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Johniece Haggans exited her frigid building near Suitland Parkway in Southeast two weeks ago and was shocked by what she found outside.
“We seen an ice sculpture on our window,” Haggans, a mother of three, recalled in an interview on the night of Jan. 18. In the days leading up to the appearance of the frozen cascade, “it sounded like it was raining,” she said. “We knew it was water, but we didn’t know how bad it was.”
Haggans’ boyfriend had gone upstairs to check a vacant unit directly above, where they thought the water was coming from. The flooding was so severe, she noted, that they moved their things into an empty adjacent unit, for which she’d gotten the keys from an ex-maintenance worker.
Haggans and her boyfriend called the D.C. Fire Department early that week. First-responders arrived at the building, but were not immediately able to stop the flooding. They suggested that the tenants contact the building’s management, according to Haggans and a housing advocate who was not authorized to speak on the record. The tenants tried to no avail. The flooding worsened as temperatures remained below freezing.
Fed up with the situation, on Jan. 18 the tenants called the city again. The fire department returned and, this time, workers were able to shut off the building’s water. But by that point, Haggans said, many of the possessions she hadn’t moved from her family’s old unit were damaged: her kids’ toys, her couch, her blowdryer, and her paperwork. “It would literally rain in our kitchen and bathroom,” she explained. “It’s been horrible.”
Haggans noted that her family had experienced flooding before, shortly after moving into the building in December 2013. Due to a leak at that time, she said she couldn’t sleep in her original bedroom for three months. She said she’s had mold and unreliable heat since she’s lived there.
“We’re managing,” Haggans said when asked how her children—ages 8, 5, and 3—have handled the conditions. “I never want my kids to see something like this, but it’s hard, really hard out here. They would notice and ask me about it, but I didn’t want them to know too much about it.”
“They’re kids,” she said after a pause. “They have to stay kids. I can’t put them in grown-up situations. I’ve been trying to find somewhere else.”
The building, called 15th Place Apartments, is owned by Sanford Capital, the infamous Bethesda-based landlord that has come under fire over the past few years for miserable conditions at its properties. The District is suing the company over a set of properties in Congress Heights that are slated for major redevelopment. The case is pending, and it recently escalated after Sanford deeded the properties to its business partner.
Over roughly the past year, Sanford has been attempting to sell off its D.C. portfolio, which once featured more than 65 buildings. This includes Haggans’ building, and dozens of others where pests, lack of heat and air conditioning, broken appliances, and little maintenance are normal. (Raw sewage flooding tenants’ bathrooms and apartments has been a problem, too.) Sanford has successfully sold some of its properties so far, either through direct sales or bankruptcies.
The company’s tenants, who number around 1,000 households, haven’t had it easy. Most are low-income people of color who either pay market-rate rents or use housing vouchers financed by taxpayers. In an investigation last year, City Paper found that more than 300 Sanford tenants received vouchers. Some were placed into the company’s buildings through D.C.’s rapid rehousing program for homeless families, which advocates have blasted.
A handful of Sanford Capital’s former properties have ended up in the hands of respected nonprofit developers and private landlords who have large holdings of affordable housing. Others are still owned by Sanford, while third-party receivers repair them or the company looks to offload them.
Of a dozen total units at 15th Place Apartments, about half are empty. A burst pipe in the ceiling of a vacant unit on the second floor appears to have caused the flooding. Photos taken by the housing advocate show a big hole and wet wood in the kitchen ceiling in the unit. Debris covers the floor and counters around an abandoned refrigerator.
On Jan. 18, several other District agencies eventually joined the fire department, including the Metropolitan Police Department, the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which inspected the building. The Red Cross provided food, water, and some financial assistance to the tenants, and an animal-welfare organization came to check on two dogs that happened to be left unattended in an apartment on the first floor, where no one was at home.
D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate helped move Haggans’ family and another family with young children who were impacted by the flooding into hotel rooms, the housing advocate explains. Preliminarily, the families were covered for hotel stays of 14 days, or until the end of this week.
What comes next for the building’s tenants remains unclear. An outside buyer has been negotiating with Sanford and the tenants association to acquire the building since November, but a deal hasn’t closed. The tenants and the advocate note that management at the property has been especially sporadic for the past several months, which has led to mounds of trash accumulating in and around dumpsters outside the building.
Property records show there is an outstanding $6,000 lien on the building from DCRA “for failure to pay fines and penalties” for alleged housing code violations, dated March 23, 2017. They also show Sanford paid more than $12,600 in “delinquent water/sewage service charges” to D.C. Water in November, after the late payments were assessed on March 29, 2017. The company has faced foreclosure at several other properties.
On Friday, Sanford Capital co-founder Carter Nowell said in an email that he was “researching the situation” at 15th Place Apartments, but has not provided further comment. (City Paper will update this post on hearing back.) He and Patrick Strauss created Sanford over a decade ago.
It’s possible that Sanford and the third-party buyer will reach an agreement about repairs to the property, the displaced tenants, and a price in the near future. The property also includes a second adjacent building, which was registered as a condo in 2008, but has operated as a rental property for years, according to the housing advocate and the tenant association’s leader, Desiree Jackson, who says she pays $1,500 a month.
“Right now I am so pissed,” Jackson said on the night that the District agencies came to the property. “You don’t do this to people. It’s inhuman.”
Jackson has lived in the second building for five years, and in late 2016 she sued Sanford over mold in her unit. (That lawsuit was dismissed last July.) She said her now-nine-year-old grandson was staying with her at one point, but had to leave because of the conditions. “He had to go to the hospital at least five times with me in two months,” Jackson said. “His asthma problems worsened when he was living with me.”
Jackson added that she uses her oven for heat because her regular heat isn’t working. She recalled that an apartment on the third floor of her building had a fire once, and another apartment had flooding, but the management never helped. She said some tenants pay up to $1,780 in rent to live in “mold-infested apartments, bedbug-infested apartments, rodent-infested apartments”—with “no maintenance right now.”
And that’s just inside the buildings. While speaking with Jackson on the phone, City Paper heard a distinct thud in the background. “I hear them shots!” Jackson said, noting that the sound came from the opposite side of Suitland Parkway. “Bullets travel.” (The housing advocate later confirmed they also heard the sound.)
From outside Haggans’ building, Jackson walked back to her own. “Oh my god, it’s so cold out here,” she said. “I can’t take this.”