Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Despite the three-digit temperatures expected for tomorrow, tenants of a low-income Congress Heights apartment complex that’s slated for massive redevelopment plan to rally outside the home of a D.C. businessman who’s directing the project, along with their supporters.

Four buildings immediately surrounding the Congress Heights Metro station have been at the center of a controversy in the last three years between their inhabitants and Bethesda-based owner Sanford Capital. Although some tenants have fled the harsh living conditions—including rats, defective climate control, and unwanted visitors conducting illicit activity in vacant units—more than a dozen remain, paying government-subsidized rents. The conditions were so bad that, in January, the D.C. Attorney General sued Sanford and its subsidiaries for allowing the site to become decrepit through “willful neglect.” In April, Sanford and D.C. struck an abatement agreement requiring the owner to ameliorate outstanding issues—for example, with routine exterminations. (The District now has receivership over the buildings.)

On Saturday, though, the tenants will turn their frustrations toward Geoff Griffis, a managing member of CityPartners, the firm trying to redevelop the site. They’ll travel from their nearby intersection of Alabama Avenue and 13th Street SE to Cleveland Park, where Griffis lives, and march to his home shortly before noon. Robert Green, a 67-year-old resident of 1331 Alabama Ave. SE, argues Griffis is a “bad actor.”

“He’s the one with the money ideas,” says Green, who is worried about being displaced and will participate in the demonstration.

The protest comes after residents of the four buildings received offers of sale pursuant to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act a few weeks ago. TOPA notices provide current tenants the right to buy their residences at prices determined by owners, but they are rarely acted upon.

Will Merrifield, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents the Congress Heights tenants, says the TOPA offers his clients received are overvalued. They’re based on future speculation for property CityPartners doesn’t control, he contends:

  • 1331–1333 Alabama Ave. SE: $6,943,523
  • 1309 Alabama Ave. SE: $3,395,858
  • 3210 13th St. SE: $2,112,406

In other words, the tenants (or an interested third-party developer) would collectively have to come up with more than $12 million to buy the buildings. CityPartner’s redevelopment plan involves the takeover of a parcel of land surrounding the Metro station as well as a fifth building, now vacant, at 3200 13th St. SE. Metro’s board executed the sale of the station parcel earlier this year but still must approve the price when it meets next Thursday, according to the transit agency. The corner building, meanwhile, is tied up in litigation over who owns it (Sanford and CityPartners are not party to the case), and a mediation date is set for the fall. It also has an unpaid $920,000 loan on it.

Griffis rejects the notion that he or CityPartners want to push out the tenants, noting that they have the option to return to the new building at the same rent they’re paying now. (Merrifield disputes this, saying his clients were told they would have to relocate to other properties owned by Sanford Capital before any demolition takes place, and then rely on CityPartners to “make good on their promise.” The tenants believe this is a “hollow” opportunity, he adds, because they do not trust the development team.) Griffis says the project will “create positive change” for Congress Heights, “with neighborhood-serving retail, office, and residential uses”—and will help to “spur additional economic revitalization.” (The site is located directly across from the Saint Elizabeths East Campus, which the District plans to redevelop in part through a new arena.)

The project will also provide units at “deeper levels of affordability than is required” by D.C.’s affordable-housing laws, he says, at 80 and 50 percent of area median income. While the redevelopment entails major economic risk, Griffis contends that it’s based on “good urban vision.”

“Show me a project in this city in the past five years that has ever offered such a beneficial package to current residents,” he says. If all goes smoothly, CityPartners would pull development permits in 2018 and start construction in 2019, Griffis says. He acknowledges that the current living conditions at the buildings are poor, saying “I get that [the tenants] are terribly disappointed with Sanford” and want them gone.

As for the planned protest at his home, Griffis continues, “Quite frankly, it reminds me of Trump tactics: Just say it, scream it, and perception will become reality. It puts a pit in my stomach…. I’m not sure what purpose it serves or why they think I’m such a great target for their cause.”

For some of the tenants there will be little difference between the heat inside and outside their apartments, Green says.

“My A/C is working, but some of the others’ are not,” he says. “One lady can’t close her front door, and the guy next to me—his isn’t working.”