Companies well-known for owning and managing affordable housing are responsible for a large number of eviction filings in D.C.
WC Smith filed more evictions against tenants than any other company or individual in the District between 2014 and 2019, according to researchers at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Researchers found that WC Smith—one of the city’s largest and most reputable property management firms credited for saving troubled apartments—is among 10 landlords to file more than 37 percent of all evictions in 2018, despite those 10 landlords owning just 16 percent of rental housing units in D.C.
Among the top filers in 2018 were Edgewood Management, the Barac Company, Horning Brothers, CIH Properties, Borger Management, Park 7 Residential LP, Wingate Properties LLC, ECP Owner 1 LLC, and the D.C. Housing Authority. Some of these companies are still among the city’s top filers. WC Smith accounted for 12 percent of the roughly 8,000 evictions filed thus far in 2020, and more than 200 of those evictions were filed after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency, according to a City Paper review of court records. (The D.C. Council barred landlords from executing evictions and removing tenants during the emergency.)
The mass filings speak to how systematized the evictions process can be. As one tenant organizer, Allison Hrabar, argues, it is a “well-oiled machine.” A WC Smith spokesperson disputes this, saying the suits over tenants’ failure to pay rent are only filed after they made “many attempts” to reach an agreement. “It is only when we have reached an impasse, sometimes after having reached payment agreements that residents don’t follow, that we need to proceed to the legal process,” the spokesperson says in a statement via email.
Tenant advocates and property owners both say the filings speak to how expensive rent is for residents, even those living in affordable housing units. The court system is often used as a way for landlords to secure rent from tenants, not necessarily to evict them for a lease violation. These long-standing challenges will only worsen due to the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout.
“This is a problem of rent is too high and income is too low and we could address that in two ways: We can boost income or we can bring down rents or make rents more affordable,” says Georgetown researcher and sociology professor Brian McCabe. “And this is not a D.C. problem.”
McCabe and his colleague, Eva Rosen, learned these handful of property owners accounted for many of the evictions filed in D.C. Superior Court, as well as uncovered patterns of practice, after analyzing legal records from 2014 through 2018. The Georgetown researchers released the landlords’ names after initially not being able to when they first published their report titled “Eviction in Washington, DC: Racial and Geographic Disparities in Housing Instability,” earlier this month. The researchers hope that as the public comes to learn who is suing, they’ll understand the role the landlords have in the process and policymakers will work with them to address a problem that, in D.C., disproportionately impacts majority Black neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates.
“They own a lot of the properties that are affordable properties,” says Rosen of the top filers by volume. “So they are the people who are renting to the most vulnerable tenants who are therefore the most likely to be facing eviction.”
City Paper analyzed 2020 court filings provided by Stomp Out Slumlords, the housing advocacy arm of the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America, to learn the top filers for this year.
“We wouldn’t have an eviction crisis if landlords stopped evicting people. It would be very easy for landlords to cancel rent for their buildings and take it as a write off,” says Hrabar, a Stomp Out Slumlords member. “I think it is a huge problem that these tenants’ names, whenever you search the court docket, are public. It affects their ability to get housing next. Anyone can look it up and find out the gory details of this person’s financial crisis.”
About 32,000 evictions are filed annually in D.C. Superior Court, according to the Georgetown researchers. The vast majority of evictions are filed for nonpayment of rent, and the vast majority do not result in landlords and local authorities actually removing tenants from their homes. In 2018, the researchers say just 5.5 percent of eviction filings resulted in a formal eviction.
Researchers also found some property owners file multiple evictions on a single household in one year, suggesting that owners use the court process as a tactic to get paid. Rosen says landlords likely use evictions as a “legal pressure” so tenants find the money to pay, be it from a family member, church or emergency rental assistance program. “It also means that in many cases, tenants end up leaving on their own,” she says.
Georgetown researchers caution against the assumption that the property owners and managers who file the most evictions are the worst offenders. “The landlords in D.C. who are filing the most evictions—the biggest landlords—are not actually filing at the highest rate,” says McCabe. “What we find is it is a lot of medium-sized landlords that have a much higher filing rate.”
Park 7 Residential LP is a company that both filed a lot of evictions and at an alarming rate. According to the researchers, the Maryland-based company filed the most evictions relative to the number of properties owned in 2017 and 2018. For every one unit owned, Park 7 Residential LP filed 2.47 eviction notices in 2017 and 1.76 notices in 2018. (An eviction filing rate is higher than 1 when a landlord files against a unit multiple times within a year.)
The company is infamous for treating residents poorly. After an investigation, the Office of the Attorney General forced Park 7 Residential LP to refund nearly half a million dollars to more than 470 current and former tenants who were wrongfully charged for water in their rent. The OAG settlement in 2019 followed years of tenant organizing. Park 7 tenants, with help from Stomp Out Slumlords, organized themselves to get management to address deplorable housing conditions.
Prominent developer Chris Donatelli took over direct management of Park 7 from Edgewood Management in 2019. Donatelli tells City Paper he then opted to change Park 7’s approach to eviction filing. He once accused Stomp Out Slumlords of exaggerating the number of filings but now recognizes Park 7 filed a lot of them. Park 7 no longer systematically files evictions against tenants but tries to work out a payment plan outside the court system, he says. According to Georgetown researchers, Park 7 Residential LP was no longer a top eviction filer in 2019, nor did it have the highest filing rate. Donatelli says his lawyer estimates Park 7 filed less than 100 evictions in 2019. But Stomp Out Slumlords is still organizing with tenants at Park 7, some of whom are still on a rent strike over housing conditions.
The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation in early October that seeks to strengthen D.C.’s tenant protections, which are already some of the strongest in the nation. Measures like banning evictions over an unpaid amount of less than $600 and requiring a landlord to issue a thirty-day written notice prior to filing are welcomed but not enough, according to the tenant advocates City Paper spoke with.
“All of these solutions are sort of Band-Aid solutions,” says Rosen. “These are really important and great things for tenants. They don’t solve the underlying problem, which is people can’t pay their rent.”
“The purpose of suing isn’t to evict. My clients aren’t trying to evict. They are trying to maintain their properties,” says Michael Brand, a lawyer representing the Barac Company.
This is largely the sentiment among the various property owners and management firms City Paper spoke with by phone or email. Many also say the number of filings is simply linked to how many units they have. In a statement, WC Smith says it has 9,600 units across D.C., and collects more than 150,000 payments over the course of a year. Of the more than 4,600 evictions filed in 2018, WC Smith says 66 of the filings for nonpayment of rent result in formal evictions. “Some of our residents [are] at the highest risk of income volatility, and despite the support that can come from government programs and our efforts, they are not able to maintain consistent payments,” the company spokesperson says. They also see the filings as symptomatic of the types of tenants they are renting to. CIH Properties President Kevin P. O’Malley says 84 percent of the 1,820 apartment homes the company owns and manages are in Wards 7 and 8, the two wards with “the highest rate of renter households and lowest monthly income.”
A spokesperson for the D.C. Housing Authority, a landlord to people living in public housing or other government-subsidized housing, says it always tries to work with tenants before a suit is filed. “Throughout this process, DCHA gives its customers the opportunity to redeem their tenancy with repayment agreements until an eviction is executed,” they say. While the independent government agency has filed thousands of evictions over the years, the spokesperson says a total of 564 evictions were effectuated across its properties between 2014 and 2019.
Brands says a “significant amount” of Barac’s suits are duplicates, meaning the company files evictions against the same tenants multiple times. “People often call the office and say ‘I haven’t gotten my suit this month.’ They are waiting for lawsuits in order to be able to come in and make arrangements for payment because that is strangely the way many people think,” Brands tells City Paper. “If you wait two or three months before you sue, people a) don’t pay or b) when they get down to court they owe far too much money to be able to make a reasonable payment schedule.”
O’Malley says CIH Properties takes “the first opportunity to file in court” because it takes longer in D.C. to move on a repossession of a unit as compared to other jurisdictions. “To ensure compliance with fair housing, our collection efforts must be applied consistently each month to all households even when we believe the household might ultimately comply with their lease terms,” he says via email.
In 2019, CIH Properties entered into 67 payment plan agreements with residents, 20 units vacated prior to a formal eviction, and 17 filings resulted in a formal eviction, O’Malley says. “In total, unpaid rent in 2019 amounted to $555,598 … unpaid rent in only 9 months of 2020 has amounted to $751,183.” Meanwhile, he says his taxes and bills for the properties mount.
Some of these landlords are receiving federal aid to weather the pandemic recession. CIH Properties, for example, received between $150,000 and $300,000 in a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Federal dollars are not necessarily trickling down to benefit tenants, as City Paper previously reported.
Large property owners continued to file evictions into the public health emergency, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy and tens of thousands of workers were laid off. A City Paper review of court filings that Stomp Out Slumlords collected via a scraper finds that WC Smith, Horning Brothers, Edgewood Management, the Barac Company, CIH Properties, and Borger Management are among the top 10 filers in 2020. (The scraper searches and downloads information from D.C. Superior Court. Some landlords also use it as a tool to screen potential tenants.) The companies all filed a few dozen evictions in March and April, but none filed once the Council paused eviction filings in May. So what happens when the Council’s eviction moratorium lifts, as some landlords have been advocating for?
“Even if you’re paying rent based on your income, it is still really hard to make that one payment,” says Beth Mellen Harrison, a tenant attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “Because if you have such limited cash income, then one little thing—your kid wants to be on the baseball team, you need to pay for the uniform—it sets you back months.”
Based on what she sees in the courtroom, Harrison says a landlord’s approach to evictions factors into the number of filings. “Some landlords certainly take the approach ‘it’s the sixth day of the month, you’re behind on rent, [and] I am going to go ahead and file a lawsuit,’” she says. “They essentially are using these cases as a debt collection mechanism.” Sometimes it’s the lawyer representing the property owner or manager who advises their client to take a more aggressive approach.
Some of the properties these large companies own or manage have become centers of tenant organizing. Stomp Out Slumlords is organizing in a few WC Smith, Horning Brothers, and Edgewood Management properties, Hrabar says.
When Stomp Out Slumlords first started knocking on doors years ago to inform tenants of their rights, organizers assumed tenants who faced eviction would want to organize their buildings. “We found that wasn’t the case because a lot of working class District residents have a lot of crises going on,” Hrabar explains. “Some people were like ‘I have eviction filings against me every month. This is not new. I really don’t need your help.’”
The pandemic and the increased financial instability that comes along with it has since fueled tenant organizing. “There is a feeling of not everyone is struggling in the same way, but rent is such that not everyone is having an easy time,” says Rachel Bergman, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords.
At the Cloisters Apartments, a 352-unit Horning Brothers property on Michigan Avenue NE, interest in organizing has increased in the past several months. “The topline concerns are that the Cloisters already charged a lot of rent,” Bergman says.
Vivian, who requested she only be identified by her first name, is a Cloisters tenant who sees the value of organizing and forming a tenants’ association. Since she moved to the Cloisters in August 2017, Vivian has seen near-annual rent increases. She also pays questionable fees, in her view: She and her two roommates have to pay a $500 fee every time someone is replaced on the lease, which has happened every year she’s lived there, and they have to pay a $25 valet trash fee that they can’t opt out of. In February 2020, Horning Brothers told her and her roommates they’d be increasing rent from $2,444 to $3,008 for the 3-bedroom unit. Had the Council not outlawed rent increases during the public health emergency, Vivian would have moved out.
Horning Brothers has filed 43 evictions at the Cloisters Apartments in 2020 alone, according to a City Paper review of court filings. Vivian and Bergman cannot speak to evictions at the Cloisters, but they both can attest to rent being high for what the property is. Bergman says 34 Cloisters tenants signed the group’s cancel rent petition while she and another organizer canvassed. (While they canvassed, property managers with Horning Brothers threatened to call security if they did not leave. Horning Brothers says their staff did post the group’s flyers on the building’s bulletin boards.)
“Horning Brothers works with tenants to keep them in their homes and not evict them,” a company spokesperson says via email. “When a resident begins to miss monthly payments, starting eviction filings is not our first course of action. In the event of missed payments, we begin by requesting information. But if we fail to hear back and balances continue to mount, our only recourse is to begin the filing process with the courts.”
The spokesperson added that “the number of filings doesn’t get at the root issues which are housing affordability and wages,” but declined to respond to questions about rent increases.