Jose Hernandez Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Jose Hernandez fled from El Salvador to D.C. in 1988, seeking political asylum from the civil war that would ultimately claim over 75,000 civilian lives. He lived here for two years before moving into a rent-controlled apartment on Park Road NW in Mount Pleasant. In 1990, he says, his 89-year-old building was filled with people like him: Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of them day laborers. He paid $425 monthly in rent.

A permanent U.S. resident, he lived in the building happily for over a decade and a half before an infestation began in late 2006.

It happened gradually, then suddenly: Cockroaches, rats, and bedbugs all swarmed his apartment unit. Although Hernandez immediately (and repeatedly) reported the infestation, his landlord didn’t respond to requests for an exterminator. Just months before, in October of 2006, his landlord increased Hernandez’s rent to $822 a month, and he was never given notices of those increases in Spanish.

Exhausted from fighting over what was then the third rent increase in as many years, Hernandez, now 67, decided to stop paying rent until his complaints were addressed. After three months, his landlord took him to court in 2007 seeking to evict him and his wife Victoria. During the litigation, Hernandez says that his landlord told him that the management company would “fix the property if [he] agreed to pay the increased rent” of $719.

Hernandez won his case, but management issues persisted. Five years later, in 2012, his landlord tried to increase his rent by 8.57 percent—about 5 percent higher than the 3.6 percent ceiling allowable under the law that year for seniors like Hernandez. The landlord was relying on a little-known vehicle called a 70% voluntary agreement, which allows landlords to raise a building’s rent ceiling (typically for vacant units) with the consent of at least 70 percent of the tenants. It’s usually justified with the promise that management will use the additional funds for repairs and maintenance. Hernandez, who was not among the agreement’s signatories, was nevertheless subject to the increases, and had to file a tenant petition to lower his rent ceiling. 

Other Latino tenants, unable to afford the new rent, began to move out. Hernandez estimates that the building has gone from about 90 percent to 5 percent Latino in the 17 years since he moved in.

The premise of the agreement—that tenants can only obtain legally required standards of building maintenance by paying more rent—is something Joel Cohn, legislative director of D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, calls “horrible,” “offensive,” and “a joke.”

Today, Hernandez claims that the building’s elevator has ongoing mechanical problems; that the floorboards in his apartment unit have loosened and shifted; and that, despite requests for an inspection from the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment, his building is still covered in lead paint. (Neither Hernandez’s landlord nor the building’s management company responded to requests for comment. A spokeswoman from DOEE says the agency has no record of Hernandez’s inspection request).

Sitting in the Columbia Heights offices of the Central American Resource Center, known by the acronym CARECEN, Hernandez is wearing the wide-brimmed cowboy hat of the calgador. Through a translator, he says that the 50-unit building dozens of Latino immigrants once called home has become increasingly whitewashed. He tells a story of calculated manipulation, discrimination, and malice. He talks of his struggle to understand his legal rights and rent changes, his frustration with living in an unsafe apartment despite regularly advocating for himself, and his belief that his landlord considers him an undesirable tenant. 

His story highlights what is perhaps a broader and more sinister motive on the part of some local management companies: to drive Latino residents living in rent-controlled units out of their buildings so that they can refurbish their apartments and rent them at higher prices.

During a July hearing held by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, CARECEN executive director Abel Nuñez said Latino tenants are being “disproportionately impacted” by housing problems. A former CARECEN volunteer testified that the “abuses and mistreatments” of Spanish-speaking immigrants are “distinctive.”

Another CARECEN client, Bernabe Martinez-Blanco, filed a discrimination suit in August with D.C.’s Office of Human Rights after claiming that his landlord verbally abused Latino residents, screaming at him, his wife, 86-year-old mother, and two young children after they requested she address insect, mold, and water problems in their Park View apartment. 

City Paper reviewed hundreds of pages of these residents’ tenant petitions, D.C. Superior Court claims, eviction notices, and Office of Human Rights cases, which point to a disturbing trend of systematic negligence and abuse of immigrant tenants. 

These charges are best demonstrated by Martinez-Blanco’s eviction warning notice, which his landlord served him in April after what he claims were fabricated allegations of excessive noise and illegally living with his mother. It was the only one of his dozens of housing notices that was translated into Spanish.

Jose and Victoria Hernandez in their apartment. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

The area surrounding Hernandez’s apartment building is idyllic, lined with great sprawling trees, brick buildings, and regal white columns. But the apartment itself betrays many signs of decay. Inside Hernandez’s studio, white paint is flaking from door frames and window sills, revealing decades of layers of what is most likely lead-based paint. (For buildings built before 1978, DOEE presumes there is lead-based paint.) There is no proper ventilation for the kitchen stove, causing cooking odors to remain stagnant in the apartment. Power outlets protrude awkwardly from the wall. The air-conditioning unit has been taped over because it’s not properly insulated. The floors are buckling. These are the conditions that remain after an initial round of repairs were made in 2007.

From the outside, passersby would never guess that the interior is crumbling. 

It’s a popular neighborhood for Spanish-speaking immigrants. One-third of the city’s Latino population lives in burgeoning neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, a stone’s throw away from the trendy Thip Khao, The Coupe, Red Derby and Wonderland Ballroom. Half of Columbia Heights’ residents are Latino, and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau characterizes it as the city’s “most diverse” Ward. Hernandez’s $685 rent is a fraction of the average price of apartments in Columbia Heights, which on the much higher end can run upwards of $4,000. 

An Urban Institute study dedicated exclusively to examining the growth of the city’s Latino community argued that average rent prices between 2000 and 2007 “increased more for Latinos than for other racial/ethnic groups, possibly due to the fact that Latinos tended to live in the neighborhoods experiencing the hottest housing boom.” The rush to build residential units in those neighborhoods, coupled with more commercial development, “has also highlighted growing tensions between Mt. Pleasant’s existing Latino and African-American communities and the new residents,” the same study concluded.

A separate 2011 report from the organization estimates that there are more than 13,000 rent-controlled units in Ward 1, which includes Columbia Heights, Park View, and Mount Pleasant. If still accurate, that would make it the D.C. ward most populated with rent-controlled apartments. And that no doubt is a rub for property development and management companies, which have been flocking to the area to cash in on housing demand from high-earning professionals.

Though there are rent-control protections, Cohn says there are myriad ways around them. Of the five housing provider petitions used to increase the rent ceiling for rent-controlled units, the most frequently invoked is the aforementioned 70% voluntary agreement.  A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development says an average of 20 have been filed annually for the past 10 years, which, Cohn says, “doesn’t sound like a lot, but has a humongous impact on the number of rent-controlled units in the city. It becomes staggering when the numbers are compounded year after year. It’s a serious erosion of meaningful rent control.”

And so the question isn’t whether higher-income residents are moving into neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant as rent increases and amenities multiply. We know they are. Instead, the question is whether there is a methodical and intentional attempt to price out rent-control tenants in those areas. 

“Yes,” Cohn says without hesitation. “It sure appears as though there’s an intention to make life as difficult as possible for these tenants, to get them out of the building so that the landlord can [make apartment] upgrades and get higher-paying tenants in.”

***

It’s a pattern CARECEN’s housing director, Anabell Martinez, recognizes: buyout offers, slowed response time to maintenance requests, an influx of new tenants as old ones grow tired of having their patience tested. Then come the breaking points.

It’s what happened to Martinez-Blanco.

Four years ago, as Hernandez was filing a tenant petition against his landlord, Martinez-Blanco began to experience maintenance issues that seemed never-ending. The most pressing concerns included an infestation of bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats; peeling and cracked paint on the walls and ceiling; leaky pipes that created foul odors throughout the apartment; a gaping hole in the wall through which pests entered; moldy walls and kitchen cabinets; rotting floors; two broken stove burners; and residual powder from a fumigation that exacerbated his son’s asthma.

All of Martinez-Blanco’s maintenance requests went unanswered. Then, in 2013, the rent increases began.

When he first moved into his Park View home in 2001, he paid $825 a month for his two-bed, one-den apartment. But the increases launched Martinez-Blanco’s monthly payments from $825 to $1,173. Two years, two rent increases, and zero responses to maintenance requests later, Martinez-Blanco began paying $1,255 per month starting in November of last year. 

Then, in 2014, property management company UIP came to him with buyout offers. The initial one was $5,000. About 10 of the building’s tenants accepted it. When other residents refused to take the money, the management company offered a second round at $10,000. About 15 residents accepted that offer. Martinez-Blanco says most of the 25 residents were Latino. Shortly thereafter, Borger Management acquired the building (though it’s not listed on Borger’s website). Arianna Royster, the company’s director of residential management, writes via email that the buyout offer “was NOT in exchange for not performing maintenance.” 

Documents obtained by City Paper show that Martinez-Blanco is still dealing with many housing code violations a full four years after first reporting them. He has submitted at least three maintenance requests in 2016 alone. Martinez-Blanco, noticing that tenants in his building are changing, is convinced his landlord is trying to push him out. He’s seeking a $50,000 settlement against Borger in his tenant petition. For her part, Nadeau—who sits on the D.C. Council’s housing and community development committee—says she wasn’t aware of complaints made against either Martinez-Blanco or Hernandez’s buildings. 

“These issues were not confined to our apartment—many units in our hall and across our building faced the same issues,” Martinez-Blanco wrote in his tenant petition, filed in June. “Many of those tenants chose to accept buyouts from the management company and relocate rather than go through the difficult process of securing repairs. Their units were then rehabilitated and rented at much higher rates.”

Martinez-Blanco says he’s experienced “countless degrading” incidents with his landlord, noting in his tenant petition that she “is haughty and condescending around us, but patient and respectful around the tenants in the newer, more expensive units. We feel discriminated against.” He says she has verbally threatened eviction, shouted at his wife, and insulted the family. (His landlord did not return a request for comment.) The condescending behavior, coupled with a lack of response to maintenance issues, led him to file an Office of Human Rights discrimination claim that named both his landlord and the management company, Borger. 

“I am a human being,” Martinez-Blanco writes in the claim. “I want to live in a better condition environment.”

Royster contends that when the company took over from UIP in 2014, it went through “pages of violations” and responded to them all. It is “absolutely not [Borger’s] practice” to ignore maintenance requests “for any reason,” she writes, and acknowledges that the company wouldn’t have been legally allowed to raise the rent if the unit violated housing codes. Martinez-Blanco’s claim “comes as a complete shock,” she adds, and notes that Borger has “scheduled painting” in the unit. Martinez, the CARECEN housing director, says Borger is “one of the worst” companies she and her clients deal with. According to D.C. Superior Court records, Borger is currently embroiled in seven open lawsuits, three of which are civil suits filed against the company.

While Martinez-Blanco’s landlord has not substantively addressed the infestation or broken appliances, she has painted over old, peeling sections of the wall and portions of mold, presumably so that she has documented “proof” of having addressed his claims before they head to their Sept. 9 Office of Human Rights intake hearing—which is when an officer will decide whether his discrimination case has any merit. Until then, he has told his landlord to stop painting.

“I don’t want it looking better than it is,” he says.

Even Hernandez, who has been a CARECEN client for nearly a decade and a resident of the city for almost 30 years, struggles to understand his rights as a tenant. He says that for young people immigrating to the city—or even seniors who don’t speak English fluently—just asking their landlords for a maintenance request, or figuring out how to pay rent, can be extraordinarily difficult without legal advice (which is expensive) or a translator (which is tough to find).

Hernandez says that those who signed his building’s voluntary agreement in 2012 had no idea what they were approving since they couldn’t actually read the document, and couldn’t afford their rent after it took effect. “In this community […] we don’t have any idea what these changes mean for us,” he says.

“It’s definitely easier to pull one over on non-English-speaking tenants, and on those who don’t understand what they’re giving up when they sign the voluntary agreements,” Cohn says.

Martinez admits that even she has difficulty completely understanding the 70% agreement that’s being so commonly used to displace residents. Not only does it impact new tenants who never signed it, it also doesn’t have a legal limit on potential rent increases, though Cohn says there “ought to be … the sky’s the limit.” In the 2012 proposed rent adjustment schedule for units in Hernandez’s building, some tenants faced up to a 125 percent increase in rent. And there is no provision in the agreement that requires landlords to present tenants with a copy in their native language, a huge problem for non-English-speaking immigrants like Hernandez, who densely populate the city. 

“The only person who wins with that agreement is the landlord,” Martinez says. “There is no benefit to the tenant.” 

A report from the Office of the Tenant Advocate, which provides residents with housing counseling services, shows that the agency handled cases from about 10,760 tenants in fiscal year 2015 alone. Ward 1 “continues to be the Ward that produces more OTA clients than any other,” it says. Ward 1, along with Wards 6 and 8, each had about 90 housing code complaints. Ward 1 also saw the highest number of complaints regarding lease issues, evictions, subleasing, and security deposits. 

These numbers come from a city that has stricter tenant protections than is required by the federal Fair Housing Act. In the District, it’s illegal to discriminate based on age, personal appearance, family responsibilities, or marital status (among other protected traits), which goes further than the federal requirements.

Despite being disproportionately victimized, Latinos are not at all a population overly inclined to file complaints. 

CARECEN—the only organization in the city that provides free individual housing counseling services for this specific population—is able to assist just 400 clients during a busy year. Yet housing director Anabell Martinez estimates that about 30 percent of those are undocumented immigrants who refuse to formally report housing problems for fear they’ll be deported. The number of immigrants filing housing code violations, then, is likely significantly underreported.

And for those who do report these violations, proving that landlords are acting on discriminatory impulses is difficult.

“You sound like a lawyer,” Martinez says when asked if it’s difficult to provide concrete proof of discrimination. “We don’t like to discourage tenants from filing discrimination suits.”

Despite the inherent difficulty in legally proving discrimination—who’s to say definitively what motivates a landlord’s refusal to address maintenance issues?—the number of such cases filed at OHR is increasing exponentially, more than doubling from 30 in 2011 to 65 in 2015. About half of those cases are resolved in early stages of mediation before escalating any further, though a spokeswoman for the agency says it doesn’t collect data about how many of those discrimination claims are filed by tenants against their landlords. (Due to the nature of the complaints, the OHR would neither enumerate nor confirm the existence of discrimination claims filed against Bernstein or Borger.) 

***

Inside his apartment early one September morning, Hernandez sits with his wife of 40 years on the edge of their full bed. It’s covered in a hot pink blanket and sits just footsteps away from the front door. 

A Spanish news channel fills the room with soft ambient noise, and framed illustrations of a smiling Jesus hang in every room. It’s tidy but cluttered with the tchotchkes collected through life, and here, it’s appropriate to recall Nadeau’s words: that D.C. is “a sanctuary for people fleeing violence.” Hernandez tried to make this place a safe haven for his family.

He talks of his six children, three boys and three girls, and of his 11 grandchildren, the youngest of whom are twins. As he speaks, his fingers run along the doorframe, idly chipping away at the peeling paint.