jonetta rose barras: In Congress Heights deal, DC officials speaking with forked tongue
Citizens often are confronted with the nauseating reality that their government — elected officials and agency managers — speak with forked tongues, saying one thing and then doing something entirely different. That kind of unethical behavior inspires public distrust.
In March 2017, for example, during her State of the District speech, Mayor Muriel Bowser seemed to stand in solidarity with tenants at a Congress Heights apartment complex on Alabama Avenue SE, who were engaged in an intense development battle with slum landlord Sanford Capital and its partners, including CityPartners LLC, owned by Geoffrey Griffis. She threatened to take Sanford to court. Attorney General Karl Racine already had begun that process, however.
Bowser also promised then that the District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA) would soon be available. Approved by the DC Council years earlier, DOPA has been perceived by advocates, tenants and others as a powerful tool to preserve affordable housing — but at that time, regulations weren’t ready to implement the policy.
Despite Bowser’s pledge, DOPA still hasn’t been implemented today. More egregious, the mayor’s director of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) recently pulled the proverbial rug out from under the Congress Heights tenants.
On June 13, DHCD director Polly Donaldson approved at a bargain-basement price the sale of 3200 13th St. SE, a former apartment building that Alabama Avenue tenants had expressed interest in purchasing. That building is adjacent to their complex, within spitting distance of the Metro station and the Wizards practice facility.
The sale’s agreement is between DC and the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corp. — a nonprofit organization founded by Phinis Jones and headed by Monica Ray, two political allies of the mayor.
“What the government did by not working with the tenants [has] made it hard for them and easier for people like Geoff Griffis,” said Will Merrifield, staff attorney for the Affordable Housing Initiative at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Jones and Ray got a sweet deal. Ray, though, dismissed that characterization when we spoke earlier this week, noting that the DHCD deal is built around their agreement with the original owner.
Judge for yourself: The original owner received a government loan of $920,000 but eventually defaulted. Rather than recouping those funds, the Bowser administration sold the property to Ray and Jones’ organization for $420,000.
Could it be they were given favored treatment? It’s not as if the DHCD didn’t already have a relationship with Ray and Jones.
Congress Heights Training and Development Corp. has received several grants from the housing agency, according to information the Office of the Chief Financial Officer provided upon my request. In 2017, Ray and Jones’ organization, with approval from the DHCD director Donaldson, won three grants totaling $429,166. This year, they have received two grants totaling $734,643 — more than the purchase price for the 13th Street SE building.
The group has until Oct. 5 to present DHCD with a development plan for the 13th Street property. The 12-unit building had an initial covenant that mandated reserving all apartments for households qualifying at 30 percent of the area median income level. DHCD has altered that covenant, permitting Ray and Jones’ organization to reduce that requirement and allow for 51 percent of the apartments to become available for households at 80 percent of the area median income.
So much for preserving low-cost housing.
Jones and Ray seem to have played the long game, hatching a scheme to acquire property on the cheap, possibly flipping it and walking away with loads of cash. That plot was fueled by Sanford and Griffis’ proposal to build a mixed-use development on the Alabama Avenue SE property. The partners first had to push out or buy out tenants and then raze the buildings. They sought support, through a community benefits agreement, from various neighborhood leaders and business owners. Jones and Ray’s organization stood to receive as much as $75,000 under that agreement.
Meanwhile, Jones and Ray strategically moved to gain ownership of that corner lot that would be critical to the Sanford-Griffis project, negotiating their agreement with the original owner of 3200 13th St. SE. The city’s housing agency jumped into the middle of that, taking possession of the property instead of foreclosing.
Determined to realize their deal, Ray and Jones sued the original owner for breach of contract. Then, shrewdly, they pulled the city into that litigation. DHCD eventually acquiesced.
Ironically, DHCD’s settlement with Ray and Jones’ organization was negotiated with assistance from the attorney general’s office. Why would Racine facilitate a deal that clearly could disadvantage the nearby tenants he has been defending for nearly two years?
That question went unanswered. Racine made clear in a written statement to me that based on CityPartners’ negligent actions at the Alabama Avenue complex, which imperil “the health and safety of tenants,” along with violations of various court orders, “we believe CityPartners should not be part of any redevelopment agreement for this property, and we are carefully monitoring that situation.”
Despite any perceived implications of the 13th Street deal, Ray said her organization is “not working with CityPartners.” She sidestepped questions about whether she and Jones would consider selling the property to Griffis in the future. “It’s going to be a great site for affordable housing. I’m excited about that,” said Ray.
Merrifield, the tenants’ lawyer, said, “Call me cynical. I’ve been working on the project for six years. The players that have been around this project are all committed to seeing it get built. They are going to fold this into the broader redevelopment.”
He may be right. If that happens, Ray and Jones will have converted a puny investment of a few hundred thousand dollars into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, allowing them to get over like fat cats.
The Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition, meanwhile, will be left with broken promises from government officials who never really intended to help rescue them.
jonetta rose barras is a DC-based author and freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.