In 2017, the District increased the value of rental subsidies, which made apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue and other relatively expensive parts of the District more affordable to voucher holders. The resulting increase in these tenants coincided with reports of thefts, vandalism and some violent incidents at buildings including Sedgwick Gardens (3726 Connecticut Avenue). [We recommend this 2019 DC Line article for its detailed reporting on Sedgwick Gardens and “cracks” in DC’s housing subsidies program.]
David Luria, the president of the Brandywine Tenants Association, told us in 2019 that the Brandywine Apartments (4545 Connecticut) was having similar issues with “mentally unstable individuals causing disturbances within the building (many which has resulted in police being called to investigate), an increase in break-ins and building vandalism.”
Police visits had more than tripled in only two years. Luria said Borger, the management company, was unresponsive.
Today, Luria says, life at the Brandywine is much better. The Brandywine Tenants Association (BTA), residents, and the current on-site manager have been key to that change. And Luria makes one thing very clear: The issues were not with the voucher holders but the landlord’s response to problems caused by residents, subsidized or not.
David Luria: The first thing we [in the BTA] did was get a handle on the extent of the problem by seeking monthly reports from MPD on the number of police visits to the Brandywine starting in 2016, the year before the present management company took over. MPD denied our initial request, so we filed a FOIA request and have now been getting the reports every month. Our statistics show that police visits to our building went way up in 2017-2020, compared to 2016. In 2021 they seem to be trending down.
For privacy reasons, the police reports do not give us reasons for the calls, they just list numbers. We have learned that some of the calls are for minor medical problems, others for domestic disputes, a few for theft of property, others for noise disturbances. A few of the calls rise to the level of crimes.
Our approach at the BTA has been to define the problem as one of resident behavior, not resident source of income. Behavior problems have occurred in our building with all types of residents, regardless of their income source, including students, embassy employees, people with rental subsidies and people without subsidies.
How did you work with your fellow tenants and how did they respond?
We have established very good rapport with our tenant members by issuing a periodic bulletin of news about the building and issues within the building they do not always get from the management company. Our bulletin is called “News You Can Use.” We also co-founded a consortium of 86 other tenant associations in all eight wards across the city: the DC Area Tenant Association Consortium (DCATAC). We exchange tips on how to deal with building issues, and we regularly steal tidbits from the 4000 Massachusetts Avenue Tenant Association newsletter to include in our own bulletin!
We have also set up a holiday fund which raises several thousand dollars each year to give checks to non-management staff (front desk, maintenance, cleaning, package room) staff at holiday time, in gratitude for their services throughout the year.
At the height of the pandemic last year, we raised money among tenants for a mask fund, so that the building could provide a free mask to any person entering the building without one. And in 2020, we also set up a “Brandywine Cares” program so that able-bodied tenant volunteers could do grocery shopping for elderly or disabled or immuno-compromised tenants who did want to leave their units.
All of these activities have created a sense of unity among the tenants.
We also have encouraged all our members to not sit on problems but to voice them directly to management by email, with a visible copy to us, so that we can follow up when necessary. Most of the issues cited by residents relate to noise disturbances by other residents, building cleanliness, smoking and marijuana fumes, messes in the trash rooms, mold issues, jammed garage doors, unleashed dogs running around the premises, Giant carts left in the hallways, and there have been a couple of property thefts from the garage and bicycle room. There also have been several cases of tenants moving out of the building because of noise, marijuana and petty crimes, mold and other issues they felt were not adequately addressed by the management team.
How did you work with the management company?
We have a very active board of seven volunteers who have over 100 years of living experience in the Brandywine and who are committed to creating a safe, quiet, healthy living environment for their fellow residents. We meet monthly, in person or by Zoom.
We have found that regular communication with management by our tenants association and by tenants has produced results. I have a monthly meeting with the building manager to go over pending unresolved issues, and in the pre-pandemic era we met a couple of times a year with the senior management team of the company. When necessary, we will file reports of problems, not just with the on-site manager but also with the senior management team and the company’s HQ, when the issues involve budget and major repair problems that may be beyond the on-site manager’s authority to control.
The results have been slow in coming but, with pressure on management from tenants and our BTA, we now have 24/7 security guard service in the building, additional CCTV cameras at entrances, improved ventilation and mold remediation measures, improved front desk concierge service, and a new management team that is much more responsive to tenant concerns.
For years we also have been pushing to get a manager to actually live in the building to deal with issues that arise on weekends and evenings, but we have not, as yet, been successful in getting that service which we feel is needed for a 305-unit building with 400 to 500 residents. We are also pushing to get a better telephone response system at the front desk.
In short, we feel that it is the responsibility of the management company – not the police, not the city, not the federal government – to provide a safe, quiet and healthy living environment for their customers, the residents, and so that is where we have directed our attention. The current on-site manager claims to have found an effective way to deal with any offending tenants by doing it on an individual, personal, case-by-case basis.
How did you work with the police and how has their response been?
The police have responded quickly and effectively when called to the building, and through FOIA, they give us monthly reports on the numbers of their visits to the building. We do feel the police could do a better job of crime prevention by meeting regularly with the building management team to give suggestions on building security and crime prevention.
What support services, if any, are readily available to tenants in need?
We know that support services are available through the city, but for privacy reasons we are not made aware of how often these agencies visit the building. It is the management company’s responsibility, working with affected tenants, to call on these services when needed.
What lessons did you learn that could be helpful for residents of other apartment buildings?
Establish a close relationship with fellow tenants through formation and management of a strong, active tenant association.
Encourage regular frequent communication between tenants, the tenants association and management as issues arise.
And don’t give up. Hang in there!