“We refused to be marginalized and displaced. In the beginning winning simply meant standing up and fighting back. No one was going to push us out of our community without a fight.” – Ruth Barnwell President of the Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition.
After almost a decade and multiple lawsuits, the members of the Alabama Ave/13th Street Coalition have exercised their rights under the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, winning a protracted battle for housing justice against Sanford Capital and City Partners LLC. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless congratulates and is deeply thankful to the Coalition members for their vision and commitment to housing justice in their community.
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, through our Affordable Housing Initiative, first began working with these community members in 2013. At that time there were horrendous conditions on the property which landlord Sanford Capital refused to fix. The Legal Clinic and the residents alleged that the failure to make these repairs was intentional and that Sanford Capital was attempting to constructively evict the tenants to empty the buildings, making way for their demolition and redevelopment into luxury housing. But these residents refused to be pushed out of their homes.
“Rampant land speculation in the District of Columbia means that developers are incentivized to displace working class residents because unoccupied land is more profitable than land that’s in use as affordable housing. Tens of thousands of Black DC residents have been pushed out under this development approach. The Alabama Ave/13th Street Tenant Coalition flipped the script in Congress Heights through the members’ tenacity and refusal to be displaced – these DC residents stayed on the land. The tenants knew that if they remained, eventually they would be able to exercise their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).” –
Will Merrifield, Affordable Housing Initiative Attorney, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless
TOPA gives tenants the first opportunity to buy their building if it goes up for sale, or to assign that right to an entity of their choosing. It is a vital tool that allows tenants to push back against these short-sighted and harmful development practices, fight to remain in their own communities, and move forward inclusive development goals that meet the needs of existing residents while promoting growth. In many ways, this case came down to whether the development team was going to be able to displace the residents before they were able to exercise their TOPA rights.
The Coalition’s resolve and vision for broader housing justice in DC culminated in its members exercising their rights under TOPA. The result of this struggle will be the development of 179 new units of affordable housing. This in and of itself is a huge win. However, it is not the only victory that the residents achieved. Their fight exposed how development practices are playing out across DC. It exposed how developers try to deprive tenants of the ability to exercise their TOPA rights, and exposed Sanford Capital as one of the District’s most notorious landlords, which received District subsidies while operating housing in slum conditions. In 2018, Sanford Capital was ordered to pay over one million dollars in restitution to the tenants at their properties, and prohibited from operating subsidized housing in DC for the next seven years.
These outcomes were made possible by a group of residents who refused to be marginalized and pushed out. Not only did they stay and fight, but they won. The Legal Clinic is honored to represent the Coalition and proud of our staff’s passionate and committed lawyering. This hard-fought battle had many fronts: we appeared before the Zoning Commission; the Office of Administrative Hearings to challenge the horrifying conditions on the property; and the DC Superior Court, in partnership with Arnold & Porter, to secure tenants’ TOPA rights.
We are grateful to our donors and supporters for the many contributions that enable the Legal Clinic to do this work. We’re honored to have contributed to this victory along with the Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, pro bono attorneys from Arnold & Porter, and organizers with Housing Counseling Services – their dedication and excellent work makes this outcome possible. We would also like to acknowledge the community members and groups – particularly ONE DC – and fellow tenant associations who marched in the streets, packed courtrooms and supported the tenants throughout their battle. This solidarity helped to sustain the struggle and reach this victory. It is because of all of you that there will be 179 new units of affordable housing in Congress Heights.
We at the Legal Clinic have been inspired by the members of the Alabama Ave/13th Street Coalition for many years now and are grateful to be entering 2022 energized and galvanized by their example as the work for housing justice continues across the District of Columbia.