregard for the conditions the tenants are living in.”
Slumlords have long been a District staple. In 2008, Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles filed a lawsuit against 23 landlords for practices similar to Sanford’s. Many of these landlords lived in opulent houses while their tenants lived in squalor. Several of them had even spent time in jail for various white-collar crimes, including housing-related scams, before returning to real estate development.
Sanford has been consistent in its D.C. practices for a decade. Bread for the City attorney Rebecca Lindhurst began working with Oak Hill tenants in 2007 after a person claiming to represent Sanford went around the buildings offering tenants $1,500, and later $5,000, to move out of their rent-controlled units. Residents complained that sewage was backing up in their tubs and sinks and began to move out. Sanford had purchased the building a year earlier. Now Bread for the City is working on the Terrace Manor case, representing the remaining tenants in their TOPA matter.
“Where the misunderstanding comes in, for the general public, is to think that Sanford is a one-off, that Sanford is somehow unique,” says Will Merrifield, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents the tenants association at Congress Heights. “Sanford is the norm,” Merrifield says. “What makes Sanford exposed is that the tenants stood up and fought.”
Merrifield says that Nowell’s primary distinction may be his brazenness. “Sanford thought they could come at it with a sledgehammer and thought they wouldn’t be challenged in their behavior,” Merrifield says. Other landlords, he says, are simply more sophisticated in their approach.
Sanford has assumed millions of dollars in debt, taking out multiple mortgages on some of its D.C. properties. Bethesda-based EagleBank has been a major Sanford lender in the District, providing loans for G Street Apartments, Terrace Manor, Tivoli Gardens, and a building at Congress Heights.
Despite liens and lawsuits, City Paper found no evidence that EagleBank or other lenders have foreclosed on any of Sanford’s D.C. properties. In some cases, EagleBank has already been paid in full. Basis Real Estate Capital II has loaned Sanford about $41 million, and Centerline Mortgage Capital Inc. at least another $17.4 million for Sanford’s D.C. properties.
On Sunday, the morning after his brother died, Warren Branham created a GoFundMe page with a goal of $5,000 to cover the funeral costs. He says his mom wasn’t at home and was staying with family. “She didn’t want to wake up and see her son not in the bed.”
The previous Thursday, D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Mott approved a joint abatement plan for Terrace Manor. According to the agreement, Sanford must rehabilitate two buildings on the property with the intent of relocating the remaining tenants to them. Vacant units must be securely locked, and a designated DCRA inspector has been assigned to monitor the site. Tenants will keep their current rents for a year, as Sanford pays for their moving expenses to the two buildings.
It was a hard-won victory. Sanford attorney Stephen Hessler submitted a November response to the attorney general’s complaint denying that the most egregious conditions at Terrace Manor were still unabated. The response also described Monica Jackson’s comments included in the District’s lawsuit as “self-serving”—denying those too.
But the District has a second front in its Terrace Manor battle. The attorney general is testing new legal ground: whether it can prosecute negligent landlords under the city’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, or CPPA.
Racine and his staff are arguing that in demanding rent payments, but not providing habitable conditions, Sanford engaged in misrepresentation. That contention, the District’s lawyers say, establishes a claim to recover rents paid not only by current Terrace Manor tenants but also by some who have left the property.
In court filings, Sanford has responded that “it is well settled” that the CPPA does not “apply to the landlord and tenant relationship.” The attorney general’s office says it does, citing 2016 D.C. Council legislation.
Hessler told the court he was going to fight those claims “tooth and nail.”
Zach Rausnitz and Noa Rosinplotz contributed reporting.