WASHINGTON — The SWAT team, the overdose, the complaints of pot smoke in the air and feces in the stairwell — it would be hard to pinpoint a moment when things took a turn for the worse at Sedgwick Gardens, a stately apartment building in northwest Washington.
But the Art Deco complex, which overlooks Rock Creek Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is today the troubled locus of a debate on housing policy in a city struggling with the twin crises of homelessness and gentrification.
Located in affluent Cleveland Park and designed by Mihran Mesrobian — the prewar architect behind such Washington landmarks as the Hay-Adams Hotel — Sedgwick Gardens was once out of reach for low-income District residents.
That changed two years ago, when District of Columbia housing officials dramatically increased the value of rental subsidies. The goal was to give tenants who had previously clustered in impoverished, high-crime areas east of the Anacostia River a shot at living in more desirable neighborhoods.
At Sedgwick Gardens, the effort met with wild success. As of February, tenants with city-issued housing vouchers had filled nearly half of the building’s roughly 140 units.
Mixed-income developments aren’t rare in Washington, where officials often require that new buildings preserve some space for working-class residents.
But the situation at Sedgwick Gardens is different: Many of the new tenants are homeless men and women who came directly from shelters or the streets, some still struggling with severe behavioral problems.
The result has been a kind of high-stakes social experiment that so far has left few of its subjects happy. Police visits to the building have nearly quadrupled since 2016. Some tenants have fled. In February, responding to complaints, the city began staffing the building with social workers at night to deal with problems that arise.
Some voucher tenants say they have been made to feel unwelcome by their new neighbors, a dynamic that has unavoidable undertones of race and class in a largely white neighborhood.
More established tenants contend that they support the goals of the voucher program, but that it has gone badly awry at Sedgwick Gardens, transforming the building into a dumping ground for people unprepared to live on their own.
Even some Sedgwick Gardens residents who receive public assistance say the complex was colonized by the city’s housing programs too rapidly and without sufficient oversight.
“It’s not about the voucher program. It’s not about racism. It’s about people’s conduct and behavior,” said Lorraine Starkes, 61, a formerly homeless woman who moved into Sedgwick Gardens using a voucher about two years ago.
Starkes, who is black, said some of her fellow voucher tenants were not properly screened by city officials before moving in. Now, she said, those residents have overwhelmed her new home, and “are trying to turn it into a ghetto.”
The drama within Sedgwick Gardens’s red-brick walls exposes challenges and contradictions in the “housing first” policies for reducing homelessness that have been adopted by Washington and many other cities.
That approach calls for placing homeless people in long-term housing without first requiring treatment for mental illness or addiction. Many experts say it is the best way to help people who have trouble helping themselves amid the chaos of homelessness.
But as housing first has emerged as a national policy consensus, some have begun to warn that it is being applied too broadly, and at times with inadequate supports for people who aren’t ready for the independence and responsibilities of living by themselves.
City officials deny that such mistakes have been made at Sedgwick Gardens, saying that disturbing incidents that have cropped up were isolated cases.
“I think the reason the issues at Sedgwick Gardens came to a head is that there were a couple of residents that were causing a problem. That could have been true whether they had a voucher or not,” said District Council member Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Human Services. “I want us to be careful not to demonize everyone who finds stable housing through a subsidy, because not everybody who needs a subsidy is a criminal.”
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Built in 1931, Sedgwick Gardens rises on Connecticut Avenue less than a mile north of the National Zoo. Past an elegant stone carriage porch is a cavernous lobby, ringed by Moorish arches and featuring a fountain of marble and blue tile, that could be the setting for a scene in a Raymond Chandler novel.
Until recently, the building was occupied by a quiet mix of tenants made up primarily of couples and single apartment-dwellers, said Carren Kaston, a former literature professor who has lived at the complex for more than three decades and is president of the Sedgwick Gardens Tenant Association.
That began to change about two years ago.
In late 2016, the board of the District Housing Authority — which sets payment standards for vouchers issued in the city — increased the maximum value of vouchers to 175 percent of fair market rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That meant vouchers could be used for one-bedroom apartments renting at up to $2,648, according to Housing Authority documents. At Sedgwick Gardens, the going rate for one-bedroom units was about $2,200 per month in 2017, according to a former tenant who moved in that year without public assistance.
Voucher tenants pay 30 percent of whatever income they have toward rent, with the city subsidizing the rest.
The move came in a city desperate to offer its residents more affordable living options, and to move chronically homeless people off the street. At the last official count in 2018, there were 6,904 homeless people in the District, which has a population of just over 700,000. A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the District has experienced the most intense gentrification of any city in the country.
Naimah Simkins, the former property manager at Sedgwick Gardens, said that in early 2017 she listed basement units she was having trouble leasing on a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. Soon there was a trickle of formerly homeless or low-income veterans bearing vouchers issued by the District government.
The Cleveland Park neighborhood is a bastion of urbane liberalism where just 1 in 20 voters supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Yet from the beginning, Simkins said, it was clear that some of the building’s older residents were discomfited by the new basement dwellers.
She likened the dynamic to “The People Under the Stairs,” a 1991 kitsch horror movie in which a well-to-do couple live above a cellar filled with mistreated children.
“It would be, like, the smallest thing that they would call the police on,” Simkins said. She said the more established tenants “feel uneasy, but if they would just reach out and talk, they would see that (voucher tenants) are human beings, too.”
After moving into the building about two years ago, voucher holder Joseph Bundy, 69, said he was smoking outside one day when another resident of the building approached him: “This lady came up and said, ‘Don’t you know there’s a park up the street?’ I said, ‘What you talking about, a park up the street? My home’s right here.'”
Lawrence Hilliard, a 69-year-old Marine Corps veteran who previously lived at a homeless men’s shelter, said a social worker took him on a tour of apartments where he could use his rental voucher. At the initial addresses in Southeast, Hilliard said he was warned by residents that the sound of gunshots made it hard to sleep at night.
Sedgwick Gardens, in a neighborhood of parks and small businesses where Hilliard had done odd jobs as a young man, was a revelation.
“It was away from the violence and the foolishness, man, that’s the main thing,” he said, smoking a cigarette on a recent evening in the building’s parking lot, which adjoins a vibrant patch of World War II victory gardens still tended by community members. “And then the violence and the foolishness came up here.”
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There were 121 calls for police service at Sedgwick Gardens in 2018, up from 34 in 2016. City officials said that despite that volume, officers determined just five times last year that a crime had taken place. Still, a number of the incidents left residents rattled.
On Palm Sunday of last year, officers responding to a noise complaint encountered Robert Gingell, who according to a police report could be heard throwing objects around his third-floor apartment.
When they knocked on the door, Gingell allegedly said, “If you try to come into my apartment, I have a shotgun and will shoot all of you. I will pick you off one by one.”
A police tactical team filed through the historic carriage porch and across the limestone-and-marble lobby and set up a perimeter outside Gingell’s apartment, where he remained holed up until the next morning. Although no gun was found, Gingell was arrested. He was released — and then arrested again at Sedgwick Gardens two days later for striking another tenant in the head with a flashlight.
Gingell could not be reached for comment. Court documents indicate that he pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted threats to do bodily harm, agreeing to undergo a mental-health assessment and treatment. In February his community supervision officer reported that he no longer lived at Sedgwick Gardens, but at another apartment building in Northwest Washington.
About a month after the SWAT team’s visit, police were called to the building to investigate the whereabouts of 68-year-old tenant Jacob Brooks, who according to building staff had not been seen in weeks. When he did not answer his door, police entered his apartment and found him on the floor of his bedroom, unconscious and not breathing, according to an incident report. Fire and emergency medical services officials called to the scene declared him dead.
The chief medical examiner determined that his death was caused by drugs including fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that often causes overdoses when it is mixed with heroin.
City officials declined to say whether Gingell or Brooks were receiving rental assistance, citing privacy laws.
Tenants say they have also confronted a slew of less-serious nuisances such as panhandling, marijuana smoke in the halls and feces discovered on a landing in the stairwell.
Diane McWhorter, a Sedgwick Gardens resident and author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about segregation and the civil-rights movement, said bureaucratic bungling was undermining the laudable aims of the voucher programs.
“I became extremely disillusioned with the city as a result of this whole thing, because I kind of lost faith in their willingness or ability to respond to what was happening on the ground,” McWhorter said.
“Cleveland Park is the ideal community to test this out, because by and large the existing residents are very hospitable to these ideas,” she added. “It just would behoove them to try to make this work here. Because the odds are, if it can’t work here, they’re going to have a hard time selling it in communities that aren’t as ‘woke.'”
McWhorter said landlords also have little incentive to turn away tenants unfit for independent living, since the vouchers guarantee them rents in excess of market rates.
And there is an added perk. In buildings such as Sedgwick Gardens, where many older tenants pay less for rent-stabilized units, apartments that are let out to tenants receiving public assistance don’t revert to rent control once those tenants leave. Last year the D.C. Council took action to close this loophole, but the law has not yet gone into effect.
A spokeswoman for Daro, which owns and manages Sedgwick Gardens, said the company had not taken steps either “to solicit or discourage voucher holders from applying,” and noted that it was illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants receiving government rental subsidies.
She said Daro addressed problems with tenants as they arose.
“Beyond enforcing lease violations and working to evict tenants who repeatedly violate the terms of their lease, Daro has worked with city officials, police, case managers, housing officials, and other tenants to create a safe environment,” she said.
Housing first — or housing only?
For decades, homeless people often faced obstacles in the search for long-term housing. Among them was the mindset that issues such as chronic mental illness or addiction should be under control before people became eligible to live outside shelters or group homes.
“Housing first” revolutionized that attitude. Backed by a formidable body of research showing that it reduces chronic homelessness, it has become the dominant philosophy in the District and many other cities.
“Housing is therapeutic in and of itself, and there should be no behavioral barriers to access to housing,” said Jay Melder, the District’s assistant city administrator for internal services. “Housing first is a best practice, nationwide.”
But as that practice spreads, some are urging caution against a one-size-fits-all attitude.
Particularly for those who have endured prolonged bouts of homelessness or mental illness, the approach is risky, said David Buck, associate dean of community health at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
While studies clearly support the effectiveness of housing-first programs, Buck said, they can fall apart when participants don’t get the follow-up care they need.
Government officials and advocates for homeless people “want one answer for everyone,” Buck said. “Housing first and just the voucher works great for some people. But for people who are chronically mentally ill or chronically homeless … those people don’t do as well just jumping in.”
A majority of the District Council is backing a bill, introduced by Nadeau, that would require buildings with at least 20 units and 30 percent or more of them occupied by tenants receiving housing assistance to offer on-site access to social services such as health care, nutrition counseling and child care. Nadeau said the bill did not arise in response to complaints about Sedgwick Gardens.
Melder noted that only a portion of the voucher holders at Sedgwick Gardens are formerly homeless or in need of ongoing social services. Some, including families, simply qualified for public assistance because of their low income levels.
Case managers were assigned to those who required services, he said, even before the city began stationing social workers at the building two months ago.
But Sedgwick Gardens tenants say that some of their new neighbors seem lost.
Jane Hardin, 79, has lived at the building since 1974. She said most of the voucher tenants are good neighbors, apt to say hello or open a door for her. She likes seeing some of the older men who have moved into the building playing checkers in the basement common space.
Then there is the woman who moved in alone down the hall, who moans and screams incomprehensibly for long stretches of the day and night, who seems to badly need help she isn’t getting. On Christmas Day last year, Hardin said, she found her sitting by herself near the elevator. It seemed like a good time to try to establish a connection.
“I looked at her and just said, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and she nodded her head and almost smiled,” Hardin recalled. “But I haven’t been able to build on that.”