SOMETIMES it’s difficult for me to tamp down my cynicism about the District government and local politicians, especially as it relates to their constant assertions about acting in the interest of vulnerable DC residents. That all seems like loud, empty talk.
I want to be hopeful. I want to believe that the people leading this $19 billion public corporation called the DC government are truly driven to perform at their best and do the right thing by District residents whose hard-earned money helps to pay their salaries.
Then, something happens, sending all that hope down the toilet.
Consider the plight of the low-income, working-class Black residents who bought condominiums at 1262 Talbert St. SE in Ward 8 as early as 2017. For six years, a group of them, mostly single mothers, have been engaged in a fierce battle — including filing a lawsuit in 2021 — against the District government as well as the developers, contractors and subcontractors that benefited from extensive public subsidies to build these homes. The homeowners are trying desperately to get someone to take responsibility for the shoddy construction of the 46-unit complex and the dangerous conditions that now make it impossible for nearly half of the condos to be occupied, wreaking financial havoc on the residents’ lives and jeopardizing their fiscal futures.
Their fight continued unabated this week. Represented by attorneys LaRuby May and Je Yon Jung of MayJung LLP, they filed motions in DC Superior Court, asking Judge Yvonne Williams to issue an emergency temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the District and the River East at Grandview Condominium Unit Owners’ Association Inc. (HOA). They are asking the court to force the defendants to secure the structural integrity of the property to avoid physical harm to residents and to prevent further deterioration.
That action comes after SEA Ltd. — an engineering expert hired by the lawyers for Skarda Associates, a defendant in the original lawsuit — sent a letter to the HOA indicating that the retaining wall and buildings on the Talbert Street property are in “imminent” danger of collapsing and that not only are unit owners threatened but also people living in houses on nearby Morris Road SE as well as pedestrians.
“Our evaluation of this matter has been ongoing. … S-E-A believes there is an imminent collapse potential of these structures. That collapse may present a risk to downslope properties and the general public. S-E-A notes that downslope there is a sidewalk, roadway (Morris Road SE), and multiple structures,” Nicholas Wijtenburg, senior civil/structural engineer, and Michael Kulbacki, civil/geotechnical engineer, wrote in their letter to the HOA dated Sept. 12.
The engineers, both licensed in DC, wrote that they saw no evidence there had been “sufficient stabilization efforts to stabilize these structures [and] therefore S-E-A recommends that the entities responsible for the downslope structures evaluate and respond to the potential risks to their infrastructure and/or properties.” The authors sent a copy of that letter to the DC Department of Buildings (DOB).
Initially, when I spoke earlier this week with Daniel Weaver, the chief of staff at the DOB, he told me that his agency was not the lead for the Talbert Street issue. I reminded him the agency was a member of the DC government’s so-called Talbert Street Task Force and explained the recent development.
Weaver later sent me an email: “The District does not comment on on-going litigation.”
It is a version of the three monkeys: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
However, according to court documents, May sent a copy of the SEA Ltd. letter to the District and asked them to provide the government’s plan of action by close of business on Sept. 14. May said she did not receive a response.
But that same day, the motion filed by May indicates the government “posted ‘Danger’ placards on the residents’ doors.” Hours later, “the President of the management company for the Property, Quality 1 Property Management, notified unit owners via email that the District authorized” removal of those placards.
“The email quoted DOB Chief Building Official, Garret Whitescarver, as follows: ‘We have not identified an elevated risk to the units that were allowed to be occupied by your previous engineering assessment [by The Falcon Group]. As such, removal of the DANGER placards and continued occupancy of those units is authorized. However, having a quick reassessment by Falcon to confirm their earlier recommendations is warranted in light of the recent SEA [sic] report.’”
I reached out to the Office of the Attorney General, since it is simultaneously the legal representative of the District government and the state prosecutor charged with protecting the safety and interest of DC residents — a contradictory mission if there ever was one.
Unsurprisingly, an OAG spokesperson said via email that “We do not have a comment on this ongoing litigation.”
In a written note to me, May said she and her clients have been “ringing the alarm bell for over 2 years and every time the District sticks its head in the sand and acts as though real District [residents’] lives are not in danger.
“We are not sure how many more experts need to tell the District that this building will collapse but we are confident that when it does and when people are killed the District will be responsible,” May added.
Maybe the city has to experience a collapse like that suffered in 2021 at Surfside, a Miami condominium — 98 people died in that catastrophe. Or perhaps something like the partial building collapse that happened on Main Street in Davenport, Iowa, in May this year — an incident in which three people were killed.
The Talbert Street homeowners have been pleading for help from the District since 2018, almost immediately after they began to occupy their units. They went to the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, then under the leadership of Polly Donaldson; it handles the Home Purchase Assistance Program as well as the Housing Production Trust Fund, which was used to provide $9 million to an incompetent, lawbreaking developer.
The homeowners went to then-Attorney General Karl Racine, filing a consumer protection complaint. According to May, they still have not received a final report from that action.
In 2022, a year after the residents filed their lawsuit, Bowser finally provided temporary rental assistance for families whose units were judged structurally unfit or dangerous for occupancy. Her administration subsequently promised all of the homeowners that the city would pay off first and second mortgages on the property. That has yet to happen. The council did at least approve property tax relief, which was extended this week under new emergency legislation.
In her motion, attorney May reminded the judge that much of what the city has done is because of the court case, noting that, “[O]nly after Plaintiffs commenced this litigation did the District cause the Property to be assessed in 2021, resulting in an order for evacuation of the Property. … [O]nly after Plaintiffs filed their first motion for Preliminary Injunction, seeking an extension of rental certificates, among other requests, did the District seek to extend the rental certificates for an additional nine months — an extension that is insufficient given the state of the Property and the pace of the District’s actions. …
“The history of this case and the District’s response to recent developments make it abundantly clear that the District will take no action to protect the Plaintiffs or the public from the risk of imminent collapse of the Property without a court order,” May wrote.
What is particularly disturbing, for me, is that most of the players in this immoral tale are African Americans. The mayor is Black. The previous AG is Black. The legislature is predominantly Black. The court leaders are Black.
Once upon a time, there was the expectation that the persons doing bad things to Black people or other people of color would be white — white racists.
Now, in far too many cases, Black people are treating people who look like them with callous disregard for their welfare, their life. It is a reality that permeates whole sections of the government — public schools, the health care system.
How did things come to this? How?