The vacant rental office at Sanford's Terrace Manor Apartments.
The vacant rental office at Sanford's Terrace Manor Apartments. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In March, Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned District-wide inspections of over 65 buildings owned and managed by Sanford Capital—the massive Bethesda-based landlord that’s come under fire in recent years for failing to maintain its properties—saying in her 2017 State of the District Address that Sanford could “face nearly half a million dollars in fines … or see [D.C.] in court.”

Now the company is in court at D.C.’s Office of Administrative Hearings for those very fines, and is formally denying almost all of the allegations against it, insinuating that the inspections were politically motivated. In a concurrent but separate case at D.C. Superior Court over Sanford’s Terrace Manor property in Southeast, the company is asserting that a major third-party review conducted in June went beyond the scope of a judge’s order.

As the District wages an ongoing legal battle with Sanford Capital, many of the landlord’s tenants spread across almost 1,300 apartments are still living in squalor, forced to endure a lengthy list of substandard conditions: “Sewer back-ups, no water, no A/C or heat, infestation, rats, bedbugs, falling ceilings, hanging electrical fixtures, peeling paint, broken or defective hardware, doors that are not fitting in a tight manner,” and more, as the supervisor of the housing inspections program within D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said at an administrative court hearing last week.

“It’s not getting any better,” says a Sanford tenant who resides at one of the company’s Northeast complexes and asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “The house is still wide open, the common area. They still do what they want to do.”

The situation demonstrates that individual housing code fines can be negligible for a relatively large landlord like Sanford Capital, which reaps in both market-rate rents and, as of last January, at least $3.5 million annually through D.C. subsidies that help low-income and formerly homeless residents pay for apartments. Moreover, the legal process can take months (and in some cases years) to result in improvements, even when officials seek to exercise control over dilapidated private properties using a powerful tool known as receivership.

Given these difficulties, and in order to better ensure compliance with the law, some advocates say the District should increase fines for purported repeat offenders, more quickly take such landlords to court, and shame them through public hearings and other tactics.

Nevertheless, it takes significant time for the District to create a paper trail that can hold up under legal scrutiny. Since earlier this year, DCRA’s inspections of Sanford buildings have turned up more than 1,500 alleged violations of D.C.’s housing code—a tally that includes both common areas and individual units. Valued at a few hundred or over $1,000 per citation, total potential fines for the company stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

DCRA is currently litigating these violations in OAH, which presides over certain housing cases, for all but two Sanford properties. The latter two properties—one of them above the Congress Heights Metro station and the other Terrace Manor—are at the center of two civil cases advancing through Superior Court, where District Attorney General Karl Racine is leading lawsuits against the company. Today, both have high vacancy rates of at least 75 percent, just several years after Sanford bought them, and Racine says this reveals a pattern of neglect meant to displace tenants.

But Sanford is contesting essentially all of the citations, questioning the reliability of DCRA’s inspections and evidence. Its attorneys are also starting to publicly suggest, in earnest, that District officials have ulterior motives in prosecuting it.

At an OAH hearing on Aug. 7 where several Sanford Capital cases were discussed, Martin Novillo, an attorney who represents the company, repeatedly asked DCRA inspectors under cross-examination about the agency’s inspection protocol. DCRA had classified the batch of Sanford investigations as a “special project” ordered by Bowser’s office.

When DCRA attorney Doris A. Parker Woolridge objected to Novillo’s line of questioning for Anthony Williams—a bespectacled six-year inspector—about what Williams had been informed of leading up to the special project, Novillo responded that the matter was relevant. “It goes directly to the credibility of the witness,” he told OAH Judge Leslie Meek. “Was he instructed to issue violations?”

Williams replied that his superiors told him to inspect the Sanford buildings like he would any other buildings. “If on any given day we find violations, we write it up,” Williams said. Minutes before, he had described how the entrance door to a building at Sanford’s Belmont Crossing property in Southeast “would not lock at all” because of missing parts—a common problem across the company’s portfolio. Williams went on to recount finding another broken front door and dirty windows in the lobby of a second building at Belmont Crossing, which weren’t fixed a couple of months thereafter.

“If there was no violations, there was no violations,” he explained, saying the project’s special status did not influence his work. Later on, DCRA’s supervisory inspector, Ferdinand Gamboa, said the agency occasionally performs special projects at the behest of the mayor, councilmembers, or neighborhood commissioners. “We do not write false or fraud citations,” he testified.

Additionally during the hearing, Novillo pointed to the possibility that tenants have caused certain issues at Sanford properties, and noted that “tenants can also be cited” under D.C.’s housing code. Woolridge said it was the landlord’s responsibility to maintain, clean, and repair common areas. “The evidence speaks for itself,” she said. “This has been ongoing.”

The contest between the District and Sanford Capital isn’t likely to conclude anytime soon, or lessen in intensity. In a recent statement to City Paper, Sanford owner and co-founder Carter Nowell said that D.C. officials have “used every novel legal tactic possible to delay our ability to sell buildings and instead [have] decided to use hundreds of thousands of taxpayer resources to drive these buildings into bankruptcy.” Nowell, who lives in a $3 million home in Bethesda, has been trying to sell the company’s portfolio for millions of dollars, even while various properties it owns are delinquent or in foreclosure on their mortgages.

After hearing arguments, Meek said she would issue written orders, including fines if necessary, in the coming weeks. Some of those fines may be denied on the basis of the government’s evidence or procedural flaws regarding citations.

The OAH hearings come as the District and Sanford also battle over Terrace Manor and the Congress Heights buildings in Superior Court. At Terrace Manor, a judge in May appointed an outside expert called a receiver to bring the property up to code. But the receiver cannot begin most renovations until both sides agree—or the judge rules—on a report it complied earlier this summer, which estimated that fixing the property’s common areas and 13 occupied units could cost between $418,000 and $565,000.

Through its attorneys, Sanford Capital has challenged the findings in the receiver’s report as “a startling and expensive departure” from what the parties had previously negotiated. Racine’s office and the receiver contest this, arguing that the assessment was based on multiple visits to Terrace Manor, fair cost estimates, and the scope of the judge’s order.

More courtroom drama is expected shortly. Last week, Judge John Mott, who is presiding over the Terrace Manor case, granted D.C. its request for an “expedited hearing” on approving the receiver’s proposed rehabilitation plans. That hearing has been scheduled for the end of August.