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About a year ago, Dereje Feleke bought a modest rowhouse on the 700 block of 19th Street NE in Ward 5. He planned to renovate the single-family property into a nine-unit building with expansions in the back and on top.
The abutting property owners, one of whom is an elderly woman who has lived in her home for 50 years, were not in favor of his plans. They filed official opposition with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and met with Feleke to voice their concerns.
“He needs to make money on the project, and we understood that, but it’s too much and too big,” says Darcy Scott, who owns one of the abutting rowhouses, which she rents out. “Nine units in a rowhouse is too much.”
Scott left the meeting feeling as though Feleke understood the neighbors’ position. She didn’t hear anything for about a month, until she received a call from the elderly woman who owns the other abutting house. (The woman declined to speak with LL and he is not naming her to protect her privacy.) The woman wanted to know if Scott had heard from someone named Kathy Henderson. Scott had no idea who she was talking about.
A former advisory neighborhood commissioner, Henderson has been a fixture in Ward 5 since the late ’90s. She’s launched several failed D.C. Council campaigns, including an unsuccessful challenge to Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie in 2018. She recently announced a run for the at-large seat Councilmember David Grosso is vacating, as well as an effort to reclaim a seat on ANC 5D.
The outspoken character has also been caught up in some controversies over the years. Henderson claimed in 2006, for example, that someone torched her blue Mercury Capri. A 2016 City Papercover story documented her dysfunctional reign as ANC 5D’s chairperson.
In addition to descriptions of ANC meetings that often devolved into chaos and shouting matches, the story details Henderson’s efforts to ban single sales of alcohol and restrict all but chain restaurants, such as TGI Fridays and Ruby Tuesday, from serving drinks in her single member district; her attempt to transfer the funds from the ANC’s bank account to a new account, which resulted in the bank freezing the account and the D.C. auditor requesting the commission surrender its checkbook; and the libel lawsuit against her that ended with a judgement against Henderson of more than $140,000.
And in a now legendary 2018 encounter captured on video, Henderson shoved past her political rival, Sydelle Moore, as Mayor Muriel Bowser was speaking during a press conference on crime in Ward 5, causing Bowser to stop and scold her.
“Whoa, excuse me, c’mon,” Bowser said. “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.”
This time around, Henderson is accused of misleading an elderly homeowner in an attempt to get the woman to agree to give Feleke access to her property. Feleke’s house is sandwiched between two other homes, and he needs access to the roofs of both adjoining properties to complete the redevelopment.
Henderson also allegedly did not disclose her interest as a real estate agent for Feleke, according to Scott and Moore, who replaced Henderson on ANC 5D in 2018. Henderson did not seek re-election to the ANC that year in order to focus on her campaign for Council.An investigator for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General’s elder justice section looked into the matter, and the case is now closed, an OAG spokesperson confirms. Ethics rules generally require real estate agents to disclose the fact that they are agents.
Reached by phone Monday evening, Henderson told LL she was in the middle of movie night and promised to call back. She did not answer a follow-up phone call Tuesday morning. Feleke also did not have time to answer LL’s questions Monday afternoon.
At the end of April, the elderly homeowner told Scott that Henderson had visited her home multiple times and asked her to sign over access to her property during the renovation. Because the proposal would expand Feleke’s property upward, the developer would need to redesign the abutting chimney. In exchange, Feleke would pay for a new fence.
At that point, Scott hadn’t heard anything from Henderson, and as far as she knew, the proposed renovation still included nine units.She emailed Henderson to inquire about her involvement and reiterate that the neighbors preferred a “scaled-back, neighborhood friendly project.”
Scott also noted that Henderson was mistaken. The chimney that would need to be redesigned is not attached to the elderly woman’s home. It is, in fact, Scott’s chimney.
Henderson replied that she had no obligation to answer to Scott and touted her role as a community advocate and former member of the Historic Preservation Review Board.
“To be clear, I do not need your permission to speak to [the elderly woman] or to explain to you the purpose of my visit to her,” Henderson wrote in response, emphasizing her work with the police to “remove the unlawful element” from the property that Feleke is trying to redevelop.
“I support maintaining the character defining elements of my community and I certainly do not support too tall buildings on a street with modest row houses,” Henderson wrote. “That said, I have a proven record of effectively advocating for the best interests of my community and [the elderly neighbor] may continue to rely upon me to promote her interests.”
Moore was copied on the emails, and responded the next day, again asking Henderson to clarify her role in the project.
“Ms. Henderson is not an elected official nor an attorney and her involvement here is unusual,” Moore wrote.
“For most people, our home is our biggest investment and I don’t want to see any of my neighbors deceived or pressured into signing away any of their rights as a homeowner,” she continued.
Feleke replied to the email thread shortly after, identifying Henderson as his agent while purchasing the property. She also represented him on the “chimney issue,” he wrote, an interest that Henderson had thus far failed to explain, Scott and Moore say.
After the tense email exchange, Scott says the elderly homeowner told her that Henderson called repeatedly, “badgering her to get her to acquiesce to the developer’s interest.” Additionally, after the OAG opened an investigation, Henderson showed up at the elderly woman’s home asking if she was the one who filed the complaint, multiple sources tell LL.
“To me, it was so inappropriate for someone to try to convince the person with the least amount of resources and ability to state their position as the one they were going to get to sign off on something,” Scott says. “That’s the person you target?”
Moore says Henderson also has been accused of falsely representing herself as a commissioner. She provided LL with screenshots of a comment thread on Nextdoor in 2019 that show Henderson signing her name as “Commissioner Kathy Henderson.”
And an August 2019 email from a resident services coordinator at Carver Terrace apartments says Henderson “called the leasing office and management offices of Carver Terrace holding herself out as the ANC Commissioner for this area and threatening staff.”
Moore also points out a 2018 HPRB hearing where Henderson testified in favor of designating the neighborhood as a historic district, which would have barred Feleke’s initial plan for a nine-unit development.
“Now to advocate for this development when it benefits her financially is an interesting political move,” Moore says.
Both Scott and Moore believe Feleke has been mostly unaware of the steps Henderson has taken. In mid-June, he submitted revised plans that reduce the number of units from nine to three, which Scott says she generally supports.
“I made it clear to the developer in a phone call a month and a half ago that it would be in his best interest to have [Henderson] as uninvolved as possible,” Scott says. “It certainly wasn’t going to help his case.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Moore did not submit the complaint against Henderson to the attorney general’s office.