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Why D.C. Government Favors Luxury Condos Over Affordable Housing in Congress Heights

By Justice First


On Wednesday, June 27th at 10:00AM, Congress Heights tenants and their lawyers will be back in court demanding an end to slum conditions, deceitful deals, gentrification and displacement. Join Justice First and the Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition in packing the courtroom! Address: 500 Indiana Ave NW, #518  Click here to RSVP

A major falsehood is being perpetrated by public and private sector supporters of the redevelopment project at Congress Heights: that the reason the District government refuses to use its powers to help a non-profit developer build 200 units of affordable housing there has nothing to do with the direct ties District government leaders have to a development group that wants to build luxury condos and offices in the same space. This lie is pushed despite the clear, deep political, financial, and personal relationships that facilitate exactly this sort of cozy relationship between public and private actors.

The actions of the District reflect that though since the beginning of the development process, the government has claimed it has little to no power to act, it has in fact helped facilitate the private business deal. A combination of continuing old practices and specific contemporary action have directly led to the current impasse, in which a massive affordable housing development is being held up by luxury condo investors.

The District’s actions to facilitate displacement and gentrification at the site start at the very beginning. The Office of Planning (often referred to as “OP”) has to certify that a project meets certain requirements to be presented to the Zoning Commission (often referred to as the “ZC”) for approval. Justice First has argued for years that the process by which the OP proceeds is highly problematic. Frequently, including in this case, it is very clear from the start that developers actually do not meet the requirements. In fact, most applications presented to the ZC take the approach of seeing what requirements they can get away with ignoring without getting caught. Often, the requirements that ‘fall through the cracks,’ as we’d be led to believe, have to do with providing affordable housing options.

In this particular case, often repeated around the District, it was very clear the development team’s proposal did not meet the statutory requirements for affordable housing – something the commission acknowledged right away when Justice First pointed it out at a ZC hearing. This reveals a larger issue: Why does OP not use its authority more broadly? The OP seems to take the position that if a proposal comes within the ballpark of these rules, the ZC can figure out the rest. This means, among other things, that many projects move forward with far less affordable housing than they are supposed to facilitate. The zoning experts on the OP and ZC know what the regulations are, but leave it to community members to point out shortfalls.

So just the process of getting to the ZC is weighted heavily toward developers and facilitates their attempts to do end runs around the actual zoning rules. This is a longtime process at OP and one that makes the Bowser administration, by allowing it to continue, complicit in this structural aspect of gentrification.

Next is the Zoning Commission itself. After a 2014 court case in which the D.C. Court of Appeals took the ZC to task, Washington Business Journal noted “The Zoning Commission has never rejected a PUD application before, and it does have a tendency to adopt applicants’ draft orders nearly word-for-word.” The court's own words in that case directly pertain to a central issue in the Congress Heights dispute: “Although we have not independently verified the precise calculation, we have no reason to doubt the … claim, which the developer does not dispute, that the commission’s order is an approximately 99.9% verbatim adoption of the developer’s proposed order...The commission even adopted almost all of the grammatical and typographical errors in the developer’s proposed order.”

The mayor, of course, appoints the majority of ZC members. If the ZC is pliable and amenable to the needs of developers to the extent that it is actually ridiculed for it in court, it seems fairly clear that the mayors who appoint ZC members must share a great deal of the blame. This is another example of legacy practices making the D.C. government complicit in displacement and gentrification.

More germane to this project has been the saga of 3200 13th St. SE. The building, which sits empty, sits on the same footprint as the other properties even though it is independently owned by the District. The first ask of tenants was that the District government, which has significant legal leverage due to unpaid loans, take control of the property and use their public ownership to help the tenants leverage non-profit developers to create significant affordable housing.

The District, despite admitting its ability to do so in a D.C. Council hearing, refused to do so. Then, after Congress Heights tenants were able to find a non-profit developer and set the stage for a large affordable housing development, tenants and their allies resurrected this demand.

Not only was the District unresponsive; it then secretly took control of the building. Once that move was brought into the open it seemed like the way was clear for tenants to not only exercise their rights to purchase their own buildings, but, with a little help from the District, for the way to be paved for 200 units of affordable housing.

In a public meeting with tenant leaders and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, the director of the District of Columbia Housing and Community Development Agency (DHCD) made it clear that while they have the power to work to promote the broader affordable housing proposal, that they prefered to place the property on the open market for anyone (read: Geoff Griffis & friends) to buy.

The District has the opportunity in this building to create a rare 100 percent affordable housing development - but through inertia; a government structured to facilitate displacement, slums and gentrification; and outright unwillingness to work with anyone other than a luxury condo development group, the District is instead blocking the way.

The real question is whether a web of business people and politicians so intimately connected and dependent upon each other can credibly be seen as not trading on those relationships to obtain the outcome they desire, at the expense of all other possibilities.

Click here to read the full Justice First report and click here to RSVP to pack the courtroom for Congress Heights this Wednesday at 10:00 AM.


Tell Mayor Bowser: Take Action for Congress Heights!

CLICK HERE to Tell Mayor Bowser to Take Action for Housing Justice at Congress Heights!

“What we are fighting for is our right to live in safe and affordable housing.”

-Ruth Barnwell, President, Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition

The Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition is the tenant association consisting of the residents of the buildings above the Congress Heights Metro Station in Southeast Washington, DC (1309, 1331 and 1333 Alabama Avenue SE Washington, DC, as well as 3210 13th Street SE Washington DC). The tenants have been living with conditions that threaten their health and safety as a result of the pattern of neglect that took hold as soon as Geoff Griffis (of CityPartners), and Sanford Capital, began working toward the redevelopment of the properties into luxury apartments and retail.

Over the past several years, as they personally endured abhorrent conditions and treatment, the tenants’ steadfastness unmasked a horrific pattern at Sanford buildings and impacted the conversation around affordable housing in the District. DC residents who are recipients of housing subsidies often struggle to find reputable landlords who will rent to them, and many have no choice but to live in Sanford Capital buildings. This means that Sanford Capital profits handsomely from taxpayer-funded subsidies and the affordable housing crisis.

The tenants’ struggle has led to public outcry, lawsuits filed by the Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, horror expressed by city officials at speeches, public hearings, and roundtables, and extensive media coverage. The Congress Heights properties have been subject to a receivership since September 2017, and Sanford Capital was ordered to ‘negotiate exclusively’ with the tenants regarding the terms of sale for a period of 60 days, starting on November 9, 2017. On December 27, 2017, Sanford Capital quietly transferred the properties above the Congress Heights Metro station to its own development partner for the proposed Congress Heights project: Geoff Griffis/CityPartners.  Griffis is now attempting to move forward the luxury redevelopment that has already caused great harm, and doesn’t reflect the wishes or participation of the residents who currently live on that land.

The Congress Heights Tenants’ Goal: Inclusive and equitable development at Congress Heights

The Coalition seeks to exercise rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, and partner with its chosen non-profit developer, National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corp., in order to redevelop this land in line with the vision and goals of the people who live there, and build nearly 200 truly affordable units above the Congress Heights Metro station.

The key to any redevelopment at the site is an abandoned building that is currently under the control of the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. We are in solidarity with Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition as they ask Mayor Bowser and the District of Columbia government to work with the community by transferring 3200 13th Street SE to the Coalition and its representatives in order to achieve a win in the struggle against displacement and for safe, dignified, affordable housing.

 

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Judge Mott Orders $50,000 to Congress Heights Receiver

On Friday, February 16th, DC Superior Courtroom 518 was packed with Congress Heights supporters. Judge Mott authorized a $50,000 payment to the receiver for the Congress Heights properties. The $50,000 is to be paid to the receiver in the short-term in order to address some of the immediate issues on the property, but will not address long-term solutions to the conditions issues at Congress Heights.

Additional funds will be asked for once ownership issues regarding the recent, possibly illegal properties transfer, are clarified. Judge Mott also made clear that it was essential that the tenants be able to live in safe, habitable conditions, until they are able to exercise their rights regarding the broader redevelopment. Tenants at Congress Heights continue to fight to exercise their TOPA rights in order to build 200 units of quality, affordable housing over the Congress Heights metro.

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Tenants have been unwavering in this fight, and have deeply appreciated the solidarity demonstrated by the broader community last Saturday in the pouring rain, and yesterday in the courthouse. In the coming days, the Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition and their attorneys will release a major update to the public, including a call for continued action in the fight to preserve and expand affordable housing at Congress Heights.

Yasmina Mrabet, Housing Organizer


ONE DC Featured on Loud & Clear with Brian Becker: The fight against slumlords in the nation's capital: Congress Heights tenants fight back

Listen to "The fight against slumlords in the nation's capital: Congress Heights tenants fight back" on Spreaker.

In cities nationwide, longtime working-class city residents face higher rents and increased pressure from landlords and developers. The nation’s capitol is no exception, and two groups are taking the fight to a developer’s own house this weekend, with a march up a main DC street in upper Northwest. The hosts talk about the details of the march and the broader picture of gentrification in DC. Yasmina Mrabet, a housing organizer with ONE DC, a leading organization in the group that put together Saturday’s march, and Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who is representing the tenants of Congress Heights, join the show.

Click here to listen to the interview with Loud & Clear's Brian Becker.


People's Platform: Call to Action for Congress Heights

Below is an update from our friends at Justice First. As part of our People's Platform call to action this month, ONE DC and Justice First are calling for continued action and solidarity with the tenants of Congress Heights! Join tenants and their supporters to pack the courtroom at their upcoming receivership hearing! RSVP here.

 
Justice First  
 

Dear Friend,

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This past Saturday, February 10th, 120 people defied rainy conditions to march on the home of Geoff Griffis, in solidarity with the tenants in Congress Heights he hopes to displace (check out a video report here). The march follows what appears to be an illegal transfer of the properties at issue and renewed attempts by Mr. Griffis to distance himself from the terrible treatment of the residents currently living on the site he wants to turn into luxury condos and offices.

This protest was crucial because Griffis, his business partner Ben Soto, and Sanford Capital have been engaged in a multi-year process designed to prevent tenants from exercising their right to purchase the buildings. Despite his current claims Griffis has been involved since the very beginning and only disappeared from the public eye when the slum conditions at the property became known.

The three business partners are peddling a whole range of untruths about what they plan to do at the property in a list ditch effort to push their plan through. Indicative of who they really are, as the rain poured down on the heads of demonstrators Saturday, some tenants were dealing with leaking ceilings that could not be fixed, why? Well the apparently illegal sale perpetrated between Sanford and Griffis has blocked payment to the court ordered receiver who is conducting the repairs.

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They have all the money in the world, and have even hired a slick new PR firm and have politicians in their pockets. So this march was designed to a send a message that not only will the Congress Heights tenants not back down but that we aren’t afraid to make public the real culprits behind the criminal living conditions and displacement plans at Congress Heights.

The struggle for justice at Congress Heights continues this week on February 16th at noon in Room 518 of DC Superior Court. That is the date for a crucial hearing where Sanford Capital will be forced to explain how the sale they engaged in was not illegal. We need to pack that courtroom with as many people as we can and make it clear that D.C. residents do not, and will not condone slums, displacement and unbridled gentrification..

In Solidarity,

Justice First



Justice First · 5614 Connecticut Ave NW, #149, Washington, DC 20015, United States
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Griffis Promotes Imaginary Luxury Development at Congress Heights

Despite engaging in numerous and potentially illegal tactics to circumvent the TOPA rights of existing tenants at Congress Heights, and despite violating an existing court order, Geoff Griffis, through his company "City Partners LLC," is touting an imaginary development proposal to build luxury apartments over top the Congress Heights metro. Previously, Sanford Capital also promoted luxury redevelopment plans at Congress Heights, and have since shut down their website due to their ongoing legal issues as the most notorious slumlords in Washington, DC. Their slumlord activities have been widely reported, including by the City Paper and the Washington Post.

In order for Geoff Griffis's company, "City Partners LLC," to move forward with his luxury redevelopment that would price out and displace current residents at Congress Heights, he would need the following:

  1. For the existing tenants to leave the property without exercising their TOPA rights, which the Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition have made clear they will not do, as evidenced by the fact that they have led and continue to lead this fight for the last five years.
  2. To have legal control over the properties, which is currently being challenged by the Attorney General's office, and under review by the tenants legal team, which includes Arnold & Porter and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
  3. To have control over the long-vacant building at 3200 13th St SE, which is under the control of the District government and also tied up in litigation.
  4. To have control over the WMATA parcel of land, for which Griffis currently does not have.

Strangely, Griffis continues with what Ruth Barnwell, president of the Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition recently referred to as an "obsession" with gaining control over this valuable land over top the Congress Heights metro, by forcing existing residents out. The tactics remain the same: forced displacement through slum conditions. As we previously reported, the recent and possibly illegal land transfer from slumlord Sanford Capital to Geoff Griffis not only circumvents tenant TOPA rights, but also forces tenants to continue living in slum conditions by interfering with a court-ordered receivership.

Tenants have been clear that despite Griffis's attempts to force them into agreeing to buyouts or forced relocations, that they will continue to fight to exercise their TOPA rights in order to move forward with their plan to work with premier non-profit developer NHT (National Housing Trust) to build 200 units of high quality, affordable housing in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in the nation's capital.

Earlier this afternoon, on the WPFW 89.3 FM show "Taking Action," hosted by Empower DC's Parisa Norouzi, featuring Congress Heights tenant Robert Green, we gave an overview and update of the ongoing tenant-led struggle at Congress Heights. Click here to listen.

Join us this Saturday, February 10th, as we take the fight for affordable housing directly to slumlord Geoff Griffis's doorstep, and stand in solidarity with the tenants of Congress Heights. RSVP here.

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To learn more about the tenant-led struggle at Congress Heights, including a full history, visit the Justice First website at www.justicefirst.org.

For the latest Congress Heights updates on the ONE DC website, check out www.onedconline.org/congress_heights.

Yasmina Mrabet, Housing Organizer


Griffis Hires Seven Oaks Media Group Amid Displacement Deal at Congress Heights

Following a recent and possibly illegal land transfer from slumlord Sanford Capital to their business partner Geoff Griffis, Griffis hired Seven Oaks Media Group. As you can see from their website, linked here, Seven Oaks specializes in crisis communication and media placement. Clearly, Geoff Griffis is attempting to wage a campaign in the media to obscure the facts, which are these:

1. Geoff Griffis’s latest move has forced tenants to remain in slum conditions at Congress Heights properties by interfering with a court-appointed receivership, which facilitates Griffis's continued attempts to displace tenants.

2. Geoff Griffis’s latest move has interfered with a court order instructing Sanford Capital to negotiate exclusively with Congress Heights tenants by selling their properties to NHT (National Housing Trust), in order to prevent displacement and build 200 units of affordable housing.

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Click here to hear directly from Congress Heights tenant leader Robert Green, as he provides an overview of Griffis's dealings.

Stand in solidarity with Mr. Green and the Congress Heights Tenants Association:

MARCH AGAINST SLUMLORD GEOFF GRIFFIS

Saturday, February 10

12 Noon

Meet at Cleveland Park metro station

(RSVP)

To learn more about the tenant-led struggle at Congress Heights, including a full history, visit the Justice First website at www.justicefirst.org.

For the latest Congress Heights updates on the ONE DC website, check out www.onedconline.org/congress_heights.

 

Yasmina Mrabet, Housing Organizer


Congress Heights Residents Plan March Against Slumlord

By Yasmina Mrabet, ONE DC Housing & People's Platform Organizer

Two days after Christmas, on December 27, 2017, real estate developer and slumlord Geoff Griffis cut a back door deal with long-time partner and fellow slumlord Sanford Capital in an attempt to acquire their properties at Congress Heights, via an irregular and possibly illegal land transfer. This attempted transfer is a desperate and last minute move by Griffis to circumvent two Court orders that would have otherwise resulted in either a negotiated agreement with Congress Heights tenants to prevent displacement and jump start the building of 200 units of affordable housing, or, a $2 million payment to the court to be used to repair the property as part of the ongoing receivership action.

This shameless attempted transfer of property from Sanford Capital to Geoff Griffis also took place during a 60-day period within which the court ordered Sanford Capital to negotiate exclusively with Congress Heights tenants via their chosen non-profit developer, NHT (National Housing Trust). In response to this latest maneuver by Geoff Griffis, Attorney General Karl Racine filed a contempt motion against Griffis in an effort to expose the underhanded nature of this latest displacement tactic.

To be clear: Griffis's intent is to stop money from being paid to the court by Sanford Capital (his partner), thus preventing desperately needed repairs that would protect the health and well-being of Congress Heights tenants. Moreover, the move is designed to prevent tenants from being able to exercise their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), thus depriving them the opportunity to take control of the redevelopment process for themselves.

This usurping of tenant rights in the midst of an affordable housing crisis prevents tenants from doing exactly what TOPA was designed for, namely, giving the tenants a legal tool to prevent their own displacement, and also, to preserve and expand affordable housing in their own community.

Geoff Griffis is willing to subject Congress Heights tenants to continued unsafe, unhealthy conditions in order to push forward a luxury development plan at the expense of community interests. However, Congress Heights tenants are in the midst of fighting back. Their legal team, including Arnold & Porter and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is actively working to dispute Griffis's attempts to circumvent TOPA and the receivership.

Justice First and ONE DC are gearing up for mass mobilization in support of affordable housing and against displacement at Congress Heights. Tenants have worked for four years in order to control the land in their community. This is a line in the sand and a battle that cannot be lost. Join us at noon on Saturday, February 10 as we march on the home of slumlord Geoff Griffis!

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Click here to RSVP


Geoff Griffis Attempts to Usurp TOPA at Congress Heights

Two days after Christmas, on December 27, 2017, real estate developer and slumlord Geoff Griffis cut a back door deal with long-time partner and fellow slumlord Sanford Capital in an attempt to acquire their properties at Congress Heights, via an irregular and possibly illegal land transfer. This attempted transfer is a desperate and last minute move by Griffis to circumvent two Court orders that would have otherwise resulted in either a negotiated agreement with Congress Heights tenants to prevent displacement and jump start the building of 200 units of affordable housing, or, a $2 million payment to the court to be used to repair the property as part of the ongoing receivership action.

This shameless attempted transfer of property from Sanford Capital to Geoff Griffis also took place during a 60-day period within which the court ordered Sanford Capital to negotiate exclusively with Congress Heights tenants via their chosen non-profit developer, NHT (National Housing Trust). In response to this latest maneuver by Geoff Griffis, Attorney General Karl Racine filed a contempt motion against Griffis in an effort to expose the underhanded nature of this latest displacement tactic.

To be clear: Griffis's intent is to stop money from being paid to the court by Sanford Capital (his partner), thus preventing desperately needed repairs that would protect the health and wellbeing of Congress Heights tenants. Moreover, the move is designed to prevent tenants from being able to exercise their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), thus depriving them the opportunity to take control of the redevelopment process for themselves.

This usurping of tenant rights in the midst of an affordable housing crisis prevents tenants from doing exactly what TOPA was designed for, namely, giving the tenants a legal tool to prevent their own displacement, and also, to preserve and expand affordable housing in their own community.

Geoff Griffis is willing to subject Congress Heights tenants to continued unsafe, unhealthy conditions in order to push forward a luxury development plan at the expense of community interests. However, Congress Heights tenants are in the midst of fighting back. Their legal team, including Arnold & Porter and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is actively working to dispute Griffis's attempts to circumvent TOPA and the receivership.

Justice First and ONE DC are gearing up for mass mobilization in support of affordable housing and against displacement at Congress Heights. Tenants have worked for four years in order to control the land in their community. This is a line in the sand and a battle that cannot be lost.

What can you do?


Click to hear directly from Congress Heights tenant association president Ruth Barnwell about Geoff Griffis's role at Congress Heights and what you can do to help fight back.

 

March Against Slumlord Geoff Griffis

Saturday, February 10th

12 Noon

Gather at Cleveland Park Metro Station

RSVP

Please contact Yasmina at ymrabet@onedconline.org or 202.441.5172 if you would like to be part of the volunteer team organizing this action.

 

Yasmina Mrabet, Housing Organizer


Tenant-Led Accountability Action at the Wilson Building

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Tenants from Brookland Manor, Dahlgreen Courts and Congress Heights came together on Tuesday, June 20th for an action at City Hall where they got Ward 5 and Ward 8 council members Kenyan McDuffie and Trayon White on the public record with regard to underhanded displacement tactics and slum conditions tenants face at the hands of wealthy developers.

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Click here to view a video of the tenant association presidents from each property giving their summary of the action and what it means moving forward.