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Despite more than 2,800 housing code violations, a D.C. landlord continues to win his war against tenants and the legal system.
Four years ago, Suzanne Wopperer was sitting in the living room of her neatly decorated one-bedroom apartment reading a newspaper, when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that she had a tiny visitor. I have a pet, she recalls thinking to herself as she watched the mouse run away. So, Wopperer did what any diligent renter does: She set out traps.
The next day, when Wopperer noticed that another “pet” was twice the size of the one she had seen the day before, she realized she had a serious problem. She called her landlord, Randy McRae, and asked him to send someone to fill the holes in the wall behind her kitchen sink. When he didn’t respond, Wopperer asked him in writing. By then, she had caught nine mice. One had even gotten past the kitchen and expired under a filing cabinet. “I found it when the maggots had already gotten to it,” she recalls.
Wopperer kept writing to spur McRae to action, and continued to get nothing but silence in response. “I sent a letter about every eight mice,” she recalls. Finally, Wopperer put McRae on notice that she would be sending her rent to an escrow account. That maneuver got his attention. In December 1998, McRae subpoenaed her to appear in Landlord and Tenant Court, but he failed to show for the hearing. By the time the case finally went before a judge, a month later, Wopperer had caught 91 mice.
Mice are just one of many problems at 1417 Newton St. NW, where Wopperer resides. But the building’s biggest problem may be its owner, McRaea tax attorney, CPA, and former Prince George’s County political candidate.
McRaewho currently owns three other rental properties in the Districthas owned the 40-unit building, which sits just north of the new Columbia Heights Metro station, since 1997. And he has allegedly refused to make repairs on it.
His legacy is evident at Newton Street. Plaster now falls from walls and ceilings. Roaches have moved in with the mice. Tenants claim they have sometimes gone without heat and that their electricity frequently goes out. Some residents complain that they have had to go without stoves and refrigerators for as long as a year. (McRae did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
As soon as Wopperer told the judge about the 91 mice she’d caught in her apartment, the judge ordered McRae to make the necessary repairs.
But Wopperer’s problems weren’t over just yet. Within days, McRae sent one of his brothers to move the sink in Wopperer’s kitchen, so that she could close up any holes with the steel wool and polyurethane foam she had bought herself. When she returned home later that day, recalls Wopperer, she found the sink still in its place, some cigarettes put out on her floor, and food missing from her refrigerator. Only later did McRae’s brother return and finish the job. Wopperer’s apartment is now rodent-free.
Soon after Wopperer got rid of her tiny visitors, it looked as if she and the other tenants in McRae’s buildings would be free of their landlord, as well.
In March 2000, D.C.’s Office of the Corporation Counsel charged McRae with 2,836 housing code violations at two of the five properties he owned at the time: 1611 Park Road NW and 4116 Ames St. NE. These two properties, along with the Newton Street building and McRae’s other two properties, at 4110 and 4124 Ames St. NE, had landed on Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ list of 50 “hot properties”mostly in the Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Cardozo-Shaw neighborhoodstargeted by the city for their substandard conditions. Taken together, McRae’s violations carry maximum potential penalties of $850,800 and 698 years in prison.
McRae was not the only landlord targeted. The Metropolitan Police Department made a big show of taking away some negligent landlords on the list in handcuffs as television news cameras rolled. When police showed up at McRae’s law office on Capitol Hill to arrest him on April 7, 2000, however, he was nowhere to be found.
A year later, McRae continues to flout the will of local authorities. Finally arraigned on April 11, 2000, he signed a disposition agreement with the Office of the Corporation Counsel in October 2000 in which he pledged to do several things. First, McRae agreed to pay $175,000 to help the tenants of 1611 Park Road finance the purchase of their building. (They bought the building at a foreclosure sale in October for $605,000, after McRae defaulted on a loan for the property.) Next, he pledged to keep his remaining properties up to code. Finally, he promised to relinquish ownership of all his residential properties in the District by October 2002.
McRae has already missed two installments of the $175,000 payment, according to 1611 Park Road NW Tenant Association President Lucille Coutard. As for keeping his other properties up to code, tenants at McRae’s Newton Street building and at 4110 and 4116 Ames St. say that the landlord has yet to make necessary repairs. In addition, 4124 Ames St. is practically vacant, and McRae is rushing to convert that building into condominiumsa move that is likely to bring him profit. Meanwhile, the previous owner of his three Ames Street properties, Delores Lincoln, is suing McRae because he has defaulted on a $150,000 note that Lincoln holds on the properties.
If McRae does not fully comply with the October 2000 agreement, Corporation Counsel attorneys have the option of resurrecting the housing-code-violation charges against McRae. So far, they have not done so.
McRae’s case is scheduled for a status hearing on May 14. Sharon Styles-Anderson, senior deputy corporation counsel for public protection, says that if city attorneys find that McRae has not complied with the October 2000 agreement by then, they will void the agreement and set a trial date.
Styles-Anderson explains that Corporation Counsel lawyers have held off from restarting their prosecution this long because the Park Road tenants had hoped to be able to collect some redevelopment funds from McRae. With no money forthcoming, however, those tenants are willing to let McRae’s prosecution go forward.
“We’re beyond being angry now,” observes Coutard. “Our goal now is
to get the building renovated. Whatever the next step is, we are in support of that.”
McRae had big plans for the properties he purchased, but those plans had little to do with the tenants. He borrowed more than half a million dollars on some of his District properties for a 1998 run for county executive in neighboring Prince George’s County.
On paper, McRae looked like a good candidate. He had received his bachelor’s degree from Bowie State University, and he had earned a law degree from Catholic University in 1987. He was also a certified public accountant, and he served as a deacon at his church. In 1991, the Washington City Paper reported on an effort by McRae to get the federal government to refund the District $7.5 billion in federal taxes.
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Beyond that résumé, however, McRae had some liabilities as a candidate, including a 1988 arrest for assaulting his first wife, for which a judge had sentenced him to probation before judgment.
Questions were also raised about McRae’s campaign staffers and funds. One of McRae’s chief campaign aides was a convicted drug dealer who had served time in federal prison. That aide and the man with whom he was arrested in 1988 for dealing cocaine both showed up among McRae’s campaign contributors.
A 1998 Washington Post review of McRae’s campaign receipts also uncovered irregularities, including a contribution of a Ferrari worth $50,000 from D&S Auto Body, “a business that is not listed in the telephone directory and could not be found at the address reported in the finance statement,” the Post noted. It was a donation well above the county’s $4,000 limit for campaign contributions by a single donor. McRae said he was raising money for his campaign by selling raffle tickets for the car.
Added to these woes were some political bungles. Before McRae ran for county executive, he was registered as a Democrat. When he announced his bid in April 1998, he said he would run as a Republican. By September 1998, he had changed his mind; he ran against incumbent county executive Wayne Curry in the Democratic primary.
During the campaign, McRae claimed that former Prince George’s County Councilmember Sue V. Mills was sponsoring a fundraiser for him and that Beatrice Tignor, who had lost to Curry in the 1992 Democratic primary, had endorsed him. Both Mills and Tignor denied his claims. When the Post confronted him with the denials, McRae attributed the snafu to an innocent misunderstanding: “I’ve been talking to politicians all the time,” McRae said at the time. “They all love Randy McRae. They’ll vote for him. But getting it in writing is difficult.”
In his campaign, McRae tried to sell himself as a local kid who had made good. “Randy McRae is a success story,” he told the Post. On the eve of the primary, McRae also declared: “I am not a rank opportunist.”
Voters didn’t buy it. McRae lost the primary by more than 48 percentage points, polling just 26 percent of the total vote.
On a mid-September morning last year, McRae came before D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Jr. Wearing an expensive-looking suit and eyeglasses, McRae looked nervous. He stood stiffly and spoke to no one.
Corporation Counsel lawyers are not the only ones pursuing Randy McRae. He was at the September hearing to try to prevent Dixon from holding him in contempt of court, as a result of his failure to comply with the judge’s earlier order to produce several documentsspecifically, an accounting of the rent money he had collected from the tenants at 1417 Newton St. and 4116 Ames St.
McRae is no longer allowed to collect rent at these properties because he has failed to pay gas bills for them. In 1999, Washington Gas and Light Co. filed a complaint against him in an attempt to collect $34,645.84 that he owed the utility. McRae tried to move the case to U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., but this legal maneuvering didn’t save him from further consequences. On April 11, 2000, D.C. Superior Court Judge Bruce S. Mencher appointed attorney J. Andrew Chopivsky as a receiver to collect rents at the two buildings and to turn over the proceeds to Washington Gas.
McRae, however, has defied the receivership, and tenants claim that he continues to collect rent at both properties. According to court records, on Aug. 3, 2000, tenants at the Newton Street building reported to Chopivsky that Wilfredo Marroquinthe building manager at 1417 Newtonallegedly bullied several residents, many of whom are recent Salvadoran émigrés, with threats to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they didn’t pay McRae. Tenants who were sending their rent to the receiver have found notices in their mailboxes from McRae demanding back rent. Residents at 1611 Park Road accused McRae of similar intimidation tactics, according to a March 31, 2000, report in the Post.
At the September hearing, Dixon gave McRae yet another chance to account for the rent monies he had collected. About a month later, McRae did so, turning in two lists of expenses. In the itemized list for 1417 Newton St., McRae noted that he had collected $51,603 in rent and spent it on a variety of services, including $2,500 on cleaning and maintenance, $524 on pest control, $1,079 on utilities, and $10,000 on “legal and other professional fees.” After all those expenses, he claimed that he had only $425 left over. Residents at 1417 Newton St. allege, however, that no visible efforts at repair or pest control have been made.
McRae’s legal gamesmanship has continued on a number of levels. In December 2000, McRae tried to foil the receivership by filing for bankruptcy protection. Within weeks, residents again received notices in the mail from McRae demanding back rent. In February of this year, a bankruptcy court judge in Greenbelt, Md., denied McRae’s petition, but the landlord has still managed to come out ahead. In theory, the receivership has been reinstated, but in practice, many tenants are allegedly still sending their money to McRae.
It appears that no threat of prison time or fines and no number of lawsuits can improve the lot of McRae’s tenants. A year after the city first went after McRae and other delinquent property owners, tenants and some elected officials are beginning to wonder why the once fervid campaign against the “hot properties” owners has cooled off.
“I don’t know what’s happened,” says Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham. “All this talk, all this muscle promised, all this energy, and instead [the prosecution of “hot property” landlords] has taken on a same-old, same-old feeling, like it’s just another case in the corporation counsel’s office. These guys know how to play the court system like a banjo. If we don’t follow through on this vigorously, it’s a crime in itself.”
Last year, after the city filed charges against McRae, the tenants at 1417 Newton St. organized a tenant association. In January, they even received a grant to hire legal assistance. But as McRae continues to defy the law, many residents have come to see resistance as futile.
On a Monday evening in spring, Wopperer is in the foyer of her apartment building for a meeting of the Newton Hall Tenant Association. The smell of meat and onions cooking barely masks a rank odor which permeates the corridor and the stairwell. On the stairs leading to the front door, half of which is patched up with duct tape, sit a thermos of coffee and a package of Oreos.
With Wopperer is Arturo Griffiths, who ran for the D.C. Council last year on the D.C. Statehood Green Party ticket, and two other organizers with the D.C. Coalition for Housing Justice. Griffiths has never lived here, but he has been here before. Last summer, he came a few times to knock on doors and lure tenants out for meetings. He had better luck then than he is having now. Except for Wopperer, no residents have shown up. “Looks like we have to go knock on doors again,” Griffiths says.
Eventually, a handful of tenants gather in the hallway. Griffiths speaks to them in Spanish about the importance of organizing. Every now and then, their conversation is interrupted by other residents carrying groceries or furniture. Griffiths invites them to join the meeting, but they shake their heads, smile nervously, and move on.
“The point is, we don’t have to live like this,” Griffiths says. He goes on to explain how the tenants over at 1611 Park Road bought their building.
A stout, middle-aged woman who stays for the meeting with a little boy by her side says she’s afraid to get involved. “Things were worse at the place I lived before this,” she says in Spanish.
“I just feel like we’re being used,” says resident LaWan Keys, noting that Griffiths came by last year only to disappear during his campaign. She adds that the receiver seems to have turned his back on them as well.
Paying the receiver has few rewards, Wopperer agrees. After all, the
receiver is under no obligation to
Wopperer recently discovered a serious electrical problem in her apartment. But she’s loath to call McRae. “He won’t do anything,” she says. “This is all a game to him.”
At press time, McRae was offering the tenants at Newton Street the first chance to buy their building, as he is legally obligated to do. If the tenants want to buy the building, they have 120 days to come up with the money. McRae’s asking price? $2.8 million. CP