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A Virginia-based developer seeking to turn a single family home into an eight-unit condo building has been accused of housing discrimination and blockbusting, an old tactic of real estate professionals that historically played on racist fears of White homeowners in order to turn a profit.
In July of 2020, Hossain Kamyab bought the right half of a semi-detached home at 4457 MacArthur Boulevard NW for $1.1 million. His real estate agent allegedly offered $900,000 for the left half, 4459 MacArthur Boulevard NW, but the owner, Dr. Dawn Lea, was not interested, according to a letter from the Equal Rights Center, a civil rights nonprofit organization.
The letter claims that the realtor, Cyrus Damavandi, attempted to intimidate Lea by noting the impending construction and “risk of possible damage and loss of property value to her home.” Damavandi disputes that characterization, saying he spoke with Lea about selling her house, but her asking price was too high.
“She’s claiming the next door neighbor is bullying, saying ‘we’re going to make a lot of noise.’ That’s not the case,” Damavandi says. ‘She actually said ‘if you build, I can make it very difficult for you to build.’ I said, ‘OK, the only reason they’re giving you an offer is because you don’t want to be next to a construction site.’ If you talk to her, you can tell she’s the one who has a bullying personality.”
Efforts to reach Lea were unsuccessful.
In August, Lea put her house on the market and stuck a Coldwell Banker sign in her yard. The next day a sign appeared in Kamyab’s yard next door. It read: “SECTION 8 & STUDENT ACCOMODATION [sic] COMING SOON.”
“Section 8,” a federal housing voucher program, is often used as a proxy for low income, often Black residents, and multiple residents in the area contacted the Equal Rights Center with concerns that the sign was an attempt to influence the sale of Lea’s home. The center is currently investigating the matter, says its executive director, Kate Scott.
On Wednesday night, ANC 3D voted unanimously to refer the allegations to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Human Rights for investigation.
Blockbusting is a deceitful and racist tactic. Historically, estate professionals would convince White homeowners to sell for below market value by telling them that Black residents would soon be moving into the neighborhood. Along with redlining and racial covenants, blockbusting contributed to White flight and deepened neighborhood segregation. The tactic was outlawed under the federal Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968, and in the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977.
Kamyab did not respond to LL’s email, but he denied the allegations at ANC 3D’s January meeting, when he made his case for a special exception to zoning regulations. He said he abandoned the plan to provide low-income and student housing after an agent advised that he could make more money by turning the property into condos.
“[We] got some concepts drawn up with regards to what we could get out of it, [and] we ended up concluding that it was better to invest more money into this project and create a higher-end development,” Kamyab said last month. “And that’s what we opted for, and we changed that strategy, basically.”
Damavandi, the real estate agent, backs up Kamyab’s claim that he had originally contemplated renting the property to voucher holders or students. He acknowledges that putting up a sign advertising housing for voucher holders was “[not] a very professional move.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s ANC 3D meeting, Kamyab’s attorney Gwendolyn Roy-Harrison emailed 3D commissioners seeking to postpone last night’s vote. “We expect to resolve this matter with the ERC directly and suspect no further ‘investigation’ shall be necessary,” Roy-Harrison wrote. She did not return a phone call or respond to an email from LL seeking comment.
The Equal Rights Center’s letter, sent to Kamyab in January, asks for evidence that he intended to provide units for voucher holders or students, as well as an explanation “of why you chose to post the sign when you did and why you chose to remove the sign when you did.” The sign allegedly remained in the yard from August to October or November.
Scott says Roy-Harrison promised to respond to the questions but so far has not done so.
Still, Scott points out that even if Kamyab did not engage in blockbusting, housing providers cannot discriminate based on a person’s source of income. “It would be illegal for him to advertise that he’s only renting to voucher holders,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kamyab’s application for a special exception to the zoning code is pending before the Board of Zoning Adjustment. He plans to build an eight-unit condo building with a fourth floor penthouse. The ANC has yet to weigh in.
Lea, who has lived in her home since 1993 and ultimately decided not to sell it after listing it over the summer, spoke in opposition to the plans during the ANC’s January meeting.
“I’m afraid I’m going to lose my home, in more ways than one,” she told the ANC in January. “I’d like to say that the actions by this developer…directly towards me, have been unscrupulous. And I don’t expect these behaviors to change toward me or towards our community at large. They frankly don’t care.”
Commissioner Ben Bergmann (3D08), who initiated Wednesday’s letter requesting that the attorney general investigate, says that he’s generally supportive of Kamyab’s plans, though he acknowledges the likely negative impact on Lea.
“Referring it [to the attorney general] allows the ANC to address it and ensure it’s addressed properly,” he says. “Teasing that apart from the merits I think will allow for that discussion to be focused on whether or not a project should be opposed because of the burden it places on the direct neighbor, which I think is undisputed, and whether that outweighs the benefit the community would get from adding middle housing, which is sorely needed.”