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On Saturday, several tenants of three properties located around the Congress Heights Metro station commuted to Cleveland Park, where they joined dozens of activists and walked, through an unrelenting downpour, to the house of Geoffrey Griffis, the founder and managing member of D.C.-based development firm CityPartners. Previously the chair of the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustment and a failed nominee of former Mayor Adrian Fenty‘s to the Zoning Commission, Griffis plans to demolish the properties where the tenants live and build a mixed-use project.
He says that through his plan, the tenants would be able to move back onto the site with the same rents they pay now. And he insists that CityPartners will preserve their rights under D.C. law, including by offering negotiated buyouts. His vision is to build about 225 apartments and retail, and he says the project will spur further development in Congress Heights.
But the tenants—who suffered for years through rats and roaches, lack of heat, broken appliances, unresponsive maintenance, and other ills under notorious Bethesda-based landlord Sanford Capital—have a different vision for their home. In collaboration with the nonprofit National Housing Trust–Enterprise Preservation Corp., they want to build about 200 units of affordable housing around the Congress Heights Metro station to lock in low rents as the neighborhood gentrifies. The Wizards practice facility and hundreds of units of housing are in development right across the street from the site at the St. Elizabeths East Campus, where D.C. leaders held a ceremony in January.
The tenants do not trust Griffis. He originally partnered with Sanford Capital—a company that has been subject to two lawsuits by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine for deplorable and unsafe living conditions—to redevelop their buildings. Griffis even presented the companies’ joint plans for Congress Heights to the Zoning Commission in early 2015.
The tenants say they doubt his motives because he did not act to cast aside Sanford until late last year, despite multiple detailed news reports about the company’s track record. CityPartners has helped to develop several mixed-use projects across D.C. that often involve local government subsidies, including the Wharf.
Only 13 households remain at the Congress Heights properties, out of 47 total units. Many left because of the dilapidated conditions.
One of those households is headed by Ruth Barnwell, 73. Barnwell has lived in Congress Heights for more than 35 years and serves as the president of the tenant association at the properties. During the protest, she took to a microphone outside Griffis’ home and outlined his connections to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who appointed Griffis to the National Capital Planning Commission, and to whose 2014 campaign he donated. (Griffis contributed $2,000, the maximum legal amount, to Bowser’s current re-election bid, public records show.) Barnwell called him “a liar.”
“The writing is on the wall; there’s nothing but political favor,” Barnwell said. “We will not stop fighting. We will win.”
She added that mold in the unit she shares with her husband has forced her to seek treatment for asthma. “They still allow this stuff to go on,” Barnwell said, raising her voice as the rain pattered on an army of umbrellas around her. “Right now—as I stand before you—guess what? I’m in the rain outside, but it’s also raining in my apartment.”
Another tenant leader is Robert Green, 69, who told City Paper in 2016 that he’d used his heart medication to kill rodents in his apartment. At the protest, Green recounted his hardships living at the Congress Heights properties. “I complained and complained,” he said, recalling mounds of trash, mice running about, and unreliable hot water.
“Right now, sir, the way I done been eff’ed around like this, the word of Jesus Christ might be hard for me to take right now, but I can trust him. He goin’ fulfill his,” Green said into a microphone held by Black Lives Matter activist Eugene Puryear. “Hey, anything you got, take the B.S. with you, ‘cuz if I want some bullshit, I’ll go out on a farm.”
Griffis did not appear during the action, as he did during a previous one. Displayed on his porch, however, was a blue sign that stated, “CityPartners cares. Learn the real story: www.congressheightsfacts.org,” referring to a new website that promises a variety of neighborhood benefits and that CityPartners “will not displace a single tenant.” A FAQ section on the website says Griffis “had no control over” the properties while Sanford Capital was the legal owner.
But the protesters on Saturday charged otherwise. Some alleged that Griffis, anticipating the demonstration, had had a big U-Haul truck parked on the street directly in front of his home to block people from gathering there.
In a statement, Griffis through a spokesman said the tenants’ and activists’ anger was misplaced. In full, it reads:
The protestors have their facts wrong and are venting at the wrong guy. They are upset about the actions of the former landlord at Congress Heights, who today has absolutely no involvement with our project. I am offering to treat the 13 tenants at the Congress Heights Metro site with compassion and generosity. I will of course honor their TOPA [Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act] rights, and have even offered to make them limited owners in the project, with the potential to earn money on this exciting new development. For more information, please visit www.congressheightsfacts.org.
Neither Griffis nor the spokesman responded to a question about whether Griffis had positioned the U-Haul truck.
A recent reason for the tenants’ distrust of Griffis is that in December Sanford Capital without warning transferred the three properties to CityPartners, not through traditional sales but through deeds in lieu of foreclosure. Usually, a property owner that’s defaulted on loans will use such instruments to avoid the foreclosure process by a lender.
At issue is whether Sanford, and potentially CityPartners, knowingly violated the terms of two 2017 court orders by making that transfer. The properties have been tied up in litigation since January 2016, when Racine, the attorney general, sued Sanford over the conditions there. Last year, he won receivership at the properties, and the tenants hoped this would produce repairs.
One of the orders stipulated the property’s receiver—housing specialist David Gilmore—as the “sole authority to enforce or avoid mortgages or other loans on the property”; while a second established “exclusive negotiations” over the sale of the properties between Sanford Capital and the tenants that was to last for 60 days. The transfer of the properties from Sanford to CityPartners occurred during this period, and without notice to the court.
Griffis has said he came into possession of the underlying loans on the properties after Sanford stopped paying its mortgages and one of Sanford’s lenders proposed selling the loans to CityPartners. (Sanford’s main lender for the properties was EagleBank.) Griffis prepared to foreclose on Sanford, but the beleaguered landlord suggested the deeds in lieu of foreclosure, he has said.
In January filings to D.C. Superior Court, Sanford co-founder and principal Carter Nowell said in an affidavit that over the past two years he had discussed selling the Congress Heights properties to CityPartners, but the parties never came to “acceptable terms” and “Sanford has no current partnership with CityPartners.” Then, according to Nowell, he retained Richard Luchs, a D.C. attorney who has long advised property owners on how to get around the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. TOPA provides tenants the right of first refusal to buy the properties they live in when the properties come up for sale or demolition, but has loopholes such as foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Last week, D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Mott authorized a request by Racine to hold a hearing where the company and Nowell must prove they did not violate these orders, or risk being held in civil contempt and paying hefty fines. Mott also green-lighted legal discovery to entail depositions and documents from Sanford and Nowell. He put on hold Racine’s request to proceed with discovery on CityPartners, Griffis, EagleBank, and other entities.
Will Merrifield, an attorney who represents the tenants association, said CityPartners’ plans for a major project will not benefit many current residents of Congress Heights. “While seeking to meaningfully exercise their TOPA rights, the tenants will work with the D.C. Attorney General to ensure that money is paid into the Court to allow the receiver to make desperately needed repairs,” he said. “The tenant coalition is resolute that they will continue to resist the development team’s efforts to forcefully displace them and have every intention of winning this battle.”
A status hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, though there has been a change of room, per court records.