Southeast D.C. Tenants Say Their Apartment Complex Is Crumbling Due To New Management Woodberry Village is one of many properties in Southeast D.C. that has faced housing code violations.
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NPR logo Southeast D.C. Tenants Say Their Apartment Complex Is Crumbling Due To New Management

Southeast D.C. Tenants Say Their Apartment Complex Is Crumbling Due To New Management

The list of grievances from residents at the Woodberry Village apartments in Southeast D.C. is long: no heat in units since October; apartments infested with mice; mold and mildew climbing the walls; and ceilings caving in. Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist

The list of grievances from residents at the Woodberry Village apartments in Southeast D.C. is long: no heat in units since October; apartments infested with mice; mold and mildew climbing the walls; and ceilings caving in.

But when Shayla Mack, a tenant and president of the apartment complex's tenant association, reached out in October to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs — the city agency that investigates reports of housing violations — she received what she says was a "retaliatory" letter from the Woodberry Village property manager, Monikk Miller.

"As a result of your personal disdain for me, you choose to bypass this office and report your concerns directly to DCRA," Miller wrote in the letter, which has been reviewed by DCist. Miller also called Mack "defiant and non-compliant." Since then, Mack says she has received more letters from Miller.

"Mack has been spinning the 'retaliation' narrative for some time now," Miller says. "As I mentioned, she believes the rules don't apply to her and when she is held accountable for her antics, she plays the victim." (Mack says that she informed Miller's office of her concerns.)

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Faced with persistent housing problems and a management company they say has ignored them, residents at Woodberry Village — a complex of 17 apartment buildings in the Shipley neighborhood of Ward 8 — have spent months organizing and pushing for better conditions. They've reached out to Mayor Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Karl Racine and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. One resident has filed a lawsuit. In inspections, DCRA has found multiple housing code violations at the property and fined them thousands of dollars.

Tenants tell DCist that the previous owner, WC Smith, responded quickly to maintenance issues via an emergency hotline at the aging residential complex. But since the New York-based Capital Realty Group purchased the buildings last March, around the same time that COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were imposed, they say those responses have become slower and inadequate. Capital Realty has moved some tenants to a Red Roof Inn hotel for weeks at a time, and others into a neighboring apartment building with what residents say are similar but less egregious maintenance issues, residents tell DCist/WAMU.

Capital Realty, which owns and operates more than 15,000 affordable housing units in 27 states, did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email, Miller, the complex's property manager, says complaints for everything from mice to mold are few and far between, and when residents raise them they are promptly addressed. She also says the entire complex is undergoing more significant upgrades and repairs.

"Woodberry Apartments is currently undergoing a total project renovation, close to $10,000,000, and it's expected to be completed this summer," Miller tells DCist, adding that the renovation will include new roofs, windows, HVAC mechanical systems, floors, paint, kitchen cabinets, and appliances.

Latasha Kelly, 44, says she hasn't had heat in several months and her electric bill is $1,000 per month because she keeps the stove on and plug-in heater running. Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist

Tenant Latasha Kelly, 44, says that her heat hasn't worked for several months — and her electric bill is $1,000 per month because she keeps the stove on and plug-in heater running.

Kelly was furloughed in March, and just started working a part-time job in December. Sometimes she says her uncle helps her to pay for groceries. Other times she will go to Mack's house when money is tight.

"Thank God that I have good friends. Some days I went over [Mack's] house to eat," she says. "I really was nervous after COVID happened with me losing my job."

Mack says that she's advocating for residents like Kelly by speaking up in her role as president of the tenant association.

The Woodberry Village Tenant Association was started by Housing Counseling Services in 2018 when WC Smith put the property up for sale. The association's role was initially to try and buy the building under the city law that gives tenants the right of first refusal, but after that fell though it changed gears to negotiate with the incoming owner through a memorandum of understanding about the work needed to renovate the property.

"They made this grand presentation about renovations and what they were going to do. Then once the renovations started, it wasn't what was proposed," says Mack, who says new appliances, floors, bathrooms and fixtures, security doors, and parking lot lighting were promised.

Stephanie Bastek, a D.C. housing organizer with Stump Out Slumlords, says it looks to her like the landlord could be trying to push residents out.

"What landlords will do is refuse to bad fix conditions or let the building deteriorate because it's either better to just let the building degrade, flip it entirely, [then] push people out, and just bulldoze and rebuild," says Bastek.

Woodberry Village is one of many properties in Southeast D.C. that has faced housing code violations. Jameel Harris, a spokesman for DCRA, says fines have been assessed against Capital Realty for violations inspectors found at the property.

"[DCRA] has issued the landlord more than $50,000 in fines since November 2020," says Harris. "Upon receiving reports of no heat at the complex on February 2, 2021, DCRA immediately conducted same-day inspections that resulted in further fines," adding that some tenants were given space heaters or temporarily relocated.

"I am not able to speak to any of the violations. They go directly to the attorney," Miller tells DCist/WAMU.

DCRA reported that areas east of the Anacostia River have the highest number of housing violations in the District.

As the city has grown in recent years, there have been growing concerns over gentrification east of the river. Once known as Chocolate City, D.C. has seen a decline in Black residents due to gentrification and rising housing costs. In 1960, the Black population was 70 percent, but currently that number has dropped to about 46 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But residents at Woodberry Village are lobbying to make sure their neighbors aren't moving out or suffering in poor living conditions.

Cornelia Hill has lived at Woodberry Village for 24 years. She once lived in a different unit that had issues with mice and mold, but she says that WC Smith responded and addressed maintenance issues immediately. Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist

Starting in October, Cornelia Hill, 63, reached out to Bowser, Councilmember White, Racine, and DCRA, not just because of issues with her apartment, but also because she's concerned about her neighbors.

"I look at it like this: It was never about me," Hill says. "I don't want them in here freezing. ... I have heat, but to go to bed at night and we talking about people freezing."

Hill has lived at Woodberry Village for 24 years. She once lived in a different unit that had issues with mice and mold, but she says that WC Smith responded and addressed maintenance issues immediately.

In October, Hill was moved into a new unit in the same building. She says the new unit was "halfway renovated" with new floors, cabinets, and stoves, but the toilet has clogged over 30 times and the electric outlets are a fire hazard.

Hill says that DCRA came to inspect her apartment in early February.

"[The inspector] put her indicator in [the outlets], and it indicated that they're all negative and they should be positive, so that is [a] fire hazard," she says.

Hill says that she stopped reaching out to Miller and instead hired a plumber who costs $60 per month to unclog the drains that caused her toilet to not flush.

Hill says while she's reached out to city officials, she hasn't seen any change.

In October, Hill was moved into a new unit in the same building. She says the new unit was "halfway renovated" with new floors, cabinets, and stoves, but the toilet has clogged over 30 times and the electric outlets are a fire hazard. Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist

Racine's office says in a statement it is aware of resident complaints at Woodberry Village. Marrisa Geller, Racine's press secretary, declined further comment "because our investigation is ongoing."

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White's office confirmed to DCist/WAMU that it has been contacted by Woodberry tenants more than five times since December 2020 and has spoken with Miller about addressing the issues raised by residents.

"Ms. Miller's reply was that they were in the middle of renovation and that they did not want to fix issues twice," says Wanda D. Lockridge, White's chief of staff. Since then, Lockridge says her staff has reached out to D.C. Department of Human Services, the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and DCRA.

Mayor Muriel Bowser's office did not respond to DCist/WAMU's requests for comment.

Residents who once reached out to government agencies say they are changing their approach, and are now reaching out to grassroots organizations for support.

"Trying to fight the system individually by filing DCRA complaints, calling the landlord, or trying to get your councilmember to do something doesn't really result in anything," says Bastek. "The only results that we've seen as an organization come about when tenants collectively protest the landlord [or] go on rent strike."

Frustrated with the pace of repairs, Hill says she reached out to Rhonda Hamilton, the founder of M.I. Mother's Keeper, a nonprofit that researches the economic and social conditions that lead to gun violence.

In February, after Hill reached out about what was happening at Woodberry Village, Hamilton interviewed residents on video about apartment conditions. Earlier this month, Hamilton also led a protest in front of DCRA. Last week, Hamilton released a report titled "The Woodberry Village Travesty" and is circulating a petition demanding that the apartments be repaired and renovated. Hamilton has also reached out to Byron Johnson, Bowser's Ward 8 liaison, requesting that every apartment in Woodberry Village be inspected immediately.

"I'm so grateful that this new organization has stepped up to help us because it seems like they have done in two weeks what all the other meetings [with Capital Realty] have not been able to accomplish," says Jackie Chisolm-Jones, 60, who has lived at Woodberry Village for 25 years. "I think [Rhonda Hamilton] has been effective because she actually has it on camera."

One senior that Hamilton interviewed on camera is Sherby Black, 66, who has lived at Woodberry Village for 42 years.

In January, Black's bathroom ceiling caved in. Before that, she says, the tub and toilet ran over twice, leaving feces on the bathroom floor and in the tub. Currently, she says there are a number of concerns with the apartment such as mildew and mold growing in the windows and mice climbing from under the carpet.

Earlier this month, an exterminator left Black about 30 mouse traps, and she says she finds four mice caught in the traps everyday. She says she boils water and keeps the stove open to heat the apartment because the heat hasn't worked since October.

"My utility bill for this month is $205 because I had mold in my closet, so [Capital Realty maintenance] came and put a heater in here to get the mold out, and they had it running for five days," says Black. "I told [Miller] she would have to pay it partially."

Sherby Black, 66, says she boils water and keeps the stove open to heat the apartment because the heat hasn't worked since October. Also, Black says an exterminator left about 30 mouse traps, and she says she finds four mice caught in the traps everyday. Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Aja Beckham/WAMU/DCist

On Monday, Black's attorney, Matt Dander of Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, told DCist/WAMU that a lawsuit was filed against Capital Realty earlier this month. "It's against Capital Realty and alleges that there is a lack of heat in the unit and that there is mold that needs to be inspected," says Dander.

Dotson says that the case was withdrawn Wednesday "because the repairs [are] being made," including fixes to the drywall. The heat is also currently working in the unit. (Black is still at the Red Roof Inn until she can safely move back in.)

In her email to DCist/WAMU, Miller says that complaints about mice and mold have been addressed quickly. And she says that issues with the heat not working in some of the units have been resolved. "We recently had issues with the heat in 2 of the buildings with the old system and resolved it," she wrote. "The city inspected last week and the temperature in all units was 72."

Despite all the problems at the property under new management, tenants say they aren't moving because they've been there for decades, while Capitol Realty just came in March.

"I don't think [residents] should have to move like people have been on this property for 20 and 30 years," says Mack. "I've been on this property for 17 years and this is the worst this property has been. ... You shouldn't have to move because your landlord is not doing what they're supposed to do."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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