This post is part of an ongoing series about Brookland Manor, a controversial development project just east of the Rhode Island Metro station that epitomizes the complex dynamics of building housing—especially affordable housing—in DC.
Some tenants at Brookland Manor say management and a former security company mistreated them, and that the owner, who wants to develop the property, is trying to push them out. This post takes a look at those allegations.
Here's a recap of what Brookland Manor is and what's happening there
Brookland Manor is a 20-acre apartment complex just north of the Rhode Island Metro station. The owner of the site, MidCity Financial Corporation, has plans to redevelop it. Most of the current tenants are low-income and receive government rental assistance of some sort. There are questions about how much affordable housing the new project will have.
A government contract that will expire later this year stipulates that 373 of Brookland Manor’s 521 available apartments must be rented to low-income tenants. The remaining roughly 150 apartments have low market rate rents, which has allowed people who hold government housing vouchers (meaning they also don’t make very much money) to live at Brookland Manor for decades. MidCity says that those apartments don’t count as “affordable housing.”
The company’s redevelopment plan includes 373 affordable apartments, replacing those that are currently part of the government contract, which it will renew. The replacement set will have fewer multi-bedroom, “family-size” units, however, which has become the subject of a federal housing discrimination lawsuit. MidCity plans to let rents rise in remaining 150 units, and says that if residents with vouchers are to stay, DC government will need to pay more in rent subsidies.
Initially, MidCity put forward a plan that would have built 436 affordable units. But both DC’s Zoning Commission and its Office of Planning said that plan was incongruent with the District’s Comprehensive Plan because the buildings would have been too tall. Rather than try to change the Comp Plan, MidCity downsized its proposal.
Today, MidCity is waiting on zoning approval for its current plan, while tenants are pushing for full replacement of the existing affordable apartments. Some tenants also say management has been trying to push low-income residents out so that it doesn’t have to re-house them as part of the redevelopment. MidCity denies this.
MidCity employs both a property manager and private security at Brookland Manor
MidCity contracts with Edgewood Property Management, a sister company started by MidCity’s founder. In the past few years, MidCity hired private security guards at Brookland Manor, a move the company says was needed because of crime in the complex. The guards patrol the whole complex; they’re supposed to keep the peace, monitor some lease violations, answer calls from tenants, and summon DC Police if they want someone arrested.
For roughly two years, MidCity employed a security firm called Code 3 Security; in March, it hired a new company. In the last year, MidCity erected a fence around occupied buildings in part of the complex, saying that was also in response to crime.
Tenants and advocates say this is part of a “massive displacement campaign”
Tenants say property management and Code 3 Security employees have harassed them as part of an intentional effort to push them out of the complex to save on redevelopment costs (Note: Code 3 Security decline to comment for this post). The fewer tenants living at Brookland Manor, they say, the fewer people MidCity will have to temporarily house during construction, or accommodate with affordable units in the redevelopment. MidCity denies this.
The tenants’ allegations break into two groups:
- That Edgewood is bringing lots of eviction lawsuits against residents for petty lease infractions, in an effort to get rid of them, bother them enough that they decide to leave on their own, or tarnish their “good standing” as tenants, which MidCity says will be a requirement to return to the redeveloped property.
- That the former security firm harassed them in part for similar reasons.
A 2016 investigation by The Washington Post, titled “Facing eviction over $25,” suggests some of the tenants’ claims have merit. That article shared tenant stories and corroborating evidence of harassment by employees of the security company. Among other things, it included court records that said a security guard sexually harassed a resident and texted her photos of his genitals.
The Post also found that Edgewood sued tenants to evict them at an increasing rate over time, and that a growing share of these suits were brought against tenants who owed less than $100 in overdue rent. Similarly, over the three nine-month periods the Post reporters observed, suits filed for lease violations increased.
In both interviews and public testimony before the Zoning Commission on February 23rd, here’s how tenants described their experiences at Brookland Manor:
[It] seems like we are prisoners in here. They’ve fenced us in.... The security said we can’t sit on the porch and so we sat on the dirt, then they said we couldn’t sit there so we sat on the sidewalks, then they said we couldn’t go out at all…. [a company official] told us we could take our vouchers and go to Southeast or North Carolina.
Some of the tactics they have used to push us off the property include the security guards. In all the time I've been at Brookland Manor there have never been security. When they first came we were told it was for our safety, but I found out that it was to sweep us out of the community… They harass people for things like leaning on the fence, stepping on the grass, standing with kids at bus stops. They say when we come out we have to stand in the "tree box" which is an area between the street and the sidewalk....
Last year, March 14, 2016, my boyfriend hit me, and busted my forehead open…. I went to court and got a stay away order. A week later I got an infraction letter stating that he wasn't allowed on the property anymore. So I received a notice of infraction because he hit me.
The fences that I mentioned that MidCity put up make handicapped and disabled people have to go so far to get where they need to go.
I've seen people harassed by security for leaning on the gate and stepping on the grass. They come up to you for no reason telling you that you need to move… I got a notice that my mom was banned that I would be evicted if she came to visit me… In another incident, I got an infraction notice for having my rug in the hallway drying on the rail because I had washed it… Despite all of this security harassment, there have been many times when I've seen the security guards buying drugs from drug dealers that they say they want off the property… emergency exits are blocked by the fences. MidCity is putting our lives at risk.
Ms. Shanell McNamee:
You have to ask security to let you in [to the playground]. Which is weird, because it’s a playground… It’s just kind of scary and frustrating when you don’t know what you can and can’t do. So that’s why I… try to not to be outside for too long, because then you’re loitering… I try to keep inside as much as possible because I don’t want to run into any issues.
The quote from the headline of this post also comes out of public testimony about the conditions at Brookland Manor.
Other tenants said security guards swore at them and prevented their friends from parking in the neighborhood when visiting (Edgewood’s policy is to ticket and tow unpermitted cars before 7 am and after 7 pm). They said security liberally issued then inaccurately enforced “barring notices” that keep people from visiting friends and family.
I did talk to a few seniors who said they hadn’t encountered any problems, and said they liked the idea of having security on site, though they also acknowledged that their neighbors seemed less happy. Other tenants said that the timing of when MidCity’s decision to hire security was a surprise, as crime occurred during the decades before the company hired the firm.
What MidCity says about crime and the tenants’ accusations
MidCity says that this decrease is the result of “natural attrition”: falling occupancy due to the company’s decision not to fill vacated apartments, rather than efforts to push residents out. The company’s leaders maintain that its eviction rate is standard for the industry, about 1.5% per year.
Since the Post article came out, MidCity has replaced the old security company with a new one and started holding monthly “security meetings” with residents, partly, the company said, in response to complaints from tenants.
In an email, MidCity said a survey the company commissioned showed that, of the residents contacted, 84% thought Edgewood treated them with respect. The company didn’t share similar results about tenants’ views of current or former security conduct at the time this post went live, saying the material was proprietary.
The company said that the decision to hire security was in response to crime around the complex. In an interview with Washington City Paper, for example, MidCity Vice President Michael Meers referred to murders he said occurred “in the shadow” of Brookland Manor. MidCity has said that the complex’s layout provides cloistered areas conducive to crime; it also partly blames the “concentration of very low-income residents.” From the 2014 application to Zoning Commission:
In many instances, the causes of these crime problems can be traced to the urban design of the original Brentwood Village apartments as well as the concentration of very low-income residents.
The company also offered some more specifics about what being “in good standing” (and therefore able to return to the completed project) means. Specifically, it said tenants won’t be removed from Brookland Manor except through the eviction process. Lease violation notices, which tenants and their lawyers say employees have issued for sitting outside or standing by building entrances, won’t alone tarnish their “good standing,” the company said.
Finally, on the fence: tenants say that the fence around the occupied buildings is a fire hazard, and that it could trap them in a violent situation. MidCity says it’s an appropriate response to people (not necessarily residents of Brookland Manor) fleeing arrest through the complex on foot.
The number of eviction suits at Brookland Manor has trended upward since the Post investigation
The Post’s investigation ended in March 2016, so I spent a few days at the courthouse digging up more recent cases.
In the nine-month period that followed (April-December 2016), Edgewood filed another 133 eviction suits. While the share filed for lease violations fell, the overall number of suits rose seven percent. The share of suits filed for late rent payments less than $100 continued to increase. I found several suits filed for less than $25, including one for $17.44.
The left three bars in the chart below show data compiled by the Post; the right bar is the subsequent nine-month period, compiled for this article.
With respect to the $25 eviction suits, Jamie Weinbaum, MidCity’s Executive VP, said the company is obligated under its Section 8 contract with HUD to ensure residents pay at least a nominal amount of rent. And for families with virtually no income, he said, $25 constituted the entirety of their rent.
“That means zero payment of any rent,” he said. In other words, he’s saying MidCity/Edgewood needs to sue these no-rent paying tenants to fulfill the company’s Section 8 contract obligations to HUD.
In the Post article last year, Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson, said this in response to Midcity’s explanation: “[That’s an] extreme and highly unusual interpretation of our rules… I mean, come on, you think a federal agency is going to compel a landlord to sue someone over $25? That’s just not correct. . . . HUD has no interest to make a family homeless over $25.”
Lisa Wolfe, a HUD spokesperson, told me the agency stands by that position. “Nothing in our regulations and/or statutes governing our operations states that a property must evict for failure to pay nominal rent.”
Several experts and former HUD officials I spoke with also said these eviction suit practices sounded unusual.
What do experts and the data say about MidCity’s crime rationale?
The graph below shows DC police data on crimes committed within about three-tenths of a mile from Brookland Manor’s address (2423 14th St NE) between 2010 and 2016.
It’s worth noting that most of that jump in property crime is due to an uptick in thefts, from 20 in 2012 to 111 in 2013. But 58 of those happened near the Home Depot down Brentwood Road while another significant portion took place across Rhode Island Avenue or at the nearby strip mall (take a look here) rather than in Brookland Manor itself.
Looking at the same data, the Post wrote that crime was “relatively stable [over time] in Brookland Manor’s immediate neighborhood.” If you shrink the search radius to 1000 feet around Brookland Manor (about one-fifth of a mile), the upward tick disappears:
A veteran MPD officer whose precinct includes Brookland Manor said that the area has had elevated crime rates for a long time. But the officer also pointed out that some of the issues derived not from the complex itself, but from the nearby strip mall, which included a liquor store and a needle exchange (MidCity bought that property in 2015 and demolished it). The officer couldn't say exactly how many folks at Brookland Manor were involved in theft, drug dealing, gambling, or other activities, but said that some portion of the offenders didn't actually live in the complex.
Zoning Commissioner Anthony Hood, who lives near the complex, said something similar at MidCity’s May 2015 PUD hearing: “We've got to be very careful of where we think crime is coming from because it might not all be coming from Brookland Manor.”
Some of MidCity’s language seems to suggest that 535 affordable apartments would mean significantly more crime than 373; the company has posed that as a reason not build 535 replacement affordable units.
When asked about potentially incorporating 535 affordable units into the redevelopment, a spokesperson said, “There is a point at which adding more subsidized units beyond those needed for our existing residents is simply recreating the concentrated poverty that we know from experience does not breed an environment for success.”
Gustavo Velasquez, Director of the Urban Institute’s Washington-Area Research Initiative, said this about the alleged link between crime and affordable housing:
You hear repeatedly the argument that low-income housing means more crime and lower property values, but studies show time and time again that this argument doesn’t hold true. As former Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing at HUD I spent a lot of time debunking this myth by showing evidence of the contrary.
His colleague Peter Tatian added that “we’re just talking about maintaining [the affordable housing that’s] there,” and that the affordable units, as a proportion of total housing on site, would fall even if MidCity kept all 500+ currently affordable apartments because the plan triples existing density.
Tatian also mentioned that preserving existing affordable housing would be less costly to DC government than trying to create affordable housing later, after Brentwood becomes expensive.
In other words:
- To the extent that Brookland Manor’s existing architecture facilitates crime, the redevelopment would change that architecture.
- Some of the existing crime problems have stemmed from the surrounding commercial and public spaces, rather than the complex itself.
- Experts take issue with the idea that setting aside 535 apartments as affordable in the redevelopment would necessarily lead to significant crime problems.
- What’s more, a 535-apartment affordable housing complex is different from a mixed-income 1,800-apartment complex with 535 affordable apartments. And 2000s-era Brentwood will be different from its 2030 rendition.
Brookland Manor also raises broader questions about DC government’s goals, and its responsibility to improve the lives of vulnerable Washingtonians.
Forty-two percent of children in Brentwood are poor, according to the Census. Many of them live at Brookland Manor. Preserving more affordable apartments—keeping low-income residents in Brentwood as it becomes rich in amenities—would likely bolster their health and educational opportunities.
Conversely, as Tatian pointed out, reducing affordable housing at Brookland Manor may not diffuse poverty from DC government’s perspective, but instead further concentrate it in the city’s southeast quadrant, where displaced Brookland Manor families would likely move.
Individuals within DC government recognize this possibility. The Office of Planning said the government and MidCity should work together to achieve 1-for-1 replacement of the existing 500+ affordable units. But Councilmember McDuffie, the Mayor, the Zoning Commission, the Public Housing Authority, and the Department of Housing and Community Development are yet to publicly propose any specific ideas to make that happen.