Image by Der Berzerker licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s no secret that the District’s economic juggernaut and attendant population growth over the past 15-plus years have led to rapid gentrification and exploding housing costs.

The District has sought to address this problem in myriad ways, and much of the conversation has focused on increasing our stock of affordable units. Equally important, however, is preserving existing affordable housing by suing the slumlords trying to game the system at the expense of vulnerable tenants.

Left unchecked, these bad operators allow naturally affordable housing to fall to ruin, displacing residents and later selling the property for renovation and a profit.

Terrace Manor Apartments: a case study

My office has recently stepped up enforcement to protect tenants against these systemic abuses. Our recent win in a case involving the Terrace Manor Apartments in Ward 8 demonstrates what it will take to protect low-income renters from landlords who neglect and exploit them.

Since Sanford Capital bought the Terrace Manor Apartments in 2012, conditions at the property have steadily deteriorated. In fact, while 52 of the 61 units were occupied in 2012, by the time my office filed suit in 2016 only 14 units were still occupied. The tenants who remained were forced to live in deplorable conditions: a lack of heat and hot water, bedbug and rodent infestations, sewage leaks, mold, dangerous fire code violations, and unsecured vacant units that attracted crime.

Terrace Manor apartments. Image by Google Maps.

As we allege in our lawsuit, what these tenants experienced is unlawful; unfortunately it's also far too common. While most landlords play by the rules, some make neglecting tenants a core part of their business model. They collect rent and then refuse to make much-needed repairs, knowing their low-income tenants have few other options. And in overheated markets like ours, simple neglect may not be the only factor at play; often landlords deliberately scheme to push tenants out in order to turn a profit.

We know that, for slumlords in a real-estate market like ours, buildings are worth more empty than occupied. They want to force out rent-control tenants or they aim to empty a building to deprive tenant associations of their legally protected opportunity to purchase the building through the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). Once emptied, the landlord can go ahead with a high-dollar sale or a gut rehabilitation and redevelopment. 

In the Terrace Manor case, we and our partners worked to secure restitution for tenants. Those who were forced to live with—or forced to leave because of—deplorable conditions will receive an average of $9,500 each in rent refunds. Monetary penalties will be levied against the owner. We are now working with the new property owner, a responsible landlord, and have received assurances that it will rehabilitate the buildings and pay to relocate current tenants during that process.

How do we ensure that tenants are protected from circumstances like that which took place at Terrace Manor?

First, we need to support active and organized tenant associations willing to stand up, as well as the housing organizers, nonprofits, and private attorneys that help them do so. Landlords count on the fact that low-income tenants will be isolated, vulnerable, and easy to push around. But when tenants stand firm together, they can better apply pressure and bring lawsuits to vindicate their rights. They can also use important tools like the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which allows tenant associations to purchase their buildings, to create leverage and shift the balance of power. And together they can bargain for conditions above and beyond the minimum provided for by law.

Second, we need an active government willing to step in. The sad truth is that our most vulnerable citizens do not have the resources to defend themselves against slumlords. The power and resources of the government should be dedicated to holding landlords accountable. When we see that a landlord is profiting through neglect, we will sue to get a court-appointed manager to make necessary repairs and ensure that tenants get the safe and habitable housing that the law requires. We will also use consumer protection law to recover restitution for tenants who are harmed, and to penalize landlords who are not living up to their obligations under the law.

Finally, we need the majority of developers who follow the law to set the standard of conduct. Not all developers and landlords exploit renters, and many recognize that their success derives from the way they treat their tenants. These responsible developers and landlords should make clear that slumlords are not welcome in the business community.

Ensuring that all of our residents have the opportunity to share in the District’s growing prosperity is perhaps our most pressing challenge. I am committed to using all the tools at my disposal to do just that, and to ensure that people of all income levels can continue to call this city home.

Karl A. Racine is the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. He has focused on elevating the Office of the Attorney General into one of the nation's premier public-interest legal agencies, with special emphases on smart prosecution and justice reform; preserving affordable housing; protecting consumers; and ensuring public integrity.