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In early April 2004, residents of Kelsey Gardens, a 54-unit apartment complex at 7th and P Streets NW, started receiving phone calls from H.R. Crawford, who manages the property. Crawford explained that their apartment complex would have to be sold and torn down. Tenants would have to move out.
To assist with that last part, Crawford dangled a carrot: “If you work with me, I’ll put some money in your pocket,” Crawford told resident Selma E. Providence, according to an affidavit. Another resident, Ronnie Harris, stated in an affidavit that she received the same pitch.
The calls stirred rumors of mass eviction in Kelsey’s corridors. Packing up was a scary prospect given the residents’ tenuous grip on a gentrifying neighborhood. They were beneficiaries of federal Section 8 housing subsidies, and if they got booted, they had little hope of finding comparable quarters nearby.
On April 12, Crawford, the 65-year-old president of Crawford-Edgewood Managers Inc., appeared at the Kennedy Recreation Center to address Kelsey Gardens’ future. Practically every folding chair in a small community room was taken.
Crawford had spent his entire career sharpening pitches for audiences like this one. He’s a former everything in the world of D.C. low-income housing: a former D.C. councilmember for hard-luck Ward 7, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistant secretary, and a shelter entrepreneur who converted swaths of public-housing ghettos in Ward 8 into suburban-style town-home communities.
Crawford spared little time before essentially confirming the fears of Kelsey residents. The bad news came packaged in a letter from HUD that addressed some particulars about the complex’s mortgage and noted that it had failed two HUD inspections in a row. Crawford aided the residents in interpreting the document—HUD was going to foreclose on the mortgage and kick the landlords out of the Section 8 program on account of the failed inspections.
Those failed inspections weighed heavily on Kelsey’s owner, the Deliverance Church of God in Christ Housing Corp., the business arm of a local house of worship. Since the church, with its modest means, wasn’t able to maintain the property at a level to pass housing-code inspections, it had to redevelop the property, Crawford explained.
As for the move-out date? June 2004, Crawford said. “Tenants were specifically told that you have no choice, you have to be gone by the end of June,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro, who recalls that Crawford also said, “‘You have to go. These buildings have to be demolished because HUD said so.’”
To soften the impact of the news, Crawford grabbed an item or two from the old-school D.C. rhetorical tool kit. He appealed to the crowd’s sympathy for Deliverance, an African-American church. “Crawford was saying, ‘If we don’t sell the building, then we’re going to lose their property, and we don’t want this poor black church to lose their property’…and all this diatribe about how black people don’t support each other and how we have to stick together,” says Padro.
Crawford also claimed empathy with victims of displacement. He said that he and other community leaders had gone through similar turmoil during some previous period of urban renewal, but things had turned out OK for them.
And Crawford even intimated that the Kelsey residents could make the leap from run-down apartments to shiny, modern town homes. The key, said Crawford, was to use Section 8 vouchers to defray the cost of a home purchase. “‘Anyone that’s interested in trying to use their voucher to get a house, come see me,’” Padro recalls Crawford saying.
Crawford’s spiel that night ended with an offer: Take $1,000 in cash and management will assist with your relocation. All residents had to do was sign a waiver; a notary public stood ready to certify the transaction. According to affidavits, Crawford warned residents that if they did not sign the waivers, they would not receive Section 8 vouchers for new digs.
Padro took a look at the waivers that Crawford wanted tenants to sign. The documents, in fact, waived signatories’ right to band together to purchase the building. According to D.C. law, should a landlord choose to sell a property like Kelsey Gardens, current tenants have the right to match the purchase price for the property before the landlord negotiates with any other buyers. If the tenants sign waivers such as the ones Crawford was proffering, however, eviction is a certainty.
Tenants say Crawford omitted mention of their purchase rights. “I’m not so sure we got into that,” says Crawford.
But whatever the circumstances, several folks were eager to sign on the bottom line. “Despite my attempts to stop signatures that evening, a fair number of people signed,” says Padro.
One of the signers was Oscar Hood. “We thought the place was gonna get sold that night and that we weren’t gonna have nowhere to go. So we signed it for the money. I mean, it scared me.”
Recalls another tenant in attendance: “He said, ‘You know if you sign, you get the money.’ After he said that, there was a total uproar. People just jumped up and went for it.”
At the end of the meeting, Crawford served up free hot wings.
The waiver-signing meeting of April 2004 gave way to a yearlong battle over Kelsey Gardens. Without their toehold in one of D.C.’s most sought-after neighborhoods, the tenants would join a large and frustrated class of Section 8 nomads—folks who bounce from D.C. to Prince George’s County to Fairfax County in search of that increasingly rare Section 8 building with available, livable apartments. As a result, many of the Kelsey tenants wanted to stay put in the complex, even if that meant squabbling with the landlord and doing the legwork to buy the property.
Crawford and Deliverance, on the other hand, envisioned a yuppie paradise on 7th Street NW. Prior to meeting with the tenants on April 12, they had teamed up with Vienna-based Metropolitan Development with the goal of creating an eight-story building with 220 units. Planned amenities would consist of a “fitness center, cyber cafe and community room, and also…dependent on market conditions, a swimming pool.”
In a May 28 press release, the team announced an additional amenity at the new development: affordable housing. How many units? Fifty-four—the exact number at present-day Kelsey Gardens.
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To pull off its dream of a mixed-income housing gold mine in the heart of Shaw, the development team would have to accomplish two things: First, get out of the Section 8 agreement with HUD; second, evict the existing tenants.
It was no coincidence that Crawford was waving proof of failed inspections before tenants at the April meeting. Housing-code violations offer landlords a convenient exit from their Section 8 agreements with HUD.
Last year, as many as 15 buildings in the District were at risk for termination of Section 8 because of code violations. “In my experience, landlords are primarily being either terminated or foreclosed on because of housing-code violations,” says Antonia Fasanelli, a housing attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
And in today’s hot real-estate market, landlords can’t get out of Section 8 fast enough. In exchange for providing housing for low-income residents, building owners in Section 8 have their mortgages paid for by HUD while also being guaranteed government-determined “fair-market” rents for that area. Section 8 tenants generally contribute 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing costs, while the government picks up the remainder via the program’s housing-choice vouchers.
In the aftermath of the 1968 riots and through the crack years of the ’80s and mid-’90s, HUD’s idea of guaranteed fair-market-value rent in Shaw was probably quite competitive with the actual value of the housing in the neighborhood. Now, however, HUD, along with renters around the city, is having trouble keeping pace with the overheated rental market. What was once a golden goose to Section 8 landlords in the area has now become an albatross.
So Kelsey Gardens’ owner probably didn’t fret too much when the complex got its first notice of deficiencies. In a letter dated Sept. 2, 2002, HUD informed the church that its building had failed a routine inspection. HUD’s findings, according to inspection documents, cataloged problems ranging from the trivial (peeling paint, a divot in the 7th Street parking lot, water stains on a ceiling, overgrown vegetation, graffiti) to the urgent (dysfunctional fire extinguishers and missing fuses and circuit breakers).
Despite the failing score, a gifted handyman could have wiped out Kelsey’s punch list with a few days’ work. HUD even declared as much, noting that the majority of the violations could be remedied at minimal cost.
Management, however, apparently didn’t heed HUD’s advice. On Aug. 15, 2003, HUD disclosed the results of another failed inspection. Again, many of the violations cited were ticky-tack problems—for example, one item on the inspection list noted, “FURNITURE IMPEDES EGRESS.” Inspectors also noted some potentially life-threatening offenses such as exposed wiring, missing electrical-box coverings, and inoperable fire extinguishers. Again, HUD put a small price tag on the fixes, classifying all but one of the problems as requiring “smaller cash outlays.”
Yet nearly a year later, HUD sent another letter, stating that the property owners had failed to “maintain the property in decent, safe, and sanitary condition as required…” The letter went on to declare that as of June 30, 2004, Kelsey Gardens would lose its subsidy payments from HUD.
Was the church happy to get the boot from HUD? “Of course not,” says Crawford. “That was never part of the equation….These aren’t speculators. They’re Christians.”
Then came a reversal that put a crimp in the developers’ game plan: HUD inspectors visited the complex again, giving Kelsey Gardens a passing grade on July 28, 2004. HUD spokesperson Lemar Wooley says via e-mail that the department stepped in “[b]ecause of the length of time that had passed since the previous inspection.” Asked whether the passing grade caught him off-guard, Crawford responds, “No comment. We’ll leave that one alone.”
HUD’s clean bill of health raised questions about Crawford’s statement to tenants at the April meeting. Did the church have the resources necessary to maintain the complex after all? Many residents think so. “They purposely let these places be run-down when they don’t have to be,” says resident and tenant activist Pat Gaston.
No way, says Metropolitan’s Jason Gerstein. “As the building stands now, the owners are not making a profit—they aren’t even making enough money to keep the building up,” he says. “If they just rehabilitate the building, they are going to have the same cash-flow problem as before, where all the units are at reduced rates and they aren’t making any money.”
On April 5, 2005, Deliverance filed a notice of intent to opt out of the Section 8 agreement altogether. The church was still intent on proceeding with its original plans of demolition and reconstruction for the housing complex, whether tenants were forced out for building-code violations or not.
Crawford says that the church’s agreement with Metropolitan to redevelop the property simply predated its passing HUD inspection. “Because of actions by others, it makes whatever we were doing all suspect—as if we were manipulating the process, and it’s just totally untrue,” he says. “Why would we do that?”
Stubborn D.C. tenants have stymied local developers for decades. The holdouts get a lot of help from District law, which seeks to protect residents from unwarranted evictions. “There are permanent eviction controls in the District that are certainly weighted towards tenants,” says longtime tenant attorney Eric Rome. To simply clear out a building, he says, is “very difficult….It’s not an easy thing.”
Especially at 7th and P. Suddenly trendy, close to downtown, and coveted by those tired of commuting on the area’s packed interstates, Shaw has left behind its past as a locus of murder, drug-dealing, and trick-turning. Residents who’ve been at Kelsey Gardens for decades appreciate the turnaround. “I’ve been payin’ all my money and all my rent and all my time to live here. So I feel like I’ve bought this apartment,” says Shirley Williams, who’s lived at Kelsey Gardens for 30 years. “And now they don’t want us to be in this neighborhood because we don’t have any money—they want us out. And that’s not right. If you was here before they had money, why can’t you be here when they get money, you know?”
The tenants’ desire to stay vis-ˆ-vis management’s desire to redevelop set off a ground war for the hearts and minds of Kelsey. Just after the April meeting, Crawford & Co. had secured waivers from 23 of the 54 Kelsey tenants. By June, that tally had climbed to 35, courtesy of management’s persistence.
A well-organized tenant movement at Kelsey Gardens could have minimized the number of waivers. But there was no tenants’ association active and legal at the time of the April 2004 meeting. In the weeks following Crawford’s presentation, a group scrambled to incorporate itself and begin the work of thwarting the development plans.
The association found a savvy adversary in Crawford & Co. Just weeks after opening for business, the tenants’ association found itself the target of a federal lawsuit filed by Metropolitan to invalidate the association on the grounds that the majority of tenants had signed over their rights to the developers.
Management’s offensive, though, wasn’t confined to the courthouse. Residents say that it , along with the developers, tried to subvert the association both by advising tenants to keep out of the group and by refusing to recognize it as their mouthpiece. “Jason Gerstein [of Metropolitan] would call individual tenants but not the tenants’ association,” says Ronnie Harris, who got the tenants’ association’s lawyer to put a stop to Gerstein’s frequent calls to her.
The developers’ offensive produced a backlash, with some tenants rescinding their signatures on the waivers. This activity, in turn, led to more lobbying from Crawford. “He’s a bully….He wants this building and he wants us out,” says Gaston, who is secretary of the tenants’ association.
Crawford doesn’t deny calling tenants but says that he was only trying to clear up any confusion they might have: “I’m sure I made a call or two. Yes, the phone was ringing, and tenants called and asked questions.”
When management got the attention of an undecided resident, it had a set of talking points at the ready. Tenants were given the soft sell that cash and a future home were awaiting them if they signed and the hard sell that they were making a mistake and listening to bad counsel if they refused. “They called me on the phone and told me to come get the money, that it’s waiting in the office, saying it’s a gift,” remembers one resident, who requests anonymity. “They kept on leaving messages on the answering machine, but I didn’t respond.”
After receiving numerous calls from Crawford, who warned her that she was listening to the wrong people, Gaston says she finally told him she’d listen to whomever she wanted. “And that’s when he hung up on me,” she says. But according to Gaston, he continued lobbying her through back channels. “He even called my ex and his wife and told him to tell me I better back off and get out of the tenants’ association.”
Channey Glasker’s encounter with the development folks involved less conflict. According to an affidavit signed by the 71-year-old Glasker, a representative from Crawford’s company knocked on her door in the spring of 2004. “He said he was simply there to have me sign for a gift of $1,000. I was surprised why I should be getting such a gift, but I signed anyway,” reads the affidavit.
The developers say that the waiver-promotion money was a generous gesture. Says Metropolitan’s Gerstein: “We figured since we were doing something so wonderful for the residents to begin with—by replacing their building and inviting them back—the amount was almost secondary.”
Residents who took the $1,000 and signed the waiver didn’t always fare well. Oscar Hood, for example, received an enticing offer from the developers. In a June 14, 2004, letter, management promised him Unit 1014 at the nearby Section 8 complex Gibson Plaza—also managed by Crawford—”as soon as” Hood received a new Section 8 voucher.
A month later, both management and the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) sent Hood letters stating that he was approved for the voucher. But six days later, Hood received another letter from the agency, rescinding the offer. “You have not been approved to be issued a Housing Choice Voucher at this time,” read the letter.
“They never did move us over [to Gibson], and nothing ever happened,” says Hood. “I was waiting and waiting.” With the assistance of the tenants’ association, Hood later rescinded his waiver of purchase rights.
The letters that Hood received were the result of an error, says Zachary Smith, spokesperson for the DCHA, which administers the city’s Section 8 program. “We corrected our mistake…We cleaned up our mess.”
Hood says that management blamed his relocation troubles on the tenants who refused to sign the waivers. “They said that the sooner we get these people out of [Kelsey Gardens], then the sooner you can pick any apartment you want over at Gibson.”
Kelsey Gardens tenants have started to feel like swing-state voters in a tight presidential campaign. A relative of Crawford’s who lives in the building, for example, has recently been receiving messages almost daily from management and the developers. “They think I’m on their side or something just ’cause I’m family.” She refuses to answer the phone but says the messages are always something about a “great opportunity.” Her family is comfortable in the neighborhood and her children are enrolled in local schools, so she is unwilling to relocate outside of Shaw.
She notes that being related to Crawford has afforded her no special privileges in the past years, citing management’s lack of concern for the danger posed by the faulty electrical sockets in her kitchen, the cracked ceiling, the peeling lead paint on the walls, and the propensity of the building to flood. Indeed, her apartment is in considerably worse shape than many of the others. “He’s my family, and he’s still trying to push me out same as everybody else,” she concludes.
Crawford has some gripes of his own about manners. “[The tenant activists] were extremely loud, rude, discourteous—interrupting meetings, a lot of shouting,” he says.
The Kelsey Gardens tenants answered management’s repeated phone calls and pleas with a most unwelcome letter. On May 27, 2004, the tenants’ association notified Crawford that it would exercise its right to buy the property at the market price of $3.3 million.
Purchase offers from tenants are the bane of D.C. landlords.
Here’s why: Even though the market price of a property such as Kelsey Gardens would be the same no matter whom the owners sold it to, the offer-of-sale contract for the complex includes something called a “10 percent clause.” This provision calls for the seller to receive a 10 percent ownership interest in the purchasing entity. The 10 percent interest is worth a lot more if the purchaser turns it into a world-class condo development rather than sticking with the status quo plus minor renovations.
Kelsey residents don’t have to look far for an example of how tenants can take over. One block to the south on 7th Street, a building known only as “1330” stands as one of the first complexes in the area to have transformed itself from Section 8 to tenant-owned. Arnetta Longus, a tenant activist in 1330, says she started organizing residents in her building when the nearby convention center was under construction. “[O]nce that foundation had been laid, I knew we were in trouble,” she says. “The developers were all starting to come into the area, everybody salivating at the mouth trying to get this particular building.”
The newly renovated 1330 is currently under a tri-party ownership agreement among developers, other investors, and the tenants. Says Longus, “the main thing was to make sure that no family members got displaced.”
If that’s the goal at Kelsey Gardens as well, Crawford claims to share it. These days, the low-income housing vet is speaking in conciliatory terms, perhaps because he has to. On Sept. 21, 2004, the tenants sued Deliverance and Metropolitan in an attempt to force them to recognize the tenants’ association and negotiate the purchase of the property. In February 2005, D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael L. Rankin issued an injunction requiring the owner to negotiate with the tenants for a four-month period and preventing it from selling the property to anyone else until the case can be resolved.
The court file evidently forced the development team to issue a new round of concessions. An updated proposal released by Deliverance last month offers the following:
¥ an “ABSOLUTE RIGHT to return to the new building after it has been constructed” and
¥ a cash payment of $5,000 ($1,000 “when we settle our dispute,” $2,000 “when you move out,” and $2,000 “when the building is empty”) or a 1 percent interest in the “entire building.”
Crawford stands by the come-home-again clause. “Everyone would come back. And that would be written and guaranteed,” he says.
A young tenant with a family of six says that the new proposal sounds all right to her. “They say that we’ll get vouchers through HUD to live somewhere else in the neighborhood while the building’s being rebuilt,” she says. “As long as I don’t have to pull my kids out of school, it sounds good to me.”
That’s by no means a consensus view at Kelsey Gardens. A tenant known as “Mrs. G” says the new offer still doesn’t speak to her. “Five thousand dollars is not worth more than a home, and some of the younger tenants don’t understand that. They don’t have a sense of settlement. But I want to have a home, a sense of establishment. I want to provide a place to come back to for my family in the place where I raised all my children.”
Crawford complains that many tenants won’t place any trust in the guarantees, figuring they sound too good to be true. “And that just makes it a more difficult task for us to convince them that it is true,” says Crawford. “‘Cause we’ve been there before. I was raised in North Capitol [during urban renewal], and I know what deception means.”
Crawford retreats to the refrains he articulated before the tenants in April 2004—about the church’s having been in the neighborhood for the long haul: “We were there for 30 years. We were there when nobody wanted to even manage these buildings. What’s wrong now? [The church wants to] develop? There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as they’re doing things aboveboard. We’ve done everything the right way. We had public meetings. Some people disagreed with us. And we did everything according to the law. And I am the last person to violate the law—I’m a former city councilman, former assistant secretary to HUD. So why would we purposefully mislead them?” CP
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.