Homeowner’s Dreams Deferred on Talbert Street in Southeast
Five years ago, Brittany Bennett and her two young sons lived in a shelter for the homeless on New York Avenue. And while she often dreamed of purchasing a home, she also spent many sleepless nights wondering how her dream could become a reality.
Homeownership meant “stability” – something she badly craved for her children and herself.
So, as she said, she held on to her dream and began to search for ways that would allow her to begin building “generational wealth.”
With patience and great resolve, she would discover that help was available and she took full advantage of it.
“I went from being homeless for three years to becoming a homeowner within one,” she said proudly.
Her path to homeownership first took shape in 2017 when a loan officer told Bennett about the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), which is managed by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). It provides interest-free loans and closing costs assistance to qualified applicants to purchase single-family homes, condominiums, or cooperative units in the District.
Since 1978, HPAP has served more than 7,700 District households and provided over $210 million in down payment and closing costs assistance.
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Bennett worked with her loan officer while holding down three jobs to better her chances of meeting mortgage eligibility requirements. She went through the process, which she describes as “tedious and stressful,” before becoming eligible in the fall of 2018 when she submitted her application. Bennett succeeded and said she remembers being elated upon realizing that she had grown one enormous step closer to fulfilling her dream of being a D.C. homeowner.
That December, when she first saw her 3-bedroom condominium in Southeast at the River East at Grandview Estates II on Talbert Street, she said she knew “it was everything I wanted.”
With keys in hand, she and her sons moved in a few days after Jan. 31, 2019. But within just a few short months, her dream became a nightmare.
In April, she began noticing cracks in the walls and immediately called the developer, Stanton View Development who did not initially respond. Still, she was advised not to worry and told by an official, “you’re going to see cracks in the walls because the foundation is still settling.”
Over the next two years, the structural problems grew with water started leaking into the bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchen. The windows and doors stopped closing properly. And even when the developer made repairs, Bennett viewed them as simply cosmetic.
As more problems emerged, she began consulting with neighbors and realized they, too, had similar complaints. She, like others at Grandview Estates, had overcome homelessness only to be confronted with multiple safety concerns in their “dream homes.”
More Homeowners Discover Troubling Signs
Homeowner Robin McKinney moved into her unit in 2017 after being homeless for five years.
“It was my dream to be a homeowner and to give my kids generational wealth,” she said.
McKinney, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (8A06), also noticed “cracks in the walls, tiles on the floor buckling and doors closing improperly” within weeks of moving in. And like Bennett, she was told, “You’re going to see cracks because the foundation is still settling.”
Another neighbor, Karl Morrison, moved into his condominium in June 2017.
“Grandview was a new development,” he said. “I remember because I used to drive by and tell my friends that I am going to move there when they’re done. I thought I had achieved my dream by moving in there but like Robin and Brittany, it quickly turned into a nightmare.”
“I learned that there were problems in Unit 9-B even before I even moved in. When I did my housing inspection, they found that my master bedroom window was leaking. Stanton Development had to come in and replace the drywall and fix the window. And I had to pay for an additional inspection.”
“When my mother, who was in her early eighties first came to my new place, she said as soon as she walked in, ‘Your floors are crooked. I feel like I am walking down a hill.’”
As for Bennett and her sons, they moved out last May, unable to take any more. Nonetheless, like other homeowners, she still carries the burden of mortgage payments and condo fees – despite the District having deemed the property uninhabitable.
McKinney is in the process of vacating her home and Morrison moved into a hotel last month.
The smell of mold remains apparent in Bennett’s condominium and without the carpeting to hide imperfections, the floor shows considerably huge cracks in the floor. Raw sewage has destroyed the walls and the foundation of the building has taken a downward slope on the rear of the property. Outside of the entrance to Bennett’s unit, visible cracks can be seen in the structure which run from the roof to the ground.
Can D.C. Government Clean Up the Mess?
D.C. government officials continue to work with homeowners as they attempt to address the crisis.
Drew Hubbard, Deputy Director for Operations for DHCD, responded to The Washington Informer in writing: “Mayor Muriel Bowser established the Talbert Street Task Force, led by DCHD. The multi-agency task force is helping homeowners navigate their insurance claims and alleviate loan obligations to the District while preserving their ability to access first-time homebuyer programs and relocation needs.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Sr., is working with Councilmember Anita Bonds, Chair of Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, and members of the mayor’s task force to assist the homeowners.
“I know the city has offered several temporary solutions, including offering $7,000 to move them into housing or pay for their housing for a year,” White said, “It is my understanding that as of last Friday, all but six or seven homeowners have accepted the District’s offer.”
When asked if the District had been helpful, Bennett replied, “I feel like no one is doing anything. They gave us $7,000 to cover moving costs and stuff like that.”
“They gave us a certificate for which they will pay our rent for 12 months and our utilities at fair market price. But where are you going to find a three-bedroom unit like the one I have already? I am supposed to cover that gap for rent with what the government is offering for a 3-bedroom apartment. Plus, I am still responsible for my mortgage and condo fees even though I can’t live here” she said.
McKinney added, “To be honest, someone should be held accountable for murder because they killed my dream to become a homeowner.”
“The developer would have never cut corners [in other parts of the District] like they did in Ward 8. They felt like they could do it over here and no one would care or do anything,” she said.
For Many, Another Moving Day Comes Years too Soon
McKinney, who called HPAP a “great program,” estimates that structural damage similar to what she experienced, now impacts between 70 to 75 percent of Grandview residents. She plans to vacate the premises soon because it is no longer habitable.
“Are you telling me I must live in substandard housing because of something I did not do? Grandview Estates is a failure as no one can live there and I think the D.C. government is responsible,” Morrison said.
Bennett said her next steps remain unclear but for now her sons have moved in with her mother while she’s moving from house to house – sometimes with family members, other times with friends.
“It’s time to move on but I probably will not buy another home in this part of the city,” she said. “My boys and I have already lost too much. Even worse, this counts as the second time we’ve been homeless – and in the same area.”
Last January, The Falcon Group completed a report which details a comprehensive list of the problems including defective exterior walls, a structurally unsound foundation, water damage to the roofs and poorly installed structures.
In April, Stanton View Development filed for bankruptcy and remains under investigation by the Office of the Attorney General. The telephone number on the company website is no longer in service.
What remains abundantly clear is more must be done by the District to ensure that this never happens again. What is the vetting process by the local government for developers? Has Stanton View Development built other homes in wards 7 and 8? If so, have District inspectors visited those dwellings to ensure they are safe? The Bowser Administration must do more so that dreams of homeownership can never be transformed into nightmares.
Several homeowners from River East at Grandview Estates on Talbert Street Southeast gathered on the steps of City Hall to protest uninhabitable living conditions. Each of the residents successfully completed the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), which is managed by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
Each of the women, several of whom have already vacated their homes due to internal and external structural deficiencies in the foundation of the condominiums, distributed flyers with a list of immediate relocation needs from local elected officials. These demands ranging from a $4,000 rental allowance ($1,500 additional for larger families) to an agreement to extend the 12-month rental allowance assistance being offered by the District, with the expectation that displacement will extend beyond a year.