In Fairlawn, a new, illegally built school plans for expansion despite homes caving and decreasing property values. A few blocks away a home for returning citizens collapsed. The same day developers ask, “Do you want to sell it to us now?”
Southeast D.C. homeowners are displaced after developers allegedly built illegally or improperly.
In Fairlawn, Crystal Patterson, 57, was displaced after Eagle Academy illegally built a school without permits adjacent to the home.
“I stepped out of the kitchen and as soon as I did, the whole living room ceiling came falling down, from the front door all the way to the dining room,” says Patterson. “I was displaced for at least six months.”
From December 2020 to June 2021, Patterson lived with family members. Now, she is struggling to pay market rent for an apartment a couple of blocks away from the home, although the home’s mortgage is paid. She’s disabled, and managing several other health conditions.
“I’d probably be dead [if I was in the living room],” says Patterson, who now takes anxiety medication after the incident in addition to already prescribed medications.
Patterson’s 4-year-old and 9-year-old granddaughters were also in the home. Patterson says the younger granddaughter visits a therapist because she screams incessantly now if there’s a crack in any ceiling.
Homeowners Protest Against Development
Since 2017, homeowners surrounding the new school located at 2300 R Street Southeast have protested against the development built without permits, particularly noting there are two elementary schools – Boone and Ketcham – blocks away. Over 30 residents signed a petition to end the construction and organized conversations with local officials.
“We [the neighbors] had the construction site shut down twice because they were working the whole time without a permit. [It] was supposed to be just an upgrade to the property that was [already] there,” says Patterson.
That existing property was demolished and new infrastructure was built.
DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) issued four “stop work” orders.
In April 2019, DCRA issued a building permit for a new two-story building, but in May the building was nearing completion.
“It is implausible a project of this scope could be near completion within such a short time frame,” Ernest Chrappah, director of DCRA, told WUSA 9.
Unexpectedly, in December 2019, Eagle Academy backed out, sold the Fairlawn development, and settled in a school location in Southwest.
New School, Same Problems
Now, Lee Montessori, the first full public Montessori school in Southeast, occupies the property. Lee Montessori wants to do more digging to expand the school property “to meet the needs of the children we serve” says Camila Camborda, director of communications. Currently 152 students attend the Pre-3 to 1st grade school, although there are 375 total seats.
Lee Montessori will submit applications for construction permits in 2 to 3 months.
On January 25, Lee Montessori held a “community conversation” about plans for the new construction.
As Chris Pencikowski, co-founder of Lee Montessori, showed the blueprint for the new addition, Patterson asked, “So I will be most affected a second time because I’m right there beside you on Ridge Place?”
“Yes,” said Pencikowski.
Patterson shared concerns about mice in the walls of the home during the first construction project.
Earlier on the call, Pencikowski said, “We understand that this is not ideal, in terms of expansion, and it will negatively impact you all. … We will be an asset to the community.”
“[Pencikowski] talks about the morality of having a good education. How are you going to talk about morality when you’re setting things in place that you know are going to negatively impact people?” says Camille Joyner, homeowner across from the school.
Tina Batchelor, 52, who shares a driveway with the school, shared concerns that Lee Montessori serves other communities because of the car versus foot traffic. She says that parents often block her driveway when picking up and dropping off students.
Batchelor, homeowner since 2010, has cracks in the ceiling spanning from 10 inches to 2 feet.
But Lee Montessori says that almost 81 percent of students live East of the River.
One of the attending students may be the child of Brian Thompson, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 8A03, who represents Fairlawn. Thompson has been accused by residents of having a conflict of interest.
“Whether a commissioner accused me of [enrolling my child] or a resident accused me of that, I refuse to answer the question because it’s no one’s business,” Thompson told the Washington Informer.
In October 2021, Lee Montessori proposed to the ANC to close the alley behind the school to build on the city owned property.
Several residents say that Thompson hung up after fellow commissioners asked him to recuse himself from voting.
Commissioners ultimately decided to push back the vote date and suggested that Lee Montessori engage the community more prior to the next vote. Since, Lee Montessori decided to repeal the proposal to build in the alley because “the contractor says it’s more expensive,” said Pencikowski during the “community meeting.”
Instead, the plan is to build next door to Patterson and Batchelor.
Residents say that they’ve reached out to everyone for support to stop the development and expansion including Mayor Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Karl Racine, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White.
“They failed us,” says Batchelor.
Sam Mayo, homeowner since 2009, wants to sell his home because of proximity to the school and damages from the first development – cracks in the wall spanning from 10 inches to 2 feet.
“When we pushed to try to stop it and intervene and talked about what was going on in  with the Councilmember and Mayor, it was like we were overpowered,” says Mayo, 57. “It’s not something I want to deal with during my retirement.”
“It’s because our lives don’t matter. If this was anywhere else in the city, this school wouldn’t have been built,” says Batchelor.
Fairlawn Home For Returning Citizens
A few blocks away a home for returning citizens collapsed.
“We’re basically homeless. All of our belongings, some of our personal information as far as birth certificates [and] social security cards are currently, right now inside of the home because the home has been condemned where we can’t go back inside,” says James Hutchings.
Hutchings, 40, founded Incarcerated Lives Matter, a program that provides free housing to four returning citizens for up to 6 months, as well as jobs and programming. Hutchings, a returning citizen, launched the housing component of the program last year in June.
Hutchings pays $3,300 for monthly rent at the 1614 Good Hope Road residence with funds from the non-profit.
The house manager, Donald Murphy, 69, heard the bricks shifting at 7 a.m. on January 5, 2022.
“I hollered, ‘We need to get out of the house because it’s collapsing,’” says Murphy.
The front door wouldn’t open. The structure had sealed now that the bricks buckled and the structure of the home was disarranged.
“Donald came up with the idea of getting out of the window,” says Fredrick Deshield, 46. “The house was vibrating when were exiting out.”
The group of returning citizens is now displaced and cannot return to the property.
Now, Incarcerated Lives Matter is suing developers for building a 35-unit apartment complex next door and the landlord.
On January 24, Attorney Robert Maxwell of Maxwell & Price LLP, says a complaint was filed against 1600 Good Hope Road, Marlboro Construction, and Village Construction for “property damage and constructive eviction.” A complaint was also filed against the landlord, Cynthia Fox, as “the obligation for the residents to not be homeless falls on the landlord.”
Attorney Robert Maxwell negotiated temporary housing at an Airbnb and hotel in Navy Yard, but as of January 28, the group has to check-out and find housing on their own.
Cynthia Fox says she reached out to DCRA and public officials about the condos years ago because the developer didn’t have the proper permits.
“I’ve been fighting for two and a half, almost three years about the 35 condos, and nobody, nobody from the city came to my aid until the house collapsed,” says Cythina Fox. Fox, owner for 31 years, purchased the property after graduating from high school.
DCRA has been widely criticized by the D.C. Council and public for longstanding issues. In 2018, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a bill that would break up the agency into two, one handling building permits and inspections and the other business licensing and consumer protection.
A December 2020 D.C. Council committee report on the bill criticized DCRA for “substandard performance” specifically “housing code enforcement and illegal construction enforcement.”
‘Do You Want Me to Sell?
D.C. Council voted unanimously last year to separate the agency, despite that Mayor Bowser previously vetoed the bill. In December, Bowser shared the required transition plan, organizational chart for the separate agencies, and proposed execution deadline of Oct. 2022.
Fox is concerned that the damage was “intentional because they’ve been asking me, almost forcing me to sell my house,” she says. “They’ve been asking for two years can they purchase the home.”
The day that the structure toppled over was the most recent ask, Fox says. “Even the day that the house was cracking, the dumb developer asked me, ‘Do you want to sell the house now?’”
Now Fox and Incarcerated Lives Matter returning citizens can’t return to the home. Hutchings started a GoFundMe to pay for group housing.
“They don’t have a roof over their heads that could be a trigger to fall back into criminal activity or any other type of mental meltdown,” says Hutchings. “I’m in the talks now, trying to get another house possibly on February first.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Lee Montossori students are not responsible for stolen packages and removed the exact cost of Patterson’s monthly rent.