Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A group of longtime businesses located in a tiny strip mall at the intersection of Sheriff Road NE, Eastern Ave. NE, and Division Ave. NE is fighting back against a developer that they say is forcing them out of business.

Owners of the Deanwood businesses—including Nook’s Beauty & Barber Shop, Little Jewels Daycare, Sunny Chicken and Fish, and Uncle Lee’s Liquor Store—filed a lawsuit this morning against their new landlord, 1100 Eastern LLC. Last week, the landlord padlocked the businesses’ doors after giving the tenants just a couple of days notice to vacate the premises.

On Oct. 1, the strip was officially sold to 1100 Eastern LLC—a subsidiary of the Neighborhood Development Company—as part of an $11.4 million contract awarded by the city for a series of affordable housing projects. In June, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $103 million investment in affordable housing in nine projects across five wards. One of those projects will produce 63 units for seniors, including 13 in the Permanent Supportive Housing Program, on the 1100 block of Eastern Ave. NE.

On Oct. 2, letters were hand delivered to the block’s tenants, saying they had to vacate the premises immediately because of “environmental hazards.” And on the morning of Oct. 4, the owners of these businesses arrived to find their doors padlocked by the new landlord, leaving the owners and their customers—including parents who came to drop off their children at the daycare—scrambling to get back in.

Following the lockout, the owners hired attorney Johnny Barnes to attempt to mediate a solution with their landlord and get their businesses reopened. In a release, Anthony Lorenzo Green, the ANC commissioner who represents that area, says the meeting between the two parties “further illuminate[d] the intentionally misleading and unlawful actions of [NDC CEO and founder] Adrian Washington, Neighborhood Development Company, and 1100 Eastern Ave. LLC. The developments include documents provided by NDC that show they were not truthful at all in their assertion that an immediate environmental hazard existed that necessitated closing down these businesses.”

In a statement provided to City Paper, NDC Vice President Michaela Kelinsky said that they apologized for the lockout: “At that meeting we apologized to each tenant for the disrespectful manner in which they had been treated and acknowledged that our actions were badly communicated and poorly planned. We understand the anger, frustration, and mistrust that our actions have created.” 

But, as Kelinsky goes on to explain in her statement, the decision to lock out its tenants from their businesses was made because of a “clear and present emergency situation” that exists in the block “as a result of toxic chemicals permeating the soil and air inside the building.” “Eastern LLC is making no economic gain from closing down the property now—in fact, the actions we were forced to take will cost us significantly,” she writes.

Nook’s, a family-owned barbershop that has sat on this same strip for 25 years, has seen its share of controversy this year. Earlier this summer, a controversial confrontation between police officers and residents who regularly hang out in front of the shop was captured on video and subsequently went viral. Many residents of the neighborhood say the events captured on the video are emblematic of the frequently hostile relationship between Metropolitan Police Department officers and residents. The incident at Nook’s was the focal point of a day-long hearing the D.C. Council held in July to address mounting concerns about police-community relations in the neighborhood.

Kelinsky says NDC felt things had been smoothed over after they met with the tenants and Barnes on Oct. 11. According to NDC, Barnes had committed to considering their offer to the tenants, which includes financial and technical support to relocate their business, compensation for lost profits during the time of relocation, and an offer of space at a discounted rate in the same strip after redevelopment. But NDC never heard back from Barnes.

“Instead, to our dismay, we were informed by email this morning that he was filing a lawsuit,” Kelinsky says in the statement. “We believe the claims in the lawsuit are baseless, and are prepared to defend ourselves if necessary. However, going to court—or other grandstanding actions—will only delay what’s best for the tenants and the Deanwood community—speedy assistance and fair compensation to the tenants while moving ahead as quickly as possible to remediate the environmental hazards on the site.”

Some residents, including Green, feel as though this incident and NDC’s actions are just the latest in a series city-led efforts to displace several longtime local businesses.

“It isn’t lost on us that June 13th, the day the highly publicized illegal stop-and-frisk by MPD happened in front of Nook’s, was also the day Mayor Bowser made her announcement of a $11.4M investment into redeveloping this corner,” Green said in a statement to City Paper. “We have a city that has nurtured a culture that allows various developers and law enforcement entities to treat black and brown communities with blatant disrespect. It’s unconscionable that an affordable housing project would be used as a tool to wrongfully evict minority-owned Deanwood businesses, including businesses that have been operating in our community for more than a quarter of a century.”

But NDC isn’t shying away from criticism from the community.

“This is not gentrification—this is the exact opposite,” Kelinsky says. “We’re not building some swanky condo for yuppies—we are replacing the current one story commercial structure with a brand new, six story building that will provide 63 units of housing that will be home to low and moderate income residents, including grandparents and extended families, provide permanent supportive housing to formerly homeless families, and, on the ground floor, provide neighborhood-serving retail to the Deanwood community—including a right to return for the existing commercial tenants if they wish.”