jonetta rose barras: Unethical developers in DC
The way local developer Geoffrey Griffis has been talking, an uninformed observer might conclude he is the victim in the Congress Heights apartment saga that has played out in the District for the past several years. DC Attorney General Karl Racine, residents who live at the apartments on Alabama Avenue SE, and their lawyers know better, however.
Reviewing published news reports and other documents, it’s fair to assert, I think, that Griffis and his former partner, Sanford Capital, have exhibited, over the years, inhumane and unethical behavior, inspired by unadulterated greed in pursuit of mixed-use development near a Metro station.
Equally troubling: Executive branch agencies, including the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, have failed to provide protection and relief to abused and neglected residents. That responsibility has fallen to Racine and his team.
In 2016, the AG filed a lawsuit against the Sanford property after the media reported that tenants were living in squalor. As part of that ongoing litigation, DC Superior Court Judge John Mott earlier this summer ordered Griffis’ company, CityPartners 5914, to provide $895,159 by Aug. 13, 2018. That money was to finance a repair plan prepared by the court-appointed receiver that includes critical roof replacement, window installations and mold remediation at the Ward 8 apartment complex.
“I can’t post $1 million in 30 days,” Griffis told me in a recent interview.
Cue the violins.
Griffis’ empty-wallet lament is laughable. He had protested the judge’s order. Unsurprisingly he chose to blow the deadline. He sent a note to the receiver indicating that he could only come up with $52,000 to help relocate the residents. The idea of relocating tenants already had been rejected.
Racine and his team filed a motion on Aug. 15, essentially asking the court to hold Griffis in “civil contempt.”
Until December 2017, Griffis had been mostly a behind-the-scenes partner. That was when Sanford decided to ignore Mott’s order that the company negotiate with residents for the sale of the Congress Heights property. Instead, Sanford transferred ownership of the complex to Griffis’ CityPartners.
“The banks called me and asked if I would step in and buy the notes,” said Griffis. “I was going in and trying to do the same project; I think [it] is great for the community.”
Call that gigantic cheek.
Griffis apparently has decided to forget about the plight of tenants. He has decided to forget about the litigation and various court rulings. He is determined to be faithful to his original dream of a mixed-use development at the Congress Heights site. He says the project would include affordable housing and bring new amenities to the neighborhood.
In pursuit of that vision, Griffis and his former partners strategically and systematically neglected the apartment complex and endangered the residents. They concluded, it appears, that refusing to make repairs would eventually lead residents to move. They also sought to buy out those who remained. Some tenants would not be persuaded to take the money and run; they wanted to invoke their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) to buy the property.
Griffis, playing the innocent, said he has tried to meet with tenants, but they have refused his offer. He has, however, met with a developer with whom residents were hoping to work.
’We put together an outline, so we can move forward,” said Griffis. “It’s not me keeping [the tenants] from doing the whole project or a piece of the project.”
“I want to sell it,” he added.
That’s all doublespeak.
Griffis told me he wants to enter into a joint venture with the tenants’ developer. Short of that, Griffis said he wants the remaining residents to take a buyout. He said they could move into new units in other parts of the city; he would cover any difference in the rent. The tenants could move back to the complex after it has been renovated, he said, “at the rent they are paying today.”
“I am trying to do the right thing,” said Griffis.
Fortunately, the tenants are not easily bamboozled.
Most people in the city appreciate what Racine and his team have been doing to protect renters against unscrupulous landlords and rapacious developers. Using the courts to work out issues like those at the Congress Heights apartment complex can take what seems like forever, however.
Mayor Muriel Bowser and the DC Council could provide an assist to the AG. There are a variety of blunt instruments that could be used to persuade developers like Griffis to alter their bad behavior to become good corporate citizens.
The government could revoke CityPartners LLC and CityPartners 5914’s license to do business in the city. It could debar the company, making it impossible for it to win any contracts.
Griffis pushed back when I discussed those options with him. “That would be destructive to the city,” he said. “I think I’m a huge asset for the city.”
Really? Who is he talking to?
jonetta rose barras is a DC-based author and freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.