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In the ongoing struggle against his landlord, Vaughn Bennett is already plotting his next move.
On a recent Wednesday, the bespectacled chess instructor and former District firefighter hustles between two affordable housing buildings in Brookland known as Dahlgreen Courts. The historic apartments—one is four stories, the other five—underwent a major renovation from 2011 to 2012 after residents brought in Philadelphia-based nonprofit Mission First Housing Group to buy and redevelop the site through D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Just four years later, residents say the buildings have fallen into disrepair, citing everything from cracks in the walls and water spots on ceilings to broken floorboards and possible mold. Paint peels in hallways and apartments as rodent droppings fester under stairwells. Dozens of photos on the association’s public Facebook page document these issues, which tenants say began to emerge shortly after the renovation was complete. Last month, 35 tenants signed a letter to Mission First’s CEO expressing their grievances and highlighting “deplorable housing conditions.”
Inspection reports furnished by DCRA show roughly 160 housing-code violations—including window, ceiling, and door damage—in more than 25 units and common areas in 2014. Last year, the count was down to 120 housing-code violations across 20 units and common areas.
Originally constructed in the 1920s, Dahlgreen Courts was ready for a makeover when reconstruction began six years ago. At that time, a central boiler system provided irregular heat, the electricity was unreliable, and the buildings lacked modern sprinkler and fire-alarm systems. They also weren’t handicap-accessible and the plumbing was old.
The total redevelopment cost some $20 million, but only about $9.5 million went toward construction. The rest paid for acquiring the property, legal fees, transaction costs, and interest. Typical of affordable housing deals, it drew upon both private investment and government funds. The D.C. Housing Finance Agency provided Mission First $6.2 million in tax-exempt bonds; the Department of Housing and Community Development gave it $5.1 million through a federal Community Development Block Grant; and Capital One Bank loaned it nearly $4 million. Mixed financing enables developers to create or rehabilitate units and rent them out below market.
Bennett, who is vice president of the Dahlgreen Courts Tenant Association, says Mission First and its management arm, Columbus Property Management, have dropped the ball. His is one of 32 households that lived in Dahlgreen Courts before the makeover and remained in the complex after reconstruction.
They wonder how their buildings could have gotten a multimillion-dollar overhaul—complete with new kitchens, bathrooms, HVAC units, and common spaces—and started to decline within a matter of a few years.
Some have even alleged fraud, which Mission First wholeheartedly denies. The nonprofit points to an audited, independent cost certification for the project and numerous layers of oversight as evidence that all work was done properly and legally.
On Monday, CEO Alfredo de la Peña took a train from Philadelphia, where Mission First is based, to D.C. to address the complaints. Giving an overview of the nonprofit’s work from a vacant (as well as clean and problem-free) unit at Dahlgreen Courts, la Peña says plainly, “We’re going to have to provide more resources here.”
The organization says it’s committed to developing and managing affordable housing for low-income and special-needs populations, like the elderly and people with behavioral-health issues. One of the group’s specialities is connecting tenants with supportive services, its executives note. It originated in the late 1980s.
Mission First’s D.C. portfolio includes 843 units across about 10 properties. The District has often partnered with the organization on developments, including Severna on K and Plaza West, a forthcoming 223-unit building that will in part serve “grandfamilies” (seniors raising grandkids). Mission First has over 1,600 units in Pennsylvania, and hundreds more across the Mid-Atlantic.
Dahlgreen Courts is occupied by households who earn up to 60 percent of the area median income, or $65,000 for a family of four. Units range in size from studios to two-bedrooms. Some tenants report paying more than $1,000 a month in rent, while those who stayed in the buildings through the rehabilitation spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent. (The size of the latter demographic has shrunk from 32 families in 2013 to 23 now.) In the context of Northeast’s burgeoning housing market, the rents are modest.
Bennett, an ex-neighborhood commissioner in his early fifties, is behind the social-media shaming and other efforts to get officials’ attention on Dahlgreen Courts. A longtime rabble-rouser who’s lived at the complex since 2006, he knows how to navigate the District’s alphabet soup of bureaucracies.
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Bennett says his toil—sending emails, making phone calls, and attending city meetings—is about empowering others. “If you don’t stand up for what’s right, you’re part of what’s wrong,” the peppy chess player says. He appears to practice what he preaches. In 2012, Bennett was among the agitators who filed suit against developers and the District to block an Ivy City parking lot from becoming a bus depot—an endeavor to protect low-income residents that succeeded. In 1999, a City Paper article characterized him as “the D.C. Fire Department’s biggest complainer.”
“On the surface, I have to tell you, it looks nice,” Bennett confesses of the property where he lives. “But when you look just a little bit underneath the surface, you see that they’ve done a bath-fitters approach: They put a new tub over your old tub. …We have people here since the ’70s. We have children here. And we deserve better than this.” (He has previously fought with Mission First in housing court.)
Bennett has contacted the offices of Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who represents Brookland, and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the legislature’s housing committee. Last month, he offered testimony about Dahlgreen to Bonds’ committee, and in recent weeks he has solicited aid from D.C.’s attorney general, tenant advocate, and community activists. McDuffie, who visited the buildings this month and attended a 2013 ribbon cutting following the renovation, says in a statement that what he witnessed there was “unacceptable,” noting that he’s contacted “the appropriate agencies.” McDuffie adds that “I will continue to press [those] agencies for action and stand with the tenants of Dahlgreen Court.”
McDuffie isn’t the only District pol looking into the buildings. Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner, whose office oversees affordable housing projects subsidized by D.C. dollars, says: “In addition to numerous inspections, and subsequent citations to the property, our team has been in constant contact with the residents’ representatives at Dahlgreen Courts and will continue to engage them until the matter is resolved.”
Bennett says he’s particularly troubled by what he perceives as a dearth of “lead-safe practices” during work on the buildings. In response, Mission First says that all units were extensively tested for lead because the apartments are historic, and surfaces ruled to contain the substance were repaired and painted over so that any lead would be “encapsulated.”
In what were perhaps the most distressing recent incidents for residents, sewage has backed up into Dahlgreen Courts’ rental office in the four-story building, and a December kitchen fire in the five-story building displaced two families. The business center beneath the unit in which the blaze broke out was wrecked and is now being reconstructed.
Tenants have also discovered missing insulation in certain walls and floors. But Mission First says insulation was installed under the refurbished roofs, and the interior walls are made of thick plaster. In addition to wood floors and exterior bricks, the property group explains that it could neither remove nor significantly alter plaster due to historic preservation requirements. The upside for the group was getting additional financing through historic tax credits.
As for the spewing sewage, Mission First’s reps say they are just as mystified about its cause as tenants are, adding that engineers have been asked to find a fix.
“We are committed to our residents and providing them a quality living environment,” the group’s managing director Sarah Constant says, noting that Mission First is currently inspecting every unit at Dahlgreen Courts, conducts “regular” exterminations, and has a “24-hour on-call staff” in case of emergencies. “We take these concerns of our residents seriously, and are reaching out to the tenant association to address these issues.” The inspections began last Friday and are expected to take half an hour a unit over the course of two weeks.
Still, with this round of inspections, some residents are anxious. “They’re going to come in here like stormtroopers,” says a tenant who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from management. The resident, a senior citizen, worries that Mission First could proceed with evictions if it finds lease violations, such as hoarding and unauthorized occupants, during its sweep of the property.
“I know right now that we’re going to be fighting, and they’re going to turn up the heat,” the resident contends, describing the way Mission First has treated tenants as “almost like you’re living in the projects. It’s really hard to deal with that mentality when you’re an intelligent person. You want to respect them, but they’ve got to earn it.”
The nonprofit insists that it’s striving to make amends, in part by having tried to arrange sit-downs with the tenant association over the past few weeks—but to no avail. It plans a Jan. 18 resident meeting to hear people’s concerns.
“There’s no need to talk with them,” Bennett says when asked about the organization’s recent outreach. “We’ve had enough discussion. Two years ago, we went through the same exact thing.” Bennett wants new management. Of various abatement promises, he says, “I’m not optimistic.”
Mission First admits some fault. Employees say it will hire a third “resident-services provider” in the District and take steps to ensure Dahlgreen Courts has fewer management upheavals than in the past. “We are concerned with the turnover with on-site staff and now have a highly qualified manager in place,” says Elizabeth Askew Everhart, a senior development manager. Everhart adds that since 2010, the apartment complex has had six different property managers.
For the weariest tenants, though, such reassurances may be too little, too late. On Monday, on the first floor of Dahlgreen Courts, an elderly resident who’s lived at the property since before the renovation told Everhart that she got a great deal on a new home and is moving with her husband to Southwest Virginia. She said the complex had gone “downhill” and become “ghetto.”