Exterior of La Coop
Credit: La Coop

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Like many people, Juan Luis Salazar Cano and Stefanie Fabrico were at home watching election results roll in last night. Then, around 7 p.m., Salazar Cano saw some unusual activity on the cameras that watch over his South Manor Park coffee shop, La Coop. Fabrico says they went to check it out because it appeared workers were preparing to erect a fence or board up the building at 5505 1st St. NW. 

Fabrico says La Coop’s landlord, Coloma River Capital managing partner Charles Paret, has been threatening to evict them since shortly after they first opened on July 1. Under emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, it’s illegal to evict residential and commercial tenants during the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is currently in place through Dec. 31. Evictions are also outlawed in the 60 days that follow the end of the public health emergency. Landlords must come up with payment plans for their tenants.

“He’s trying to sell the building and us being here is an impediment to him doing so,” Fabrico says. But she didn’t expect the tense situation to come to a head on Election Night. “I think Charles, last night, seemed in a pretty desperate state,” she says. “He was throwing out every excuse in the book to try to justify his actions or the reason why the lease was ending.” 

Salazar Cano shot a video that showed the scene and posted it on Instagram. In it, a small group of neighbors, along with D.C. police officers whom La Coop called, gathered near the entrance. Paret is off to one corner, yelling.

“We have a lease—a legal lease—until 2022,” Salazar Cano says in the video. “And the situation is that the landlord wants to sell the property, right? So he kicked out everybody in the building because they didn’t know their rights. We have a lease so we’re not moving from here. But he is screaming right now to the police.” 

A police report says MPD officers arrived on the scene of the landlord/tenant dispute at 7:20 p.m. Paret told the police that the tenants were advised that he would be boarding up the building the first week of November and that it was to ensure “no damage was done following election results that evening.” The report also says the La Coop owners and Paret produced signed copies of leases that displayed different end dates. Because the matter is civil, not criminal, the police didn’t take any further action other than advising the group that any physical altercations would be deemed assault.

The family-owned coffee shop, which sources beans from small farmers in Guatemala, contends that they have a lease that goes through January 2022. Salazar Cano, Fabrico, and La Coop’s attorney, Dan Koffman, assert that the coffee shop has paid its rent since opening over the summer, even though launching and operating a business during a pandemic is challenging. Neither party says the dispute is over missed payments.

Paret was recently profiled in a Washingtonian article about the young people that financially back trendy D.C. restaurants. He’s an investor in Lucky Buns and has plans to convert old ATM vestibules into tiny restaurants, including one City Paper covered in May 2019 that has yet to come to fruition. In the magazine, he talks about trying to “create better culture” in restaurants when it comes to employee benefits. 

Paret tells City Paper in an emailed statement that “La Coop and I are currently in disagreement over the validity of their tenancy in one of our buildings. They have a lease that expired November 1, 2020. The lease they have was drafted by them and was never executed by me or anyone employed by my company. We will be addressing this with them and our legal team.”

In a phone call, he tells City Paper the lease La Coop is referring to was signed by a third party Coloma River contracted via the online service DocuSign using Paret’s name and that La Coop edited the document themselves with completely different terms that never made their way to Paret for approval.

Paret, who is overheard on the Instagram video calling La Coop a “pop up,” says he offered to relocate the business to another one of his nearby properties. “We want them there. I want them there. I brought them there originally with the vision. They’re amazing for the community. They were going to get a brand new coffee shop when the building was built,” he says.

“He offered to relocate us to a location around the corner that’s 800 square feet,” Fabrico responds. “It’s not currently a coffee shop. It would disrupt our business operations and 800 square feet is the size of where our roasting employee area is. It’s not going to suffice.” She says she and her husband are not “trying to be disagreeable,” they just don’t see it as a comparable offer.

Regarding the “third party” entity that allegedly signed the lease under Paret’s name, Fabrico says it’s Coloma River’s food and beverage manager. “That’s the person we liaised with when we were going through getting a new lease,” she says. “Charles is trying to argue our lease ends Nov. 1. We had a previous lease in place when we first met him. He delayed us in a number of ways. We needed to get a new lease in place before we opened. What we landed on is the one we signed in January 2020.”

City Paper reviewed portions of both lease agreements. The one provided by La Coop is from January 2020. It says the lease ends on Jan. 15, 2022 and contains the following language: “This lease replaces the existing lease signed by both parties in October 2018.” Paret provided City Paper with the lease that was signed in October 2018, which says the La Coop lease expired Sunday.

Koffman argues it should be up to a court to decide which lease is valid. “The landlord’s actions equate to a so-called ‘self-help’ eviction, meaning he is trying to circumvent the courts and evict the tenant himself, which is not permitted anytime in the District, public health emergency or not,” he says. “Landlords are required to go to court to get an order to evict a tenant, and then need to have the eviction supervised by the U.S. Marshals Service.”

Ward 4 Councilmember-elect Janeese Lewis George was also at La Coop last night. Fabrico texted her when it seemed like Paret was going to authorize contractors to board up the business. George says she left Ida B. Wells Middle School immediately, even though voters were still voting. “I ran over and said, ‘Not tonight!” Fabrico and George had been in touch with George for a couple months. “We talked and she told me everything was going well and the community was great, but their landlord was bullying them,” George says.

George says she also confronted Paret. “He was like, ‘I own this property, I’m the owner of this property’ in a very aggressive way. Stefanie was crying. I was worried. There were people there with wood. Were they really about to board it up? Why are you doing this right now?” 

Once Salazar Cano posted his video on Instagram, concerned neighbors came by to show their support. George says they planned to form a human wall around the business to prevent workers from moving forward. That’s when, according to the soon-to-be councilmember, Paret “stormed off” the premises. “I don’t know why he kept yelling out laws that weren’t true,” George says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.” 

“This situation and the current events around the world are trying for all of us, landlords and tenants,” Paret writes in his emailed statement. He says he erected fences around all of his properties yesterday, not just La Coop. The eviction issue is separate, he argues. “It’s hard. My frustrations on election night got to me and I did not act appropriately or sensitively. I apologize for this. Going forward we will continue to work with the city and law enforcement to manage their relocation in a professional manner.”   

George was also in touch with 4B08 ANC Commissioner Alison Brooks, whose single member district includes La Coop. She says Coloma River owns several properties in the Kennedy Street NW business corridor, some of which are vacant.

 “There’s another property at 5412 1st Street NW that’s also owned by him,” Brooks says. “I’ve been interacting with him about that property too. It smells. It’s dirty. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been forthright with his interaction with regards to cleaning up that property.” (Paret did not respond to a request for comment about the status of this property.)

Gabriela Mossi, the executive director of Uptown Main Street, says she’s seen Coloma River signs up and down Kennedy Street NW. The developer’s website currently lists four major “under development” projects on Kennedy Street NW. Mossi is frustrated about what transpired last night. Her organization helped La Coop get off the ground. 

“We gave them assistance to get a $50,000 Great Streets Grant to rehabilitate the place,” Mossi says. “They had to have a solid business plan. We dedicated quite a bit of time helping them win that award and then supplemented it with a technical assistance grant so they could open the right way with the right marketing.” When she heard they were “being boarded up,” she says she rushed over to help. “Why would he want to do that to a thriving business who is not a nuisance?” Mossi asks. “This is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood.”

Brooks says she’ll volunteer to referee the dispute. “I’m not an attorney, but I am the ANC commissioner,” she says. “I represent both the owner and the tenant. I’d be happy to work as a mediator, but I don’t know if that can be accomplished. [Paret’s] tone last night did not imply that that would be possible.” 

The La Coop owners are worried that Paret will continue to take actions to evict them. “When the landlord tries to board up or deny entry to a tenant, it doesn’t negate the tenant’s tenancy,” Koffman says. “If he continues to disregard the law, what he’s mainly doing is further subjecting himself to personal liability and punitive damages that most landlords wouldn’t dare subject themselves to.”

At the same time, the couple says they’re hopeful that they’ll be able to continue operating. “We’ll be OK,” Salazar Cano said on the Instagram video. “You have to respect the law. That’s what leases are for. Other people have to learn from this too.”

“We had a bump, but we’re resilient,” Fabrico adds. 

La Coop isn’t the only coffee shop struggling with a landlord seemingly looking to make change. Yesterday, Pleasant Pops announced it would close its flagship Adams Morgan location on Nov. 28 because they received a vacate notice dated Nov. 1. The queer- and Black-owned business that opened eight years ago says the vacate letter follows “streams of rumors that several small businesses may be relocating to allow for the development of a large retail space along Florida Avenue.” 

Co-owner Afua Owusu says Pleasant Pops has been on a month-to-month lease for 1781 Florida Ave. NW that the landlord is not renewing. That it’s not a technical eviction is a loophole that doesn’t give Pleasant Pops much ground to stand on. “We definitely didn’t see this happening and so soon,” Owusu says. “Especially during the pandemic.” 

Owusu declined to name her landlord because she wants to maintain a good relationship with him. “As unexpected as this news is, he’s being generous in a way,” she explains. “He was helpful during the pandemic.” 

Property records show ALTURAS LLC owns the property at 1781 Florida Ave. NW. The address on file for ALTURAS is the MINT DC gym located next door. City Paper has reached out to learn more about who owns the space and understand the motivation for telling Pleasant Pops to pack up. 

“We would love to hopefully stay in the community in some capacity,” Owusu says. She was an employee at Pleasant Pops when she was getting her undergraduate degree. The original owners, Brian Sykora and Roger Horowitz, sold the popular popsicle shop and cafe to a group of former employees about a year ago. “Right now our focus is on supporting our employees and trying to close it off with a bang,” Owusu says. “Hopefully we’ll reemerge. We’re determined not to disappear from the D.C. community.”