Angry Congress Heights’ residents and community representatives told D. C. Council members that the property management company responsible for four affordable housing units in Southeast Washington is negligent. They report the company is purposefully not repairing the property in an attempt to force out residents so it can develop the units into a more lucrative property.
Residents and Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Affordable Housing Initiative for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, on Feb. 4, told council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and members Anita Bonds (D-At-large), LaRuby May (D- Ward 8) and Elissa Silverman (D-At-large) that Sanford Capital had intentionally and criminally failed to provide basic services.
Residents said the company intentionally failed to prevent or fix sewage backups in the basement of the buildings, provide heat and hot water in the apartments during winter months, and sufficiently address rodent and bug infestation.
“I firmly believe that Sanford’s neglect in these properties is absolutely intentional,” Merrifield said. “Over the course of my representation, there has been a clear pattern engaged by Sanford Capital whereby once pressure is applied to them, they make very modest repairs in order to seem like issues have been addressed, only to intentionally allow things to fall apart a few months later.”
Nearly 20 residents and community representatives testified during a public hearing at City Hall. The hearings follow the District attorney general’s decision to file a lawsuit against Sanford Capital for engaging in “repeated neglect, delayed response, or total inaction.”
Even before the testimony, Silverman told the audience that the residents’ issues and Sanford’s management style was cause for concern. “It should be concerning to all of us – to the council and to the city – about what’s happening to these residents around the Congress Heights Metro station,” the councilwoman said. “It’s outrageous, it’s unconscionable, and, if our attorney general is correct, it’s criminal. We, as a government, should not stand for it.”
Representatives from Sanford Capital, based in Bethesda, Maryland, did not speak at the hearing. The management company owns the four buildings in Congress Heights and is looking to utilize a fifth for redevelopment. Its plans require demolition of all of the existing buildings to make way for a 442,000-square-foot, multi-use project that would include apartment buildings and retail.
Congress Heights resident Robert Green, one of the few tenants left in the buildings, testified that a good landlord could easily fix the ailments at his property. “The real problem is that Sanford doesn’t fix up the building, because they are trying to get us out of our homes anyway they can,” Green said. “If the housing authorities make me move, Sanford will get exactly what they want; empty buildings to tear down and then luxury apartments for rich White people.”
Green said he wanted to stay in the area because it allows him access to grocery stores, a library and other amenities. “I have neighbors who check in on me,” he said. “The list goes on and on, and I and other tenants like me should have the right to enjoy these benefits.”
According to the city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), the owner of a multi-unit apartment building must send a written offer to tenants to purchase a unit in the building. The owner must also send a letter to the mayor prior to selling or demolishing the building. Sanford Capital is required to give TOPA notice to remaining residents, but only if they give notice of demolition.
Residents told the council members that they want to exercise their TOPA rights so they’ll be able to afford to rent their Congress Heights apartments, even with redevelopment. “Sanford is very intentionally trying to wait people out before they have to give TOPA notices,” Merrifield said. “They’re trying to empty the building so they don’t have to give TOPA notices.
Council member May, who represents the Congress Heights community, along with economist William Michael Cunningham, said they felt that Congress Heights was another example of systematic efforts to remove certain populations from the District, and the city council is doing little stop it.
“The Black residents in all of the properties where we have slum lords know, very real, that this council would have never let White people in any other part of the city live in conditions like this for as long as poor Black people have been living in this building,” May said, “and it is unacceptable for that to happen.”