7/20/18 Newsletter: Major Victory for Congress Heights Tenants!

In this week's newsletter, we highlight a major victory for Congress Heights tenants, the latest updates in the struggle against slum conditions at Montana Terrace, a public housing property in Northeast Washington, D.C., and a LinkUp interview with 10 year old Marianna Richardson, tenant at Brookland Manor.

As always, Justice First's aim with this newsletter is to expose a highly organized economic and political system that consistently puts the profit interests of private corporations over the human needs of the people. The D.C. housing struggles exemplify the blatant corruption, collusion and fundamental inequity of a system organized around money rather than around people.

Major Victory for Congress Heights Tenants!

One of the most high profile housing fights in recent years has been led by a coalition of tenants at Congress Heights in Southeast Washington, D.C. The Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition has continuously fought against slumlords at Sanford Capital and their long-time business partner, Geoff Griffis of City Partners. The purposeful neglect of the Congress Heights properties was an attempt on the part of slumlords to displace tenants from the community by forcing them into unlivable conditions. Sanford Capital and Geoff Griffis have long had a plan to demolish the buildings at Congress Heights and replace them with unaffordable luxury apartments, commercial office space and ground floor retail. Congress Heights tenants have long stated their intention to exercise their TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) rights in order to work with the National Housing Trust, a premier nonprofit developer that would build an alternative vision: 200 units of quality, affordable housing in a historically working class neighborhood in the heart of Ward 8.

Clarence Taylor, tenant at Congress Heights, holds a protest sign at a demonstration outside of Cleveland Park Metro station ahead of a march to slumlord Geoff Griffis's house. Also pictured to his right, housing organizer Caroline Hennessy, and to her right, Robert Green, also a tenant at Congress Heights. Photo credit: Yasmina Mrabet

The efforts of Congress Heights tenants, with the support of their team of attorneys coordinated by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and team of organizers led by Justice First, including Caroline Hennessy, organizer at Housing Counseling Services, garnered the attention of Attorney General Karl Racine, who took steps to sue Sanford Capital and put the property into receivership. During the receivership, D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Mott ordered exclusive negotiations between Sanford Capital and the Congress Heights tenants over a 60-day period. During that 60-day period, Sanford Capital transferred the Congress Heights properties via a "deed in lieu" to their long-time business partner, Geoff Griffis of City Partners. Tenants, represented by William Merrifield of the The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, sued both Sanford Capital and City Partners in partnership with Arnold & Porter for violating their TOPA rights through what amounted to an illegal sale of the properties. Meanwhile, a civil contempt motion was filed by the Attorney General for the violation of a court order.

Throughout the course of the fight to save affordable housing at Congress Heights, Sanford Capital was exposed as one of the most notorious slumlords in the city, and it was revealed that hundreds of families were being exited from the city's sub-par shelter system into slum properties owned by Sanford Capital through the failed rapid rehousing program. Political connections and the city's deals for luxury development projects are highlighted in a recent Justice First report: Why D.C. Government Favors Luxury Condos Over Affordable Housing in Congress Heights.

The role of political connections is further exposed by the Washington City Paper, which obtained a telling email in which Geoff Griffis responds to concerns of investors backing his luxury redevelopment plan at Congress Heights:

"A valid and important question. As we discussed when we met, we have and have had a strong plan to align political and social elements involved in making our projects and this project in particular a success. There are no guaranties [sic], and I don't want to underestimate the work it will take to put this development back on its proper course, but we do have the ability to communicate with this administration and other City leadership. As recently as the last week in April the Mayor asked me to join her for the Wizards game at which questions of Congress Heights progress and potential positive outcomes were discussed...Last Wednesday the Ward 8 Council Member ask [sic] us to his office for an update on the development progress...We have not requested these meeting [sic], and we have a receptive audience at this point, but we can only discuss what we would like to happen, rather than moving forward with actions."

These political connections have not been able to save Geoff Griffis, as City Partners was ordered by Judge John M. Mott to pay almost $900,000 to rehabilitate the Congress Heights property. Judge John M. Mott additionally found that Geoff Griffis of City Partners and Cartner Nowell of Sanford Capital were working together to sell the property out from underneath the tenants. Justice First is excited to announce to our supporters this ruling is a MAJOR victory for Congress Heights tenants who have for over five years endured sewage back ups, trash pile ups, and mold infestation that has compromised their health, safety and security, as they have fought against displacement and for the affordable housing needs of their community.

The fact that a total repair of the Congress Heights property has been ordered is of critical importance to the tenants. This court order, and money judgement contained in it, ensures that Geoff Griffis cannot benefit from backroom deals and political connections to clear the tenants out of their homes without allowing them to exercise their TOPA rights and live in habitable conditions. This is a significant step in the direction of  achieving the goal of building 200 units of quality, affordable housing as an alternative to the unaffordable, luxury apartment vision of politically connected developers. Tenants will continue to need community support but THIS IS BIG! We will continue to keep the public informed of this fight, and encourage our supporters to make a donation to help us generate the resources necessary to continue our work with Congress Heights, and with tenants and tenant associations across the nation's capital fighting displacement and slum conditions in the midst of a city-wide affordable housing crisis.

We are emphasizing to the public that the insidious manner by which Sanford Capital allowed Congress Heights and other properties to deteriorate into slums is a common practice used as a means to displace the working poor. It is used not only by private developers, but by the District of Columbia Housing Authority, which acts as a known slumlord overseeing the city's public housing stock, for example at Montana Terrace in Northeast Washington, D.C.

Montana Terrace Update

Justice First will continue to feature a weekly update on the living conditions of two families at Montana Terrace, a public housing property in Northeast Washington, D.C., managed by the D.C. Housing Authority. Reporting on Montana Terrace began three weeks ago with interviews that exposed mold, infestation and depression -- the result of a combination of public housing neglect by the Housing Authority and the city-wide affordable housing crisis perpetuated by the city's policies which serve developers' interests.

Last week was our third update on the status of the families of Yahvon Early and Gretchen Helm, both of whom have suffered in slum conditions at Montana Terrace for years.

We are publishing updates on the status of Ms. Early and Ms. Helm and their units on a weekly basis, to demonstrate to the public the length of time and the unbelievable level of follow up and pressure required to force the city to act to protect its own residents, whose health and safety has been greatly compromised. This week, Ms. Early and Ms. Helm were featured on the July 17, 2018 segment of "Taking Action," a WPFW radio show hosted by Parisa Norouzi of Empower D.C.

Current conditions inside of Gretchen Helm's unit at Montana Terrace, Northeast Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Francis Tatem.

7/19/2018 Update - Yahvon Early

Yahvon Early and her daughter, after living with continued exposure to biotoxins and more recently a collapsed ceiling for over a month, were moved into temporary housing at a hotel on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington, D.C. pending a rehab of their unit, scheduled for completion next Wednesday, July 25. Though Ms. Early was assured by the Housing Authority that she would have a first floor room, as required by the needs associated with her disability, she was forced to walk up five flights of steps to reach her room, which was on the fifth floor rather than the first. She was later moved to a unit on the second floor, which still did not meet her disability needs. This past Sunday, July 15, Ms. Early was informed by hotel staff that she would be forced out of this temporary living arrangement because they "do not allow pets," despite the fact that hotel policy states that service dogs are excepted, and Ms Early has a U.S. registered service dog. Ms. Early and her daughter, having nowhere to go, were forced to stay with a friend until a Housing Authority representative was able to work out an understanding with the same hotel, which they returned to on Tuesday of this week. Meanwhile, Ms. Early has received no information on the results of a mold inspection ordered by the Housing Authority and completed back in early July.

7/19/2018 Update - Gretchen Helm

On Friday, July 13, a Housing Authority representative arrived unannounced at Gretchen Helm's residence, claiming that she was there to complete "an inspection." The representative initially refused to provide her full name, and refused to provide a phone number at which she or her supervisor could be reached. Ms. Helm was given no information on the purpose of the inspection, which consisted of the Housing Authority representative taking a few pictures of some of the conditions present in the unit. There has been no further information provided to Ms. Helm and her family, who have been waiting for results of the city-ordered mold inspection of her unit which took place on July 2, 2018. The living situation in her unit remain the same, where Ms. Helm and her young children are, as reported last week, trapped in a mold and mice infested unit. They continue to suffer from skin rashes, respiratory illnesses and other health conditions.

Video: LinkUp Interview - Youth Speaking Up: Marianna Richardson, tenant at Brookland Manor

A video interview with 10-year-old tenant at Brookland Manor, Marianna Richardson, who has actively participated in the organizing campaign at Brookland Manor, regularly attending Resident Association meetings, testifying at the Zoning Commission, speaking at protests, flyering and gathering petition signatures in the neighborhood, and organizing with other youth in the community. Marianna’s interview highlights the fact that the youth in the Brookland Manor community are not only affected by the redevelopment plans but are also quite aware of what is happening around them.

Watch the video and share the link 


Click to watch the LinkUp interview with 10-year-old tenant at Brookland Manor, Marianna Richardson.

Donate to Justice First to support our work with tenants fighting slum conditions, displacement, and gentrification.

—Yasmina Mrabet

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