Nearly three years ago, Assegid Merin, a resident of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments in Northwest, slipped and fell on his bathroom floor. In the months before that incident, he repeatedly requested repairs to a shower grab bar that would help him safely enter and exit his bathtub.
Merin, an Ethiopian immigrant who had been living in the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartment for years, went on to recount how his bathtub often got backed up with water, to the point where water spilled onto the bathroom floor. He said the broken shower grab bar and wet floor played a significant part in the fall that cracked his ribs and kept him at George Washington University Hospital for several weeks.
Since the fall, Merin has sought compensation that will help him mitigate the lingering effects of his injuries, including his strained breathing and discomfort while sleeping. He said he also contacted what was then known as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), along with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights.
Like other Ethiopian and Eritrean residents at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments, Merin alleges that the property management charges them rent significantly higher than what they’re obligated to pay. Another complaint concerns management’s failure to provide him with a copy of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Residents Rights and Responsibilities brochure or an on-site bilingual building manager.
“They’re not accommodating us properly and they discriminate against us. When I fell [in my bathroom] and was taken by ambulance, they were laughing instead of looking at me as a human,” Merin said. “When I was in the hospital, they were charging me rent [even though] I wasn’t getting a paycheck. And they didn’t give me any compensation [for my fall]. They don’t care about us.”
Residents Organize for Transparency and Proper Facility Upgrades
The Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments, located on 15th Street near the U Street corridor, houses residents 62 years and older, many of whom have a fixed income. Amenities at the high-rise apartment include a balcony, breakfast bar, fitness center, business center and community room.
More than a decade ago, residents of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments utilized their rights, as outlined in the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), to secure ownership of their apartment complex when Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners had been contracted for a wide-scale renovation project.
Through this arrangement, Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners and the residents shared 1% ownership. HUD also extended the Section 8 housing contract for 20 additional years, while the District government provided a 40-year property tax abatement.
A contingent of residents would later form the 2001 15th Street Tenants Association in response what they described as an attempt by Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners to wrestle ownership from the Paul Laurence Dunbar Residents Association.
Since the inception of the 2001 15th Street Tenant Association, the group, led by resident Glenda Richmond, has endeavored to hold Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners and residential property management company WinnResidential, accountable to residents.
Richmond and others allege Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners misused federal funds allocated toward the renovation of Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments. While they acknowledge upgrades made on the outside of the property and in the common areas, residents continue to complain about rodent infestation, cracks and holes in the walls, water damage that has decayed wood, and failure to fix appliances.
Last November, the 2001 15th Street Tenants Association demanded that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council investigate the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for what they described as its failure to hold building managers accountable.
A DHCD representative said the housing compliance officer responded to tenants’ complaints by sharing information about agencies that could be of assistance to them.
The tenant association’s other demands focused on WinnResidential. Residents said they want WinnResidential to hire a certified professional of occupancy, community outreach personnel and an assistant office manager who are fluent in English, Amharic and Tigrinya. They also demanded proper training of on-site management, including in their use of the HUD Handbook; copies of relevant paperwork, including HUD brochure, notice of rent increases, and information related to the certification of maintenance workers.
Richmond, a resident at Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartment for more than a decade, started this particular crusade in the aftermath of a fire during the summer of 2020 that claimed two elderly lives and injured and displaced dozens of residents.
Displaced residents who spoke to The Informer on the condition of anonymity said they hadn’t been provided with another apartment for months.
The head of the tenant association also alleges that Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners didn’t compensate affected residents with the insurance payouts awarded to the company.
Last summer, Richmond wrote letters to then-D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Lesley Edmond, housing compliance officer at the DHCD, all to no avail.
“This goes back to the management company failing to provide a clean, safe and secure environment with well-maintained programs that we are entitled to by law,” Richmond said. “The tenants are co-owners.”
Property Manager and Other Parties Respond to Allegations
Since 2018, DCRA has secured more than $70,000 in judgments via 19 cases filed at the Office of Administrative Hearings against Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments. The Department of Buildings is currently pursuing more than two dozen additional cases against Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments. Officials within that agency have also mulled the possibility of referrals to the Office of the Attorney General.
Margaret Byrd, president of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Residents Association, declined to answer questions about the circumstances of the association’s relationship with Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners. Phuc Tran, the vice president of asset management at Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners gave a similar response to inquires about its dealings with tenants at Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments.
In regard to allegations about the rent increases, Ed Cafasso, a spokesperson for Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments said that administrators responded to a systemic glitch that caused payment problems last summer and refunded affected tenants’ money soon after.
Cafasso went on to say that the Department of Buildings recently deemed the management company’s response to tenants’ complaints as satisfactory. He added that the management company documented these updates in a written report sent to the Department of Buildings in October.
Within that same month, WinnResidential, the property manager for Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments, coordinated a meeting with the Paul Laurence Dunbar Residents Association to address residents’ concerns. Cafasso said that property management representatives distributed reports in Amharic and Tigrinya.
At the time of this article’s release, WinnResidential awaits the Department of Buildings’ sign-off on four open cases, which involve the installation of smoke detectors and the repair of one apartment.
When it comes to rodent mitigation, the management at Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments touts the execution of a process that includes weekly pest control, inspection and closure of access points within affected apartments.
Cafasso also said that Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments coordinates with the District government to repair holes on the exterior of the building.
Some Residents Say They Are Left Without Any Other Choice
At least one Paul Laurence Dunbar resident questioned the viability of the management company’s pest control program. This resident, who requested anonymity, said they had been sleeping on their couch for two years in response to a rodent takeover in their apartment.
The resident recounted seeing rodents climbing through the drain pipe in their bathtub and running out into their living room and closet space. They also spoke about other instances when they woke up with rodent feces in their hair. The resident said it had gotten to the point where they have to place food in containers and sweep rodent turds out from under surfaces.
Through it all, this resident said they had to endure the management company’s half-hearted attempts by the management company to rectify their rodent problem — including the application of masking tape to holes found at the bottom of a sink cabinet.
In other moments, they suggested the resident clean out and throw away excess materials, while not providing a means for doing so.
Amid their growing frustration with their living situation, this resident said they don’t want to experience the hurdle of moving elsewhere in the District, especially with affordable housing often not being available.
For the time being, they will fight management, they said.
“They take their time to fix the problems and then blame us for having too many clothes,” the resident recounted.
“The guy at the front desk told me about an inspection but he never came up. The mice are all on my sofa and in the middle of my bed,” they added. “I feel things running on my feet. The space is full of rat turds and pee stains.”
NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of the property management company and the type of housing contract that was extended.