Two months before he died, Marion Barry sent a letter to the Zoning Commission urging approval of a transformative project at the Congress Heights Metro station.
“This project is vital to the evolution of Congress Heights and Ward 8 as an attractive, vibrant neighborhood for District residents for years to come,” wrote the D.C. Councilmember and former mayor in September. “I am confident this project can serve as a catalyst for future development in Congress Heights and beyond in Ward 8.”
Barry wasn’t referring to the redevelopment of the former mental hospital at St. Elizabeths, where the city was in the process of selecting a development team for the first phase, adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro. Instead, this letter concerned a project by the station’s other entrance, across Alabama Avenue—an endeavor that’s received far less attention despite its ample scale and faster timeline.
The plans call for more than 200 apartments, 230,000 square feet of office space, and 26,000 square feet of retail in one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. Renderings show gleaming buildings that would fit right into the city’s most thriving corridors, with fashion boutiques, a cafe, and a bookstore surrounding the Metro station. The multi-tiered offices feature multiple roof decks, while balconies at the residences overlook a revitalized Congress Heights.
In its submission to the Zoning Commission, which will hold a hearing on the proposed zoning change for the project on Thursday, the developer, Sanford Capital, promises “a vibrant transit-oriented development” with improved pedestrian safety nearby, higher Metro ridership, and substantial community benefits.
The reality is more complicated. Where the new development is slated to rise, four decrepit apartment buildings now stand. Residents there say that Sanford has allowed the properties to deteriorate and has passively and actively sought to drive the tenants away in order to clear the buildings. Sanford’s control of the site is complicated by a fifth, vacant building that’s the subject of a lawsuit. And some residents and neighbors say an agreement between Sanford and local organizations intended to benefit the community instead gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to politically connected Ward 8 groups while doing little for residents of the properties.
In other words, like most beacons of revitalization in D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods, this project is much messier than it might have seemed.
When Robert Green moved into his apartment at 1331 Alabama Ave. SE three years ago, he was promised a “deluxe apartment.” On first visit, everything looked orderly enough. “They told me how nice the building is,” he says. “Shoot, next week, it wasn’t the same.”
Green is sitting on his couch with his infant grandson in his lap. The apartment is in reasonable condition, although Green has his complaints. But the rest of the building is less than optimal. Worst is the basement, which is badly flooded. A sign on the ajar laundry-room door states that it’s open each day from 7 a.m., but it’s hard to imagine anyone’s used it in years. Pieces of rusted washing machines and dryers are ripped out and sitting on top of the defunct appliances, some of which are missing their front covers. Piping for the machines lies crumpled in a corner. There’s grime everywhere.
Upstairs, several vacant apartments are boarded up with plywood. Vacancy is worse in neighboring 1309 Alabama, a near-identical building where Ruth Barnwell has lived for 32 years. Barnwell says hers is one of only three households remaining in the 12-unit building.
“I’ll probably be the only one left,” Barnwell says with a laugh.
Barnwell is the president of the coalition of tenant associations that the four buildings formed in early fall 2013 to speak with a single voice before the Zoning Commission. In addition to the complaints they have about the conditions at their homes—the rodents, the doors that don’t lock, the squatters in the vacant units, the South Carolina call center they have to contact with maintenance requests—they say Sanford has worked aggressively to get them to leave.
Partly, Sanford offers enticements to leave in the form of buyouts or other Sanford properties to which tenants can relocate. “We have many apartments, Mr. Green,” Sanford’s Todd Fulmer told Green before Thanksgiving, according to Green. “Whichever you want, it’s yours.” Then his tone changed: “Guess what: If you don’t take it, in two months you’ll be on the street.” (Fulmer declined to comment for this story, explaining, “I wouldn’t say I’m at liberty to discuss it with you because of all the complication we’re going through with the efforts to develop it.”)
Sanford principal and founder A. Carter Nowell wouldn’t disclose the terms of the buyouts offered to tenants in exchange for moving out, but residents said they were as high as $10,000. Still, they said Sanford sometimes doesn’t follow through on its promises. This is apparently commonplace enough that Green and Barnwell laugh as they discuss various instances in which Sanford offered residents buyouts or relocation and then simply put them out.
Buyouts play a complicated role when it comes to affordability of housing in D.C. On the one hand, they can offer low-income residents a cash windfall to pay off debt or assemble a down payment for a home. But especially in rent-controlled buildings, when tenants paying low rents are displaced, their apartments often become permanently more expensive and unaffordable to working-class Washingtonians who face a shortage of housing within their budgets. At the Congress Heights property, Nowell says he won’t pursue low-income housing tax credits or other means that would guarantee affordability at the site, instead just providing a yet-to-be-determined number of affordable units in compliance with the city’s inclusionary zoning law. The rest of the new apartments will be market rate. In Congress Heights, that won’t be as expensive as in Dupont Circle, but will almost certainly be much more than the $898 a month that Barnwell pays for her two-bedroom.
And a $10,000 buyout doesn’t get you far in D.C. Eric Rome, a prominent tenant lawyer who’s negotiated many buyouts, calls buyouts of $15,000 to $20,000 “fool’s gold” and usually advises his clients not to take them, given how quickly the payment vanishes between taxes, higher rent, and relocation costs.
Barnwell had the same reaction when she was offered a $10,000 buyout. “I said, do you see F-O-O-L written on my forehead?“
For a cautionary tale on Sanford’s trackrecord, some Congress Heights residents point to a location one mile east. Sanford bought the Terrace Manor housing complex in January 2013 for $3.2 million. Patricia Gibbs, the president of Terrace Manor’s tenant association, says things have not gone well since.
“I can sum it up in one word: abandonment,” she says.
There are the usual maintenance issues, but at the heart of the complaints is a memorandum of understanding that Sanford agreed to as part of its acquisition of the property, which received a half-million-dollar loan from the city. In the memorandum, Sanford promised a slew of repairs to individual units and common spaces. Two years later, in November 2014, the Department of Housing and Community Development issued Sanford a notice of default, stating that Sanford had violated the memoraundum by not completing the repairs or paying tenants the required amount for each month of delay.
“They promised to have a new parking lot, brand-new washing machines and dryers, new cabinets, new windows,” says Gibbs. “They didn’t fulfill none of that. The only thing that came through was the mailboxes.”
Gibbs calls Sanford “slumlords,” and adds, “They gave us a promise. And they failed us tremendously.”
Nowell declined to comment on the record about Terrace Manor, saying only, “The explanation of what happened there is more lengthy than would be appropriate to include in your article.”
There very well could be mitigating factors in Sanford’s violation of the Terrace Manor memorandum, and there’s no reason to think it would translate into broken promises at the Congress Heights Metro property. But for some of the residents there, it’s enough of a red flag for them to fight Sanford’s plans.
“They’re not worthy of getting permission to tear these buildings down,” says Green.
The residents are mounting a two-pronged attack on Sanford’s plans. First, they’re opposing the zoning change at Thursday’s hearing, hoping they can block the project altogether. But if that fails, they’ll exercise their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and try to buy the property. Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who’s representing them, says he hopes DHCD will provide a loan to facilitate the purchase.
This strategy frustrates Nowell, who says he’s “actively trying to make sure that the current residents are taken care of.” He’s sought to meet with the tenants to work out a deal but says Merrifield has rebuffed all efforts to schedule a meeting. Merrifield counters that he’s just following the tenants’ “marching orders.” Given their lack of trust in Sanford, the tenants are reluctant to agree to a buyout-and-relocation plan that they fear might not be fulfilled.
“Any relocation plan would involve the tenants giving up their TOPA rights,” says Merrifield. “Right now the tenants feel their TOPA rights are more valuable than a relocation plan.”
Sanford and a collection of neighborhood groups, however, have struck a different type of deal. The parties have settled on a community benefits agreement, a standard arrangement providing for neighborhood enhancements when a developer seeks city permission on a project. But this benefits agreement is notable for its substantial payments to politically connected Ward 8 organizations.
Initially, the groups involved in the negotiations sought $2 million for themselves from Sanford. That got negotiated down, although the final benefits agreement is more generous than an earlier version. The agreement signed in December and submitted to the Zoning Commission earlier this month gives $75,000 over 15 years to the Ward 8 Council Against Domestic Violence, founded by Sandra Seegars, a candidate for the Ward 8 Council seat vacated when Barry died.
Another $75,000 goes to the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Center, the landlord for a number of dubious city contractors, founded by Phinis Jones, the powerful Ward 8 political operator at the center of the Park Southern scandal that dominated the debate during part of last year’s mayoral race. (In another twist, the vacant building on the site Sanford hopes to develop is the subject of a lawsuit by Jones, who previously reached an agreement to buy it himself. Jones did not respond to a request for comment. Sanford has not yet secured control of the building, which comes with nearly $200,000 in debt to the city for an earlier $920,100 loan that was never repaid.)
And Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8E, chaired by Ward 8 Council candidate Anthony Muhammad, would get office space from Sanford for up to 20 years at a rent of $1 a month. The ANC, Seegars, and Jones were all part of the small team that negotiated the deal.
Karlene Armstead, a dissenter on the ANC, says the money is going to “nonprofits that are not legit.” Her commission, she feels, is engaged in “cloak-and-dagger” behavior. “The only person that seems to know what is transpiring with this community benefits package is the chair, Anthony Muhammad, and the developer,” she says. “We all are sitting there kind of dumbfounded about what’s going on.”
Muhammad did not respond to a request for comment. Seegars says that while the initial $2 million request was “ridiculously high,” she supports the final deal and notes that it would allow the current tenants to return post-construction with limited rent increases. “The developers and we are on the same page,” she says. “It wasn’t easy to get to an end result, but we worked with them, they worked with us.”
Barnwell, for one, is outraged when she learns of the deal’s details. “What are they getting money for?” she asks. “I thought this stuff was supposed to be about the community.”
The residents of the Congress Heights buildings say they’re not just worried about themselves. If the property is converted to fancier market-rate apartments, Green fears the effect it will have on the city’s overall housing equation.
“The District is not building more affordable housing recently, so it’s only increasing the homeless situation,” says Green, his grandson squirming in his lap. “You just put 100 more people out in the parks.”
Rendering courtesy of City Partners; photo by Aaron Wiener