The Vistas Apartments in Southeast D.C. in October 2018. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

A former Ward 8 landlord will pay a total of $3.5 million to tenants and the District to settle a lawsuit over unsafe housing conditions and inadequate security, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced last Wednesday.

Joseph Kisha, the former landlord, and his company Vista Ridge Limited Partnership, the former property owner, will pay eligible current and former tenants of Forest Ridge and The Vistas at least $1.9 million to compensate them “for being forced to live in unsafe conditions, as well as for property damage and serious bodily injuries,” according to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). 

The amounts tenants will be paid will depend on how much their monthly rent is and how long they lived at the buildings, which have a total of 398 units, between February 2014 and February 2019, an OAG spokesperson said.  

Kisha and his companies will also pay OAG $1 million to support its violence reduction programs and future litigation expenses. The settlement also requires $150,000 to be paid to Horton’s Kids, a child development center that leases space in The Vistas, and $100,000 to be paid to D.C. Central Kitchen.

“The [OAG] will not allow landlords to ignore their legal responsibilities to maintain their properties or disregard the health and safety of District tenants,” Racine said in a release. “These settlements will provide much-needed relief for hundreds of renters, many of whom were forced to live in fear for their physical safety and health for far too long. Our office will enforce the District’s housing laws to ensure landlords follow the law and protect tenants, especially our most vulnerable residents.”

Since April 24, the OAG has received more than 180 complaints of housing code violations, and has issued 42 cease and desist letters to landlords for issues including rent freeze violations, wrongful evictions, and fees for amenities and health and safety, the spokesperson said. Evictions are currently paused due to the public health emergency, but landlords can resume filing eviction complaints 60 days after the order expires.

Racine’s office initially sued Kisha and his company in October 2018, alleging that they failed to make necessary security improvements following more than almost 300 incidents of drug or firearm activity near the two buildings between January 2017 and July 2018. The complaint also alleged that they violated consumer protection laws by misrepresenting to tenants the habitability of units in poor condition and telling them housing code violations would be or had been abated.

Since January 2017, housing inspections conducted by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs found several violations that constituted “a serious threat to the life, health, and safety of the residents,” including defective smoke alarms, ceiling cracks, leaks and holes in walls and flooding in common areas. The complaint also stated that D.C. Fire and EMS found more than 60 fire code violations at the two buildings.

In December 2019, more than a year after OAG filed suit against Kisha and his companies, four tenants went on a rent strike to demand repairs to common problems such as rodent and cockroach infestations, mold and water leaks. Cereta Jackson, a tenant at The Vistas who joined the strike, told Washington City Paper in January that maintenance was unresponsive to multiple repair requests.

“They take the tickets but I’m thinking somebody must be signing the tickets out like they’re doing the work,” Jackson told WCP. “I even called down there and told the lady, ‘Are you signing the tickets out? Because this has not been done.’ I’ve been calling numerous times to get this done—this is ridiculous. It’s just a respect thing.”

Nine months earlier, Vista Ridge Limited Partnership, the property owner, declared bankruptcy, and in March of this year, the two apartment buildings were sold to a new company for $59 million and have been renamed The Skyline Apartments. The new property owner has said it will rehabilitate the apartments, according to Bisnow.

The OAG also announced on Wednesday a settlement with the owners and property managers of 220 Hamilton Street, a 34-unit apartment building in Ward 4. 

The owners were sued in December 2018 for failing to address up to 113 of a total of 173 housing code violations, 98 of which “were severe violations that threaten the health, life and safety of the tenants.” The violations included a severe rodent and insect infestation, leaks from the roof, plumbing and windows, problems with heating and insulation, and structural issues such as a weak foundation and damaged floorboards, according to the complaint.

Until 2017, the building was owned by landlord Rufus Stancil, who was repeatedly sued by the District for failing to address poor living conditions, and was in 2001, ordered to live in one of his dilapidated properties for two months after pleading guilty to 70 housing code violations. In August 2016, city inspectors cited more than a dozen violations in one apartment alone, totalling $7,000 in fines.

As part of the settlement, the owners are required to renovate the building in compliance with a renovation plan approved by the Office of Administrative Hearings and supply proof of compliance with housing laws before renting any units. Employees of the property owners and managers must also undergo a D.C. housing code training program, and the companies are required to pay the city a $50,000 fine for failing to fix housing code violations.