Judge rules DC is not at fault for funding construction of affordable housing that fell apart soon after it was built
On a Friday afternoon in early September, Britney Bennett, a single mother of two children aged 6 and 13, sat on a blue couch in Davina Callahan’s living room and sighed.
“They’re not even telling us what’s going on with our homes — or what’s going to happen with our homes,” Bennett said.
In 2019, she was the last person to buy a townhouse at the RiverEast at Grandview condominium, a residential complex in Ward 8 built by River East at Anacostia LLC. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood atop a hill that is about a quarter-mile from the Anacostia Metro station, the red-brick houses at 1262 Talbert St. SE were built in 2017 with city funding as part of its efforts to provide affordable housing to low-income, first-time homeowners.
Soon after the developer sold the homes, however, families who purchased them began to experience problems ranging from leaking pipes to structural deficiencies such as cracks in the foundation and walls. Months and months of complaints, pleas for help and legal wrangling came to a head this summer. In mid-August, a private engineering firm hired by the homeowners uncovered 46 code violations that could amount to $28,929 in fines from the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The report did not specify who would be liable for those fines, if issued.
The firm also called for the immediate evacuation of more than half of the town homes, citing several construction defects that made the homes unsafe to live in. These findings surfaced soon after the Surfside condominium building collapsed near Miami, leaving 98 people dead and displacing 300 more.
In January 2021, Bennett and Callahan joined a group of homeowners in suing the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) — the city agency responsible for financing the project — as well as the developer and the River East at Grandview Condominium Association. The claims against the defendants included breach of contract, emotional distress, and violations of the District’s Consumer Protection Procedure Act (CPPA) for having failed to provide proper oversight over the construction and maintenance of the buildings.
The lawsuit also alleged that both the developer and the city discriminated against the homeowners on the basis of race and sex. All nine plaintiffs are Black women and were single when the lawsuit was initially filed, according to a lawyer representing the families.
In late August, D.C. Superior Court Judge Jóse López dismissed both the city and the homeowners association from the case, absolving them of any legal liability. In his ruling, the judge said the claims made by the homeowners lacked sufficient evidence and failed on procedural grounds. Since River East at Anacostia LLC has also filed for bankruptcy, the remaining prospects remain unclear, as does the timetable for a final ruling. LaRuby May, the attorney representing the families in their lawsuit, said they intend to appeal the dismissal of the city and the homeowners association.
What support is the city providing the homeowners?
In the meantime, Mayor Muriel Bowser created a multi-agency team — dubbed the “Talbert Street Task Force” — to help support the affected families, most of whom had to evacuate their homes after receiving an abrupt two-week notice in August. The task force consists of representatives from DHCD, DCRA, the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), and a host of other government agencies. The members are tasked with connecting the displaced and soon-to-be displaced residents with services meant to help them.
According to an email statement provided by DHCD to The DC Line and Street Sense Media, the city is providing the residents of the property with immediate cash assistance payments of $7,000 and housing certificates that can be used to cover rental expenses for up to one year. DHCD said 44 out of 46 families received their cash assistance payments as of Sept. 24. The homeowners have also all been connected with case managers.
But Bennett and Callahan said they don’t think the housing vouchers and cash payments are sufficient compensation.
“To have some type of assumption that $7,000 is going to be enough,” Callahan said. “It’s not.”
For her, the sum is paltry when compared to the amount residents have spent on their homes over the past several years — 10 times as much in some cases, she said.
Callahan also talked about the personal investments she made in her home. The couch she and Bennett sat on was selected specifically to fit her living room. And she has no way of knowing how well it will fit in a rental home — something she hadn’t envisioned worrying about upon becoming a homeowner.
While Callahan was supposed to leave her three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath town house by Aug. 30, she remains there because she hasn’t found a new place.
Bennett, however, had to move out much earlier. A severe sewage leak made her home uninhabitable long ago. According to court documents, Bennett experienced the first of what would be a series of leaks in June 2019, six months after she moved in. An undated video she shared with Street Sense Media and The DC Line showed water dripping from the ceiling of one of her bedrooms. Another video showed pools of water falling through a utility closet.
Her home is now stripped of flooring and most of her belongings are destroyed due to water damage. Bennett, who used to work as an IT specialist for Amazon, declined to relive everything that happened with her home. She said recounting the full experience of these past few years would be too painful and emotionally trying. Currently, she and her two children are couch surfing, staying with family and friends while she thinks through her next steps.
For Bennett, $7,000 falls far short of the money she needs to replace everything that the water destroyed. And — like other Talbert Street homeowners — she is unsure how long she will be required to continue to make payments on her home, or what will eventually become of the property.
When asked, DHCD said the city “will forgive [Home Purchase Assistance Program] loan balances for homeowners who used the program and reinstate first-time homebuyer status to enable access to down payment assistance again.” In the same statement, the agency also said that since the District does not own the property, the homeowners association would make any decisions regarding future repairs “based on the results of the final structural engineering report.”
The homeowners association is led by elected members of the community who assumed responsibility for the overall stewardship of the property. According to the lawyer representing the families in their lawsuit, the association neglected to fulfill its duties and ignored complaints from residents.
Callahan said her total monthly payments come out to between $1,640 and $1,740 when factoring in her mortgage, homeowners association fees, and utility costs.
To make matters worse, Callahan said she filed for a homeowners insurance claim but was denied, though she didn’t explain why. Her home has had ongoing issues with leaks from her ceiling, windows not shutting properly, and cracks running along the drywall.
In her view, the responsibility for the damage should fall directly o the city and the developer. She likened the situation to that of a car accident: “If you aren’t at fault, who is responsible for the cost?” she asked.
Jeanita Brown, who also owns a home on Talbert Street, said that homeowners are juggling multiple responsibilities between their work and family life, and are in need of more than just financial help.
“You know we’re all homeowners at different levels in life, with our employment, with our families, with our credit,” she said.
Some families, Brown said, need more assistance than others. And from her perspective, the city is not prioritizing the needs of those residents.
Robin McKinney, another resident and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for 8A06, said she is “highly satisfied” with the level of support she has received from the District in the past month, though “it took 3 1/2 years for someone to finally listen to us.” While McKinney said she is happy with the $7,000 in cash she received, she still worries about finding a new place to live. She said she wants to “have someplace safe to call home” for her daughter, who is away at college, to visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Callahan and Bennett added that they are concerned that some landlords might discriminate against them for using a housing voucher, and Brown said the capped amount the city offered them in vouchers isn’t enough to find an adequate replacement. For housing vouchers, the city uses a calculation for fair market rent that is determined by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) for each neighborhood.
What happened exactly?
In 2011, DHCD provided a $2.2 million loan to Stanton View Development LLC — a company with the same ownership as River East at Anacostia LLC — to do “predevelopment and acquisition work” on a future residential property, according to an email the agency provided Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Then in 2014, the agency awarded the developer a $6.3 million loan through the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). The trust fund is administered by DHCD to build and preserve affordable housing for “low- and moderate-income households” in the city through loans and grants to developers.
When asked what went wrong with this property, DHCD said city officials are still waiting on a final report from the engineering firm hired by the homeowners association before making a determination.
But some members of the D.C. Council are looking elsewhere for answers to this question. In a Sept. 7 letter addressed to the director of DCRA, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson requested information related to past agency inspections at the property, and whether third-party inspectors were ever used. Mendelson campaigned for years to split DCRA into two smaller agencies to address concerns over its oversight and effectiveness, a move that was funded by the D.C. Council as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget.
DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah responded to Mendelson’s letter on Sept. 14 and confirmed that inspectors employed by his agency “were not involved in any phase of the construction inspections” that resulted in a certificate of occupancy for the residential complex. According to the letter, the agency responded four times in 2015 and 2016 to complaints about illegal construction but did not uncover any offenses.
A third-party inspector, the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS), was responsible for the final construction inspections for the site. In his response, Chrappah said the structural issues cited in a report drafted by the engineering firm hired by the homeowners association “relate to soil conditions and would not be included in the standard regulatory inspections by IBTS.” As a result, Chrappah said, the agency is not “contemplating any disciplinary action against the third-party company.”
While the initial engineering report commissioned by the homeowners association does say that the unstable composition of the soil at the site contributed to the structural issues, it also points to “superficial repairs” that were made to conceal the problems as evidence that the builders likely knew about the issues beforehand.
In response to a question about whether any other HPTF-funded properties have had similar issues, a spokesperson for DHCD gave a one-word answer. “No,” he wrote in an email.
Even as lawmakers look to ascertain how such construction defects could have gone unnoticed, the initial 173-page lawsuit filing from Jan. 29 details the harrowing experience of residents such as LaDonna May, a first-time homeowner who bought her unit in May 2017. (May’s sister is the attorney representing the plaintiffs.)
Within months of purchasing her town house, May saw her ceiling and walls open up with cracks. Her windows no longer shut completely. After reporting the issues to Stanton View, the company dispatched two employees to make repairs. The fixes did not last long, and new damage was visible within months. The developer told May that the cracks and openings were natural, and should be expected with new construction. Eventually, May contacted DCRA because she wanted to prove that the cracks and openings stemmed from structural defects. Instead of informing the homeowners association or the developer of structural issues, DCRA fined May $6,225 for the various code violations and infractions its inspectors uncovered at the property.
Another resident, Ade Adenariwo, had a similar experience with her property, according to the lawsuit. Soon after moving into her unit in 2017, she started to notice cracks appearing in the walls and the floor shifting. Within months, she began to have sinus issues with congestion and frequent sneezing. Later, she discovered a leaking pipe above her kitchen sink and grew concerned that potential mold could be festering in her walls and affecting the health of her newborn baby.
According to the lawsuit, Adenariwo had attempted to work with the developer on multiple occasions with no luck in finding a lasting resolution.
What happens now?
From a distance, it can be difficult to make out the cracks in the foundation and the walls adjoining various town homes at 1262 Talbert St. The stench of some units damaged by past sewage leaks hangs in the air that hovers over the community parking lot.
While any homeowners urged to evacuate were directed to leave by the end of August, the vouchers promised by the city start this week, Oct. 1, with the new fiscal year.
For Callahan, who has two children aged 3 and 14, attempting to plan for the future amid such disruption has been overwhelming. While she says she’s found some homes online that might meet her family’s specifications, she’s still in the process of packing up.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be living. We don’t know how early we’re going to have to get up to transport our children to [school],” Callahan said. “There’s not really a lot of available homes in the Southeast area, so we’ll have to go somewhere else. We’ll probably have to go to another ward.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.