February 18, 2018
The affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood in Washington, D.C. was the site of a loud and militant demonstration February 10, as a crowd of about 120 people braved a cold and driving rain to march to the home of a notorious slumlord, chanting: “Geoff Griffis you can’t hide, we can see your dirty side!”
The diverse group, which included members of the Alabama Avenue/13th Street Tenant Coalition, organizers with ONE DC, Justice First, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and community supporters, gathered at the Cleveland Park Metro station before marching through the rain to their destination.
This was not the first protest march at Griffis’s home, which is located in a wealthy Washington neighborhood. The brick Georgian-style homes on well-tended lots stand in stark contrast to the severely dilapidated housing tenants have lived in on the other side of the city, near the Congress Heights Metro station.
Griffis and his partners have deliberately allowed the buildings to deteriorate in an effort to force tenants out, making way for luxury development with high-priced housing, retail and office space that has destroyed poor and working class communities across the country. It should come as no surprise that Griffis has close connections with powerful elites in the city and is a major donor for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Local newspapers have reported on longstanding tenant complaints about lack of heat, hot water, plumbing problems, toxic mold, rodents and more. The lack of maintenance became so egregious that D.C. City Attorney Karl Racine sued Sanford Capital in 2016. In addition, the properties have been in court-ordered receivership since September 2017, an arrangement in which needed repairs are made by a third-party group that also collects rent from tenants. Courts often order receivership when property owners prove unwilling or unable to properly maintain a rental building.
Ruth Barnwell, President of the Alabama Avenue/13th Street Tenant Coalition, one of several speakers at the demonstration, detailed the long history of their struggle and the challenges tenants face. Mrs. Barnwell, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, said, “In 2015 I had mold in my unit and had respiratory problems, went to the doctor, and everything like that, and now I have asthma. This is why I’m short of breath.” She also noted that, while it was raining outside, it was also raining in her apartment.
Robert Green, a tenant leader at Congress Heights, described having no heat for two months in the winter: “I found out they didn’t give a damn whether I froze or not.”
But the tenants aren’t taking this lying down: they’ve been fighting back and working to secure funding to buy the properties that would create 200 units
of high-quality affordable housing in a city with a severe housing crisis – 40,000 units short, at last estimate. They have been working with pro-bono lawyers to use Washington’s Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) to achieve their goal. They are working with a well-established group, The National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corporation, to develop the properties in a way that serves the needs of the community.
The ongoing conflict took an unexpected turn on December 27, 2017 when Sanford Capital transferred ownership to CityPartners, a development company owned
by none other than Geoff Griffis. The surprise move was clearly meant to circumvent the tenants’ effort to purchase the property under TOPA as well as sidestep the court-ordered receivership.
Residents from Congress Heights and their supporters see through this latest cynical ploy, and draw connections to the politicians who support Griffis and others. Yasmina Mrabet from ONE DC was one of several speakers to call out the mayor: “Mayor Bowser has done absolutely nothing – nothing to support the tenants of Congress Heights. In fact she has facilitated the attempted displacement of the tenants of Congress Heights.”
Forming common cause with the Congress Heights tenants union are another tenants union – that from Brookland Manor, who are engaged in their own militant struggle against gentrification in their community that’s being facilitated by – you guessed it – Sanford Capital, in partnership with the DC government.
Will Merrifield, attorney Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless: “We’re going to fight in the streets. We’re going to fight in the courtroom and we’re going to fight at the Wilson [City Council] Building. And what’s gonna win this thing is you all being in solidarity with us.”
Near the end of the rally Eugene Puryear, who had served as an emcee for the rally, spoke of the solidarity that threatens Griffis, the politicians, and their wealthy backers: “They think that Black people who live in Southeast [Washington, D.C.] are dumb, ignorant, poor and can’t fight back and they think that all the rest of you don’t care enough to do anything.” Puryear noted that the protests have been growing in size. Clearly Griffis and his backers are wrong.
As the demonstration ended, the group marched through the rain , chanting loudly: “When tenants’ rights are under attack what do we do? Stand up fight back!”