Oak Hill Apartments
Oak Hill Apartments Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A woman I’ll call Stephanie has lived at Oak Hill Apartments—a complex in Congress Heights owned by slumlord Sanford Capital—for four exasperating years. Earlier this week, when an unexpected burst of winter dropped snow and bitter temperatures on the District, Stephanie’s heat went out. Repairmen finally fixed it today, but she’s worried that the heat will go out again.

“They did some patchwork a few minutes ago,” says Stephanie, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of retribution by her landlord. “They’re programmed to patchwork everything so it won’t take much out of their expenses. When it breaks down again, it takes [having to] get the government involved and threaten them for anything. That even may take a couple of days.”

The only reason her furnace was fixed, Stephanie says, is because a city inspector visited her home yesterday after she called D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. DCRA is currently conducting inspections of all Sanford properties following recent City Paper and Post reports about the company. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the inspections at the beginning of March. During an appearance on WAMU today, the mayor said DCRA has inspected more than half of Sanford’s buildings so far. DCRA’s director told the D.C. Council at an oversight hearing Thursday that the agency had inspected nine buildings on a single day last week, for example.

Still, knowing what she knows about Sanford, Stephanie isn’t holding her breath. “I don’t know what anybody in the mayor’s building can do, but it seems like you spill your guts, you tell them what’s going on, and nothing seems to happen,” she reflects. “I’m at my wit’s end.”

Her stove isn’t working either. She says she had to call Washington Gas, which shut off the gas in her unit, after she recently smelled what she thought was a leak. In the past year alone, mice and roaches have invaded her apartment, and sewage has backed up into her tub. Stephanie shares the three-bedroom unit with her two kids, aged 13 and 11. She’s currently between jobs.

Stephanie is also looking for a new apartment. But because she receives a housing voucher, she’s having a hard time finding one. The voucher covers the majority of her monthly rent of $1,745. Sanford fills many of its buildings with voucher and homeless tenants to ensure income on the public’s dime.

“I plan on leaving here,” she says. “It’s very hard to find apartments. Being a low-income mom or whatever, it’s kind of hard to find a place that seemingly he doesn’t own. He owns so many.”

She means Sanford’s co-founder Aubrey Carter Nowell, who lives in a $2.9 million Bethesda home and has not publicly addressed the investigative reports against his company, which he started more than a decade ago with his business partner Pat Strauss. Maybe that’s because D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is suing Sanford over two of its other properties in Southeast. At both, the company has agreed to abatement plans being monitored by the D.C. Superior Court.

Racine hasn’t yet brought legal action over any of Sanford’s other District properties, of which there are about 20, totaling about 60 buildings. In one of the ongoing cases, his office is testing D.C.’s consumer-protection laws in the landlord-tenant area to see if it may recover the rents tenants paid while the landlord was letting the site rot. Dozens of tenants there left as Sanford made plans to sell the complex.

Stephanie says Oak Hill’s rental office was closed for much of this week, meaning she couldn’t bring her complaints to Sanford’s on-site staff. Instead, she called an 800-number the company provides to tenants to file maintenance requests and had three separate work orders written up.

“I don’t think the company will change,” Stephanie says. “I think the government needs to step in a little further … maybe revoke his license for a while and see if he could do better.” She adds that one of her neighbors is elderly and taking care of her father, a veteran, but that there’s no heat.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Stephanie says. “How is the government letting him get paid? And they have proof of the trouble.” The Bowser administration and some councilmembers point out that the District cannot simply condemn Sanford’s buildings since this would displace tenants.

And yet, the D.C. government is also subsidizing the company with estimated millions of dollars each year through housing-voucher and homeless-services programs. Stephanie says that five years ago—when she was searching for a new home—she found Oak Hill on a District website.

What would she say to the owners of Sanford if she were ever to see them face to face? 

“Could they please consider mothers and families and elderly people and children, and just try to consider people who really need a place to live,” Stephanie offers. “And try to consider what it would be like to live under these conditions.”