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The rats rushed in after dark.
“I’m sitting here watching TV at night, and right under my door, they would come in like a herd of cattle,” Robert Green recalls. “The exterminator put down some bait, but it seems like it didn’t bother them. I chopped up some of my diabetic heart medicine, next thing they’re straggling across the floor. The neighbors were laughing.”
Green, 67, has lived at 1331 Alabama Ave. SE since 2010. He pays $194 a month for his one-bedroom unit, including utilities. (Government subsidies cover the rest of his rent, $1,345 a month.) The building, along with three others that surround the Congress Heights Metro station, is owned by Sanford Capital. The Bethesda-based real estate firm plans to redevelop the site into more than 200 apartments, on top of office and retail space.
But in January, the D.C. Attorney General’s office put the brakes on that effort when it sued Sanford and its subsidiaries for allegedly letting the buildings fall into disrepair through “willful neglect.” Tenants had claimed the company was trying to push them out, in some cases by offering buyouts and in general by creating an uninhabitable environment. Will Merrifield, a nonprofit attorney who represents the more than dozen tenants left in the buildings, describes some of the living conditions that resulted: unsecured doors and windows, broken heating and air conditioning, vermin and trash, dim lighting, and vacant units outsiders used for illicit drug activity and sex.
On a recent day in April, old mattresses and other debris piled in a heap behind 1309 Alabama Ave. SE, where two green dumpsters were not large enough to contain it all. Boarded-up windows and apertures where A/C units had once been speckled the apartments’ facades. Inside Green’s building, a black feral cat—whose name changes from tenant to tenant—lay curled in the second-floor hallway: “The best exterminator we got,” Green says.
When Attorney General Karl Racineannounced earlier this month that his office had reached a joint abatement agreement with Sanford, it appeared that things might improve. Under its terms, the company must conduct regular inspections of vacant units, provide an armed security guard during evenings, perform routine exterminations, and establish both a maintenance hotline and an on-site office through which tenants can communicate with the firm.
Stephen Hessler, the attorney who represented Sanford in the case, fervently rejects characterizations of his client as a “slumlord.” He claims that Sanford has always promised to fix violations, adding that he’s “proud” of the way the case turned out—“a win-win for everybody.”
“We needed to have a consistent inspection protocol and a consistent inspector whose yardstick, like it or not, is the same,” Hessler says. “This ‘catch me if you can’ sort of situation where tenants complain about X or Y condition… if you can’t find it or you can’t get in, you’re going to have a problem.”
“You just have to hold your tongue or hold your peace or hold your sanity against a claim of the s-word,” Hessler continues. “And just let your actions speak louder than those words.”
For his part, D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisbergdescribed the abatement plan as “a very intelligent, promising, somewhat amicable resolution of a very difficult problem” at an April 13 hearing, according to a transcript.“If we could figure out how to bottle this and duplicate it, it would be a path forward to resolving a lot of intractable disputes that wind up in this court.”
The agreement also requires quarterly status reports to D.C. Superior Court while the case remains open. It specifies that Sanford has five business days to correct or challenge “defaults” OAG alleges, and one business day to do so for emergencies like a lack of hot water. Basically, Merrifield says, if Sanford fails to comply, it could end up back in front of a judge—with penalties.
“Our goal has always been to seek justice for the tenants, who have been forced to live in deplorable and unacceptable living conditions as a result of willful neglect,” Racine said in a statement. “The abatement plan the Court approved holds the owners of the buildings accountable to maintain living conditions and improve the quality of life for residents.”
Since the lawsuit was filed in January, other tenants have alleged similar violations of D.C.’s housing laws, says a spokesperson for OAG. “Without getting into specifics, suffice it to say that the Office of the Attorney General will look into any situation connected to our statutory jurisdiction where the housing rights of District residents are being violated,” he tells City Paper.
Green was decidedly less sanguine about the future. He ticks off troublesome incidents in his building like entries in a diary: the time he and his grandson encountered a man and a woman having sex in the hallway; the time a white girl who “had to be about 13” was “frothing from the mouth”—apparently from a needle injection—on the stairs; the times he’s returned home to find quarters he uses to do laundry missing, as well as cash he keeps for medical situations, clothes, CDs, and books. Green notes that he’s filed “more than 100” work orders to Sanford over the past five years. “When you go without heat for two months, you call every day,” he says.
“I don’t think they’re going to abide,” Green adds of the agreement. “I think they’re going to find an excuse to get us out of here.”
Green lived in Camden and Atlantic City, and he remembers buildings going up in flames under cover of darkness—allegedly when landlords wanted their tenants out.
“There’s a lot of, lemme pardon the word, a lot of damn crooks,” he says. “You offer them $500, drugs, they’ll go and light this building up… I worry about that.”
According to Merrifield, Sanford must either keep the buildings up to code or sell them. In the latter scenario, the firm would have to give the renters notices under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Theoretically, a third-party developer could take on the project and produce affordable, dignified housing, he says: a possibility that will look more attractive as D.C. and its partners redevelop the St. Elizabeths campus across the street.
As for Sanford’s compliance, Merrifield strikes a cautionary tone, but says he’s “optimistic” because OAG has shown it’s “very invested” in his clients’ case.
“We’ll absolutely be able to exercise our TOPA rights in an effective way to benefit our tenants,” the attorney says. “What’s unique about this case is that these people are not standing up just for themselves but are standing up for their community… These tenants are completely dedicated and focused on staying.”
Or as Green puts it: “The only way they’ll bring me out is in a black bag.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery