There are millions of Americans who are houseless or are close to living on the street. Many of those who do have a home, however, are dealing with their own crisis — dangerous building practices and lack of government and industry accountability resulting in nightmarish living conditions. Often targeted to poor and racially marginalized communities, Michael Brice-Saddler and Marissa J. Lang report on the other side of the housing crisis.
They found dream homes through D.C.’s first-time homeowners program. Now they have to evacuate.
By Michael Brice-Saddler and Marissa J. Lang
When she bought her home on Talbert Street in 2018, Jeanita Brown was certain she’d live there forever. But within weeks, she began to feel uneasy: Her windows weren’t closing, and small cracks began to spiderweb up her walls — but contractors assured her the newly constructed home was just settling.
It wasn’t long before she needed a crowbar to open and close her back door. Insects started crawling out of the cracks, which appeared on both levels. Seeking repairs, she hired a contractor in July who discovered a five-inch-wide crack under her carpet, spanning multiple rooms. The contractor suggested her unit was unlevel and too unsafe for them to fix.
Afraid her home could crumble around her following the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., Brown sent pictures to her neighbors of her hand in the crack and urged them all to check under their carpets. The reality became impossible to ignore: The cracks were everywhere — and getting bigger.
In early August, a resident experiencing similar problems forwarded Brown’s message to city leaders with a desperate plea: “We are in serious danger.”
Brown is among many first-time homeowners who participated in a District program meant to spur property ownership, particularly among Black and low-income families. But she and nearly 30 others who live in the Talbert Street building — constructed in 2017 with city subsidies — may be forced to flee their homes Monday after an engineering firm determined the structure of the building was unsafe.
On Friday, one day after the District assured residents that government-backed help was forthcoming, most of the families — who learned of the evacuation notice two weeks ago — said they still had no idea where they would go amid the raging pandemic and ongoing uncertainty over the fate of their homes and finances.
“We knocked and banged, and the city is finally at least acknowledging us; we went so long without even being responded to,” said Brown, who was told by multiple contractors her home never should have passed inspection. “I know in my heart that if they had reacted sooner, it wouldn’t have been this far gone.”
The River East at Grandview Condominiums were built by Stanton View Development as part of a D.C. initiative to encourage first-time homeownership in the District.
The D.C. government underwrote a $6 million loan to Stanton View Development to construct the building, with the funding coming from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s primary reserve used to fund affordable housing projects for low- to moderate-income households.
Residents received financing help from the city’s Home Purchase Assistance Program, or HPAP, which provides interest-free loans and down payment and closing cost assistance to qualified applicants to purchase homes.
The Talbert Street building, a 46-unit structure of two-story homes in the heart of Anacostia, was sold to residents as a brand-new condominium building, but within months of moving in, the first problems began to arise: cracks and uneven surfaces that the first-time home buyers were told were just cosmetic issues. Contractors filed through the building, patching the breaks.
As months ticked by and cracks continued to cleave through concrete walls and floors, the residents began to compare notes, homeowners said. By the spring of 2018, homeowners were copying D.C. government agencies on emails to the developer asking that they take a closer look at ongoing structural issues.
“I was there less than six months when I and a group of [residents] knew there was something wrong with this building already,” said Ty’on Jones, a homeowner and secretary of the condominium association.
Stanton View Development did not respond to a request for comment.
Desperate for answers, some residents turned to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. When the DCRA sent an inspector to the home of LaDonna May in 2018, the investigator described her unit as “uninhabitable,” said her sister and lawyer LaRuby May, who filed a suit on behalf of nine residents this year. If she were a tenant, the inspector went on, the DCRA would force her landlord to put her into emergency housing while the unit was repaired.
But she owned the place, so the DCRA fined her sister, LaRuby May said. The fines — more than $6,000 in penalties — were dismissed in 2019 after the two fought them in court.
Residents continued to forward concerns to the condominium association, which was made up of homeowners who had never sat on a similar body before and didn’t have the funds to address the root problems. To make a claim against the building’s warranty bond, residents said, the association would have had to get the building assessed by three separate engineers — a requirement it couldn’t afford.
Instead, they went with one firm: The Falcon Group, which in January delivered a report that detailed a list of problems, including a structurally unsound foundation, defective exterior walls, water damage to the roof and poorly installed structures.
“The developers were able to do so many things at the property while they received government funding that wasn’t correct,” said Jones, 29, a graduate student at American University. “The cracks haven’t stopped, the holes are getting bigger. We called the engineers in because we needed to know why that was happening. We’re not engineers, but we knew something was very wrong.”
Earlier this month, the Falcon Group issued a more dire warning. The building isn’t safe, the group wrote in a letter to homeowners on Aug. 16. Families were advised to vacate the premises within two weeks.
Ten days later, the firm offered a more detailed assessment: Families in as many as 30 of the apartments should move out. The rest could stay if they wanted.
Nicole Rudd, 45, lives in one of the units deemed habitable. She moved to Talbert Street in December without HPAP assistance and had no idea there were problems with the building until recently, when they began affecting her unit.
“There’s structural issues here, it’s obvious, but I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t know if I have a week, another month or three months,” said Rudd, who will stay past Monday but is searching for a long-term alternative. “I feel I could be moved at any time — not to mention the anxiety because I don’t know if the building will fall down. All these units are connected.”
Robin McKinney, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and homeowner in the complex, said a significant portion of the residents have disabilities or require special accommodations that would otherwise make it difficult to move, especially on such short notice. Two weeks ago, the Falcon Group advised the condo association that residents should not drink the tap water, after several homeowners complained about stomach problems.
“Where are we going to go? I thought we’d be here forever — this is my family they’re talking about relocating, and school just started,” McKinney, 47, said of her neighbors. “The community has banded together on this, but no one knows where they’ll end up.”
A last-minute move
Last week, the District announced an initiative dubbed the Talbert Street Task Force, composed of multiple city agencies and department heads that officials said would help residents forced to move out of the crumbling building, as well as those who choose to remain. Homeowners at Talbert Street said this was the first substantial action they’ve seen on the part of the D.C. government.
Though several District officials became aware of the issues two years ago, the lawsuit LaRuby May filed against the city, developer and homeowners’ association appeared to discourage some city agencies from responding more quickly, D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who oversees that body’s housing committee, said in an interview on Sunday, after this story was initially published.
“Anytime there’s a lawsuit in progress, the government freezes,” Bonds said. “I remember asking what we could do about this and was told ‘you know, there’s a lawsuit,’ and yeah, but these are human beings.”
In an email to homeowners Friday morning, the District’s nascent task force outlined what aid D.C. had pledged to make available to the families affected by the deteriorating conditions at the Talbert Street apartments. They include the costs of renting an outside unit for up to one year and a one-time cash assistance payment meant to help homeowners who need to relocate immediately that, depending on family size, will range from $3,000 to $7,000.
D.C. officials said the amount of cash offered was based on average hotel costs for the area. The rental assistance — a certificate modeled after the District’s rapid rehousing program — would cover eligible families’ rent for up to 12 months, which officials said is the estimated amount of time it will take to fully repair the worst problems with the Talbert Street building’s foundation and retaining wall.
The District also pledged to pair each family up with a caseworker starting Friday who would help them access these programs and, in some cases, connect homeowners with representatives from other government agencies, including the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, to help them file relevant insurance claims. It was not clear as of Friday evening whether any homeowners had been assisted by a caseworker.
Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said in an interview Friday that the District had stepped in to connect homeowners with relevant city agencies so that they can “navigate these systems so they don’t leave resources on the table.” He added that the District also was exploring options for forgiving the homeowners’ city-backed loans.
Bonds said she has been advocating for the city to buy out the homeowners and take on the responsibility of rehabilitating the building before the condos can be resold. The homeowners would then be able to reenter the first-time home-buyer program if they chose to do so, she said.
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said he first heard about problems on Talbert Street two years ago. At the time, White said, the developers told him they had put up money to do repairs. But those fixes clearly weren’t sufficient, he added, and he now has concerns about whether residents will be able to get out in time. Some homeowners have told his office they don’t want to leave.
Stanton View Developers filed for bankruptcy in March.
May, the attorney representing some of the residents, said that even if D.C. can help residents safely move out, she worries about the negative effect on Black homeownership in the District, especially in Ward 8, where news of the disintegrating building has spread.
“We have folk on the property who are not just first-time home buyers, they’re first-generation home buyers, and the rest of their family is looking at this like, ‘Girl, I’m going to keep renting,’ ” May said. “Problems like this hurt our Black community … The District council, the mayor, everyone, they all should be ashamed of themselves.”
White defended the home buyer program, saying one bad incident should not condemn the effort as a whole.
“We’ve had a lot of success when it comes to HPAP — I know a lot of people who’ve extended wealth or passed it to families,” he said. “The issue with this particular project was that the construction was not solid.”
‘This is our home’
On Friday afternoon, Yvonne Lawson said she was grateful the city had finally communicated some semblance of a plan. But she still had questions: Would she still need to pay her mortgage? Why hadn’t a caseworker presented her with a plan yet? Where would she move to?
“To have to relocate your home in less than two weeks to me is just disturbing. I worked incredibly hard to get to this place, my first home,” said Lawson, 31. “The majority of the owners here are Black women. A lot of us are moms or moms-to-be and have families — and it’s the first time many of us have been allowed to be in a place like this.”
Lawson, who is three months pregnant, had spent recent weeks converting a spare bedroom into a nursery. She stood tearfully in the room Thursday where she had hoped to raise her child, unsure whether it would ever be safe to return there.
“After seeing that engineering report, hearing what happened in Florida and seeing all those lives lost, why couldn’t it happen here?” she said. “It’s scary. It’s insane. I’ve cried a lot.”
Brown, who had the five-inch-wide crack in her home, spent part of Thursday morning looking at affordable housing options across the District. Skeptical that the city would present her with suitable alternatives, she sought to find some of her own. But the process has quickly reminded her of the challenges and costs associated with applying for an apartment.
It seemed increasingly unlikely she could be out of her home by Monday.
“We have three days at this point. I’m not confident,” Brown said.
Still, she imagines returning one day to the home she bought and furnished in a sleek, modern style. Because the buildings are on such elevated ground, some of her neighbors’ rooftops offer an immaculate view of the cityscape. On top of her short-term concerns, Brown also worries that if her home deemed is unsalvageable, she’ll be pressured to sell it.
“There just aren’t views like that in the city, this is prime real estate, and we know it,” she said. “If we don’t live here, people will be gunning for this area, which isn’t fair, because this is our home.”
This article was originally published in the Washington Post.