'Forced Out' Exposed the Dark Side of D.C.'s Condo Boom. Have Property Owners Cleaned Up Their Act?
Post Investigations is proud to note that Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen have been awarded the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for their investigation of D.C. condominium conversions. Their multi-part report "Forced Out" chronicled the dark side of the city's condo boom, exposing loopholes in laws meant to protect tenants and documenting serious flaws with the District's Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs. Cenziper offers us an update on the investigation.
Post Investigations: Your stories focused on tenants who have been forced out of affordable housing in the District of Columbia by property owners who either misled residents about their rights or neglected properties to the point that they became unlivable. Can you remind us how landlords were able to exploit loopholes in the city's housing laws to empty their buildings?
Debbie Cenziper: All over the city, we found construction crews turning empty, rent-controlled apartment complexes into high-end condominiums. We wanted to know: What happened to the tenants?
Through research, we discovered that nearly three decades ago, the city created a law that gave tenants the right to vote on whether rent-controlled apartment complexes could be sold or converted into condominiums. The law is one of the strongest of its kind in the country, and was meant to give tenants a voice in the city's redevelopment. It also requires property owners who convert to condominiums to pay a fee that would help displaced families find new homes.
But landlords found a way out — with vacant buildings, they could avoid the tenant vote and the tax. For years, housing advocates and tenants have complained that landlords were driving tenants from their homes in a dangerous way: refusing repairs or forcing families to live without heat, water or electricity.
Our investigation, which spanned a year, chronicled those efforts. We found that newly emptied buildings in the city [interactive map] had been racked by 3,000 housing-code violations, including leaks, broken stoves, splintered floors and cracked walls. Nearly 40 buildings had no heat, electricity, water or air-conditioning. In three cases, tenants had no place to bathe. One crumbling complex in Northwest was set on fire late at night, forcing a mother and her children to escape down a third-floor drain pipe. The arson investigation is still pending.
With empty buildings, the investigation found, landlords displaced hundreds and families and reaped $328 million in condominium sales — while avoiding $16 million in conversion fees.
Post photographer Michael Williamson helped to document the conditions at buildings across the city. At one complex in Southeast, we found an 11-year-old boy named Trenton who had lived for four years without heat. Raw sewage teeming with maggots covered the basement floor. The owner of the building told us during an interview, "I want it vacant. If I didn't have tenants, then I could sell it."
Despite thousands of complaints, the city delayed inspections and failed to fine negligent landlords, including several with prominent ties in the region. The city also could have used a $16.5 million repair fund to clean up distressed buildings, but instead spent much of the money repairing privately owned, single-family homes — some valued at more than $500,000.
Post Investigations: What has the city response to the series been?
Cenziper: The City Council and Mayor responded quickly, declaring the protection of tenants a top priority. Two weeks after the first stories were published, the Council repealed the loophole in the law that had allowed landlords to convert to condominiums and avoid the conversion fee once buildings became vacant, saying it created a "perverse incentive" for property owners to force tenants out.
The Attorney General sued landlords at 23 of the city's most neglected buildings, forcing the correction of more than 2,000 housing-code violations. The mayor fired 16 housing inspectors — half the city's inspection force — and announced the city for the first time would inspect every rental building in the District. In December, eight D.C. Council members introduced "The Tenant Protection Act of 2008," a law that would force the city to use the repair fund at neglected buildings.
Post Investigations: "Forced Out" also documented major flaws with the city's Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs, which is supposed to enforce housing codes that protect D.C. tenants. For instance, records from 2007 showed that the agency handled just half of tenant complaints during the required 48-hour window, though officials claimed a 76 percent response rate. Has the agency made any improvements in staffing and oversight?
Cenziper: It depends on who you ask. DCRA has a fairly new director, Linda Argo, who has been making a steady series of changes at the agency. But DCRA is a huge and complex agency, and we occassionally still hear complaints about delayed housing inspections and a lack of accountability among landlords. DCRA Online »
Post Investigations: The series also detailed the financial dealings of developer H.R. Crawford. Once considered a champion of affordable housing, several development projects overseen by Crawford are delayed or have been tainted by questionable spending. What is Crawford up to these days?
Cenziper: We are not sure Mr. Crawford is up to now. At the time of publication, he had partnered with larger, more experienced developers to complete several stalled affordable housing projects.
Post Investigations: Many property owners maintain that they follow the letter of the law in their dealings with tenants. What resources you would recommend for tenants to learn more about their rights?
Cenziper: It's important to note that many landlords are responsible property owners who care about their tenants. Landlords say they face many challenges in a city that supports rent-control. They have to maintain their buildings while collecting low rents, and at times, deal with unruly tenants who don't take care of their homes.
That said, tenants with problems can turn to a small group of housing advocates who have been working for years on this issue. Among the nonprofit groups with housing advocates: Bread for the City, Housing Counseling Services and the Latino Economic Development Corp.
By Amanda Zamora |
March 19, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
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