A picture of Robin McKinney
Robin McKinney for Street Sense Media in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 2021 Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice/Choice Photography.

Last Friday, Karl Morrison — one of the 46 homeowners displaced from their properties at 1262 Talbert St. SE because of dire safety concerns — received the keys to his new two-bedroom apartment in Navy Yard.

A housing certificate offered by the city will cover the rent for his apartment, a monthly cost of $2,777, for up to one year.

Housing certificates are different from housing vouchers, according to D.C. officials. People with housing vouchers are not allowed to apply them toward units priced above the “rent reasonable” value, as determined by the D.C. Housing Authority for each neighborhood. Renters who have housing certificates, however, may apply them to properties priced above the “rent reasonable” value while covering the difference on their own. People interviewed for this story used “voucher” and “certificate” interchangeably, as vouchers are often used as a general term for housing assistance.

At an estimated 920 square feet, Morrison said, the two-bedroom apartment is far from the amount of space he hoped to have and is several hundred square feet smaller than the three-bedroom condo he was forced to leave after an engineering firm declared the property unsafe in late August.

Though he’d been spending nights at a hotel that his homeowners insurance company paid for — the firm required him to meet with an agent weekly to verify that his Talbert Street town house was still unsafe to live in — it ended up denying his claim for “loss of use.”

This headache is just one of many bureaucratic hurdles Morrison and others have struggled to navigate over the past few years since purchasing their properties and being forced to evacuate them. In an attempt to better understand what went wrong with the properties and how the city is helping the affected families, Street Sense Media and The DC Line reached out to the developer, local government officials, real estate agents, and a half-dozen homeowners.

Picture of a crack in the Talbert Street town houses

Robin McKinney for Street Sense Media in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 2021 Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice/Choice Photography.

What went wrong with the buildings on Talbert Street?

Norika Hill remembers the day she closed on her home at 1262 Talbert St. SE, part of a development on a hillside near the Anacostia Metrorail station in Ward 8. It was the proudest day of her life. At 27, she had already achieved a dream she had long strived for becoming the first person in her entire family who had ever owned a place of their own.

“I finally gave my son something that I didn’t have growing up,” she said, explaining that she struggled with homelessness during her childhood.

But by July, four years after she moved in, Hill’s dream had become a nightmare. A single mother, Hill said she was one of the last homeowners at the complex to encounter structural issues. One day, her 12-year-old son saw a wet spot on the first floor of their town house.

Soon, she began waking up with swollen eyes, a severe cough, and hives all over her body. Her house was damaged by mold. She took her son and left to stay with her uncle. Ultimately, it became overly burdensome for Hill to take her child to the private school he attended in Northeast D.C. They are now staying at her boyfriend’s home as she searches for a place to use her housing certificate, which the city issued on Oct. 1.

Like many others interviewed for this story, Hill said she wasn’t prepared to meet with the sudden problems that arose. Almost all of the residents were first-time homebuyers who qualified for the District’s affordable housing programs.

Unlike Hill, Morrison experienced severe issues with his town house for years. Soon after he moved in during the summer of 2017, his elderly mother hinted at the problems he would face.

“She came in and she was like, ‘Well, your floors are crooked,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’” he said, not believing her given that the building was still new.

It was not long until Morrison discovered that his whole house was shifting. Over time, he could no longer open his balcony door unless he had a crowbar to pry it open. His windows stopped shutting all the way.

“It’s like you’re living in a carnival funhouse where everything’s a gag or a joke because nothing works,” Morrison said.

In the letter denying his homeowners insurance claim, State Farm said it hired an independent engineer to review the matter.

“The damage was determined to be caused by improper design and/or construction of the segmental retaining wall which is allowing for soil erosion and earth movement which is resulting in settlement of the building,” the denial states. “Earth movement and the failing of the segmental wall also caused damage to the sewer drain pipes resulting in the drains leaking causing further erosion and settlement.”

A total of 28 homeowners filed insurance claims, but only one has been approved, with seven other claims remaining open, according to an email from the city’s multi-agency task force that is charged with helping displaced residents from Talbert Street SE. All other claims were denied.

In Morrison’s case, the denial letter offered no advice as to where else he could turn.

A picture of a crack in a foundation

Robin McKinney for Street Sense Media in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 2021 Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice/Choice Photography.

Several groups claim something below the foundation caused the buildings to deteriorate

The rapidly deteriorating condition of the properties on Talbert Street is the subject of a lawsuit filed against the city, the homeowners association, and the developer earlier this year. However, in August, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the city — which had provided funding through the Housing Production Trust Fund as well as approved construction and occupancy permits — and the homeowners association were not legally liable for what happened at the property. Further, Stanton View Development LLC and River East at Anacostia LLC, the developers, filed for bankruptcy, so the claims against them are now on hold.

An engineering report prepared by Falcon Group — a firm hired by the homeowners association to determine what went wrong at the property — also identifies the soil’s composition as a factor in the poor stability of the building’s foundation.

“The building failure has been caused by soil subsidence that can be related to loose compaction and slippage of soil toward the bottom of the slope,” the Falcon Group report says. “The exact zone and location of soil failure cannot be determined until this subsurface investigation is conducted.”

One of the owners of Stanton View Development LLC, Don Lee, declined a request for comment. The other owner, Jerry Vines, did not respond to phone or email contact. (River East at Anacostia LLC shares the same ownership.)

A former Stanton View business development manager, Vaun Cleveland, also declined to discuss the project. He worked at the company from October 2014, just before the first construction permit from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) was issued, until February 2016, about 10 months before final inspections were completed by a third-party inspector, the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS). Cleveland next worked for then Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May, according to D.C. Council personnel records. May, an attorney, is representing a group of nine Talbert Street homeowners in their suit against the city — her sister LaDonna among them.

A different point of view: What a former employee for the developer has to say

One former Stanton View employee, however, agreed to an interview with The DC Line and Street Sense Media. Kimmel Daniel, the former vice president of construction, has worked in construction for 20 years. He said that he has never once come across problems like those that ensued at 1262 Talbert Street SE.

“To me, it’s got to be something dealing with what’s under the actual foundation itself,” Daniel said. “Because we looked at the footers and we looked at the foundation walls, and they looked like they were built properly.”

Daniel, who worked at the company from 2016 to February 2021, said the foundation and retaining walls were already built by the time he arrived at Stanton View.

It was only after homeowners moved in, Daniel said, that the company became aware of the unusual settlement that led to cracks and deterioration of the homes. The company learned of the issues upon receiving calls from the new residents two to three months after they moved into their houses in 2017, according to Daniel.

After being notified of cracks opening up in floors and walls, Daniel said the company took immediate action and hired structural engineers to evaluate the conditions of the properties. He said the company proceeded to follow the instructions they were given to fix the homes, only to see the problems resurface later.

In their lawsuit, however, multiple families made claims that the developer did not immediately respond to all requests for maintenance and repeatedly claimed the issues homeowners saw were the result of the normal process of settling.

Further, the engineering report by Falcon Group characterizes the corrective work done by Stanton View as “band-aid repairs” that “did not address root causes of the issues, and because of their superficial nature, could not repair the building to industry standards.”

Daniel pushed back on that assessment, claiming the company followed the appropriate procedures and passed all city-required inspections that evaluated its work.

In a previous article, The DC Line and Street Sense Media reported that DCRA said third-party inspectors from IBTS were responsible for construction inspections at the site. Since soil conditions are “not included in the standard regulatory inspections by IBTS,” the agency said the company was not at fault.

Public data from DCRA shows that the vast majority of inspections in the city are conducted by third-party inspectors without direct agency oversight. For fiscal year 2021, 85% of the 67,797 inspections citywide were completed by third-party inspectors. Only 655 of those inspections had “DCRA third party oversight.”

When asked, Drew Hubbard, the interim director of the Department of Housing and Community Development and head of the city’s Talbert Street task force, said that all third-party inspectors “use the same code requirements as DCRA inspectors” and that “each inspector is certified by the International Code Council to perform inspections.”

Hubbard — whose agency administers the Housing Production Trust Fund — also said DCRA sent inspectors on multiple occasions to investigate the property after it was constructed and that their findings “verify the report of a suspected structural issue.” DCRA ordered the homeowners association to investigate and correct the structural issues, which led to the hiring of Falcon Group.

While Daniel said that Lee would have the documentation on hand to prove that Stanton View did the work it promised, Lee did not agree to share any information with the press.

What’s being done to help the displaced families?

After learning of the Falcon Group’s initial findings released in August, which advised families to evacuate from their homes, the District formed its task force to assist them. So far, the D.C. government has provided the homeowners with immediate cash assistance payments of $7,000 each and the one-year housing certificates. Additionally, the task force says that homeowners will have their loan balances forgiven, but so far has not said when they no longer need to make their mortgage payments.

When asked specifically when the homeowners might be able to stop paying on their mortgages and when the balances will be forgiven, Hubbard said, “We are in the process of forgiving soft second Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) loans and Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) loans on individual units.”

Even with this help, many of the homeowners say the level of support and communication has been insufficient, given the high emotional and financial costs associated with losing their homes and having to relocate.

In response to concerns about not being able to afford rental homes within the price limits of what the city determined as “rent reasonable,” the District raised the value of the certificates by 50%, but only for properties in Ward 8. The homeowners can rent properties in other wards and even in Maryland or Virginia, but they would have to cover any costs the housing certificate doesn’t.

A doormat outside a home that says "home sweet home"

Robin McKinney for Street Sense Media in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 2021 Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice/Choice Photography.

Easier said than done: The struggle of finding a new home

A year ago, Ciera Johnson gave birth at her home on Talbert Street. Despite her firm emotional attachment to the house, it was also the source of much heartache. As time went on, the walls began to fracture, inducing an almost unbearable amount of stress, especially during the postpartum period.

“I felt like my home was going to fall on me and my newborn baby,” Johnson explained.

Desperate for indication of what to do, Johnson said she sought guidance through prayer.

“And lo and behold, some piece of drywall fell on me. And I was like, well, ‘This is my sign; I’m getting out of here,’” she said.

Johnson and her husband reluctantly packed up their belongings and moved in with her in-laws in Maryland, sharing their two-bedroom apartment. Though Johnson is eager to move into a new home, she said that it has been difficult to look for a place while living outside of the city. Plus, her husband works full time.

For Johnson, much of the struggle has to do with trying to find a home comparable in size and amenities to the one on Talbert Street.

“I don’t want an apartment,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons why I bought my own place.”

Multiple real estate agents interviewed for this story, however, said that finding a rental home with more than two bedrooms anywhere in the District would be challenging.

“There’s a huge shortage of houses available for rent across the city,” said Stephanie Cooper, a real estate agent with Real Living At Home who has 20 years of experience in the local market.

Cooper said she has been flooded with calls from renters in recent days who say they’re having a rough time finding houses for rent. She said Anacostia especially has a low inventory of multi-bedroom houses.

“There’s more demand than supply unless you’re looking for an apartment,” she said.

Lindsay Dreyer, an agent with City Chic Real Estate, gave a similar assessment.

“The three-bedroom market has gone insane and I think that is spillover from people who need to move up into something bigger, but they can’t find something because the housing market is so hot,” she said.

Both Dreyer and Cooper also pointed to potential challenges for former Talbert Street residents who use city-provided housing subsidies. They said people dependent on housing assistance can often face illegal discrimination from landlords who might search for legal “loopholes” to prevent them from renting.

While Talbert Street homeowner Norika Hill said she found a suitable apartment in Southwest D.C. for $3,100, her certificate will only cover $2,800. With an additional $250 expense for parking and the burden of paying student loans, Hill said she was initially concerned about overextending herself financially. After some negotiating, she said, her housing counselor told her the city will cover her parking expenses if the landlord approves her application.

For Hill, this uncertainty over where she will be living has provoked past traumas, such as when she experienced homelessness while growing up.

“It’s so hurtful, like when I go back into reliving what happened to me as a child,” Hill said. “It’s so, so painful.”

Other families interviewed also presented concerns about covering ancillary costs related to housing, including pet fees, storage, and parking. In an email this week, the city’s multi-agency task force said that nine families are in new homes, and 17 others have been approved to move into new houses. They also said that two of the 46 homeowners “have not submitted requested documentation” to receive their $7,000 cash payments.

Uncertainty over what comes next

ANC 8A06 Commissioner Robin McKinney, who owns and still lives in one of the Talbert Street homes, wants answers for both herself and her constituents: When will they have a full update? Who will be responsible for rent once the District’s one-year housing certificates end? Will their homes be repaired so the owners are able to return?

The city said what happens to the town houses is up to the homeowners association to decide. That will likely depend on the engineering company’s forthcoming final reports and the cost to make the necessary repairs for the buildings to be habitable again.

While dealing with this uncertainty, McKinney said she located a place in Ward 7 for $3,000 per month, but that it’s above “rent reasonable.” McKinney, who cares for three children at home, said she would have to find a part-time job to meet the expenses not covered by the city.

“I can advocate as the ANC commissioner, but, at the end of the day, this is my home, too,” McKinney said. “I cry at night, too, like my neighbors do. I’m afraid like my neighbors are afraid.”

This article was co-published with The DC Line.