• Washington Post

In D.C.-Paid Housing, He Tried to Stay Sober as Drug Dealers Took Hold

Photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. McCoy
Lewis Watts, a participant in a D.C. program to combat chronic homelessness, in front of his apartment on Quincy Street NW.

WASHINGTON – On weekday mornings, Lewis Watts, 67, rolls off his mattress before sunrise. He lights a cigarette and waits for a honk from the curb outside before leaving his tiny second-floor apartment. Often, his path downstairs is blocked by passed-out drug users and what they leave behind – beer cans, the remnants of takeout meals, the burnt smell of crack cocaine. Watts steps over these grim figures, annoyed but understanding, resolving to stay clean another day.

Here in the small apartment buildings along Quincy Street in Northwest Washington, the District pays a developer to house some of the city’s poorest residents.

The arrangement is part of the city’s permanent supportive housing program, a key piece of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s efforts to combat chronic homelessness. Under pressure to get homeless people off the streets and out of burgeoning tent encampments, Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council have rapidly expanded the endeavor, doubling the number of participants in two years to more than 5,000. The program claims a “housing first” approach – immediate housing followed by intensive services to help people work toward goals like stability and sobriety.

But participants, most of whom have addiction or other mental health issues, are struggling where the District has let them be funneled into buildings that lack security and on-site services, which experts say are necessary to make such scenarios work. Those in the program are guaranteed only one face-to-face contact with a caseworker per month, even as drug users, pushers and vagrants frequent their buildings through front doors with broken locks. All while the city pays top dollar for units – $2,520 a month for 350-square-foot efficiencies along Quincy Street. With few clear lines of responsibility for fixing problems evident to everyone, city agencies, service providers and landlords are pointing fingers at one another.

“The maintenance guys get spit on; they’ve had bricks thrown at them, knives pulled on them; the property manager’s been pushed down the steps, crack blown in their face,” said Ashley Victoria Derosa, who grew up in D.C. in a Section 8 subsidized apartment and worked at the Housing Authority for over a decade before becoming director of property management for Petra Development, which owns the buildings along Quincy Street. “We go through a lot.”

Wayne Turnage, Bowser’s deputy mayor for health and human services, defended the supportive housing program in a recent interview, saying it has successfully taken thousands of people off the streets. But he acknowledged that some buildings have seen serious problems.

“Most of those arrangements do not blow up in a disruptive mess, only a very small percentage do,” Turnage said. “But often the problems are so severe, and they invite so much public attention, that people tend to diminish the brand of the housing program because of this noisy tail wagging the dog.”

The city has created a work group to examine “whether or not we are providing the appropriate level of service and accountability” for participants, Turnage said. It aims to provide recommendations on that and other questions by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, rather than finding refuge to fight their addictions, program participants like Watts face daily temptation. He says he’s responsible for his own decisions – “Alcohol and drugs wasn’t my problem, it was me” – but the city’s help has in some ways hurt.

“You stand by a hot dog stand long enough, and what’s gonna happen?” Watts said one recent morning as he returned to Quincy Street from his daily trip to the methadone clinic, where he’d received another dose of the pink liquid to blunt his craving.

‘Door control’

Watts, who grew up in the District, first became hooked on heroin as a teen but stayed off it for stretches. One lasted 15 years, he said. He’s spent time in jail for buying crack, among other low-level offenses. After an arrest a few years ago, court records noted that despite case management services and medication, Watts wrestled with depression that impacted his ability to stay sober.

He was the first to move into his building at 1402 Quincy St., in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. For decades, the block had been lined with century-old single-family rowhouses. But in 2017, Petra employees began knocking on people’s doors in this strip where a zoning quirk allows for multifamily buildings.

Petra’s business plan is simple. Buy up residential buildings, reconfigure them to pack in as many apartments as possible, and rent them to voucher holders, on whose behalf, a Washington Post investigation in February showed, the D.C. Housing Authority has been willing to pay high rents without inquiring into the units’ actual worth.

Though some owners declined to sell, Petra succeeded in buying four of the eight homes on the block. The building at 1402 Quincy St. was a three-bedroom rowhouse when Petra acquired it for $755,000. By 2020, it held two studio apartments and six one-bedrooms.

The bedroom in Watts’s apartment measures 8.75 feet by 7.75 feet, just big enough for a full-size bed with room to walk around it. After moving in, Watts began using the bedroom as a sort of walk-in closet, pulling his mattress and box spring into the living room. The Housing Authority pays Petra $2,648 a month for the apartment with utilities (minus a few hundred dollars that Watts is responsible for – about 30 percent of his income), records show. Neighborhood market rents, according to an analysis commissioned last year by the Housing Authority, are several hundred dollars less.

Still, “I loved it when I moved in here,” said Watts, who had been in a homeless shelter before arriving in 2020.

David Bridges, who lives in the rowhouse next door with his husband, Nick Bowden, said the couple felt optimistic at first, too, when a Petra employee told them the new neighbors would be elderly men who had been homeless. The couple were on board, in concept, with trying to give people a hand up.

Soon after Watts moved in, a friendly, slightly pudgy veteran moved into the apartment just below him. Bridges said the man, in his 60s or 70s, would sit out front to smoke, saying hello to passersby. “Everyone liked him,” Bridges said.

Bowden, who tends to day lilies in a tiny backyard plot, bonded with the veteran over their shared interest in plants and gardening. On Memorial Day that year, Bowden bought him a small houseplant for his window.

But trouble inside the building soon became apparent. As more tenants moved in, so did visitors – and their problems.

The challenge of what social workers sometimes call “door control” is common among the newly housed. They often find it hard to say no to friends looking for a place to crash or use drugs. Over time, a program participant can lose control of the property.

Guarded optimism among neighbors turned to anger as the months passed and, court records show, people began dealing crack out of Petra apartments along Quincy Street, including the veteran’s. They often smoked it in the alley. The building’s locking front door – a feature required by city regulations – was kicked in repeatedly until Petra stopped fixing it. “They’re going to keep allowing the traffic to come in their units, which is just going to keep breaking the door,” Petra’s Derosa said in an interview.

Bridges and Bowden could only watch as the situation for the veteran, who held a Department of Veterans Affairs supportive housing voucher, became increasingly precarious. Police raided his apartment in early 2021, seizing “zips containing crack cocaine,” according to a search warrant inventory.

Officers learned that neighborhood gangs – the 3500 Crew and the Really Ready Gang – had commandeered it to sell drugs, police records say. That September, one of the dealers, nicknamed “Swipes,” was again in the veteran’s apartment, and pointed a gun at him when he threatened to call police, records say. A month later, police raided the apartment again, along with a basement apartment in the building, this one also overtaken by gang members.

The next year, police would find a “ghost gun” in the veteran’s apartment on the night a man fled to the building after shooting at officers, grazing one in the finger and forehead. Police were told the shooter had regularly hung out in the veteran’s apartment.

The veteran, whom The Post could not locate, received a beating that year that left his face temporarily disfigured, Watts said. Later, Derosa became concerned when the man wouldn’t open his door. “So I went in there and did a welfare check on him, and he was curled up so tight in his bed,” she recalled. She called 911.

A few months after the police shooting, officers raided a third apartment in the building, the one across the hall from Watts’s unit. Same situation: A drug dealer had taken over the apartment, police records say. “This is where I serve at, I take care of them,” the dealer told a Petra property manager, according to the records. Officers seized crack cocaine, cash and 9mm ammunition.

By this time, the veteran’s slightly overweight frame had grown gaunt. “He looks like death, he is so thin,” Bowden recalls telling Derosa in a text message. “Somebody has to do something.”

Eventually, the man’s caseworker at Veterans Affairs relocated him, Derosa said, at her urging. But despite increasing pleas from neighbors to city officials and to Petra, the drug sales and occasional violence in Watts’s building didn’t stop.

Watts’s former girlfriend, Tara Jackson, lived with him in the building for a time when she had nowhere else to go. She said recently that Watts had sometimes used drugs and let people into the apartment off the street. “But he stopped all that.”

Watts agreed. “Nobody comes in here anymore,” he said. But he knew the assertion was more aspiration than fact. A few nights earlier, he’d let an unsober acquaintance crash there.

A security meeting

As problems mounted, Rashid Salem, who started Petra Development in 2011, sought to expand the company’s real estate portfolio in D.C.

Those versed in the local market know two things about District government. First, units leased to voucher holders are exempt from the rent stabilization law. Second, the Housing Authority didn’t check market rates before approving leases and would often pay above market. (Agency officials say that this summer they stopped paying over-market rents, which federal law prohibits, although previous arrangements are grandfathered.)

Petra’s business in D.C. relies on payments from the Housing Authority and voucher recipients. Data that The Post obtained last year from the Housing Authority through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that Petra was to be paid more than $380,000 per month – a figure that does not count payments from the District’s separate rapid-rehousing program.

The portfolio includes a 39-unit apartment building at 5616 13th St. NW, in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood, that Salem’s enterprise bought in 2018 and renamed the Madison. By buying out tenants of rent-stabilized units and moving in voucher recipients, he nearly tripled his rent from each unit, records show. Most of the building’s new tenants were in the permanent supportive housing program or a similar Veterans Affairs program. About a quarter of the District’s approximately 20,000 voucher holders are permanent supportive housing participants.

The Madison, like the buildings along Quincy Street, has no front-desk security and has become a hub of drug activity, police records show, frustrating residents and infuriating neighbors.

“This building has been my downfall,” said one permanent supportive housing participant who lives there, a middle-aged man trying to kick a crack cocaine habit. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety and privacy.

Rachel Cook, who lives nearby, emailed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in January. “Currently, people with mental health and substance abuse issues are living in the same building with drug dealers and sex traffickers with no accountability or oversight,” Cook wrote. “This is truly appalling and inhumane. I can’t imagine a worse scenario for a person battling drug addiction, and the constant overdoses clearly demonstrate the urgency of this situation.”

Salem said in an interview that Petra “provided what we considered opportunity housing to the sort of forgotten folks that really need a fresh start.” What is lacking, he said, is an effective partnership of landlords, city agencies, the mayor’s office and the D.C. Council “to where there was a thoughtful process of how to make this work.”

“We have been a willing participant in that, but we can’t find a dance partner who’s willing to take responsibility for the success of their constituents,” said Salem, who has real estate ventures elsewhere, including Maryland and Texas, and lives in a $5 million mansion he purchased in 2020 that overlooks a golf course in Westlake, Tex.

Salem said he’s not making money on the D.C. developments because of added expenses renting to high-needs tenants, who too often cause expensive maintenance issues ranging from drywall damage to sewer lines backed up with diapers and other things. “People flush socks down the toilet,” Salem said. “I mean, it’s just crazy.”

Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) met with Salem in November. “I echoed the requests of surrounding neighbors that Petra repair their front door (which does not lock properly) and provide on-site security or concierge services,” Lewis George wrote afterward to then-Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D). “Mr. Salem said they could not afford it.”

In July, the attorney general’s office notified Petra it was investigating the Madison as “a drug- and firearm-related nuisance” property, citing three police raids conducted in the building since early last year.

A week later, Derosa and other Petra employees met with Assistant Attorney General Matthew Meyer in a sweltering community room in the Madison’s basement, where Derosa noted that the raids resulted from collaborations between her and police – to whom she’s given round-the-clock access to the building’s security cameras.

Derosa told Meyer that Petra for months had been working to evict the resident whose apartment was the subject of the latest raid, in June, but that the first court date wasn’t until August. In a court filing, Petra accuses the man of behavior that includes threatening to stab a Petra employee.

At night, Derosa carries a Glock pistol inside Petra buildings, which she acknowledges are unsafe. But she said caseworkers contracted by the District, under pressure to get their clients housed, still clamor for units in them. “And then what happens when they move in?” she said. “The caseworkers are silent. They disappear.”

Even when tenants are arrested, they’re quickly released and able to return to the building, Derosa said during the meeting, because neither the Housing Authority nor the District’s Department of Human Services will revoke their vouchers or otherwise hold them accountable.

Back at Quincy Street, the drugs and nuisance behavior in Petra’s buildings became too much for Dave Pierre, 60, who lived on the street that shares its alley for nearly three decades.

It never made sense to him that the city would facilitate entire buildings full of unsupervised and untreated people with mental health and addiction problems. “That’s insane to me,” he said.

He recently moved to the Eastern Shore. “They literally drove me out of the city,” he said.

‘Setup for disaster’

The caseworkers essential to the city’s housing-first approach work for service providers contracted by the District. They are supposed to help program participants like Watts with tasks that include creating household budgets, building community support networks and connecting with mental health and substance abuse services. For this, city contracts show, the Department of Human Services pays $755 per tenant per month. The contracts allow caseloads of up to 25 clients per caseworker.

Under the agreement, caseworkers must make at least two contacts with participants a month, one of which must be in person – down from a minimum of four contacts a month required until last year. The change was intended to give service providers flexibility, so they can devote more attention to participants who really need it, said the DHS’s interim director, Rachel Pierre.

“In the beginning, when they’ve just moved to housing and they need to be connected to all of the services, the case manager may have to meet with a client up to six, eight, sometimes 10 times a month,” Pierre said. But often, fewer services are needed later, she said.

As Bowser and the council have funded thousands of new permanent supportive housing vouchers in the past few years, District agencies have struggled to build capacity to use them amid administrative holdups and a nationwide shortage of caseworkers.

Turnage, who as deputy mayor oversees the DHS, said the District doesn’t limit how many supportive housing participants are moved into a particular building. “That is dependent on the unit that the resident chooses and then the willingness of the landlord . . . to take more,” he said.

There is a scarcity of landlords willing to participate in the program, city officials and service providers said. “It is very difficult to justify not taking them up on that opportunity and giving somebody a roof over their head who otherwise would be living on the street or in the shelter,” Turnage said.

The concentration of permanent supportive housing participants is best kept to less than 25 percent of a building, according to recommendations by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Experts say buildings full of people in need of intensive case management should have on-site supervision and services.

Sam Tsemberis, a social researcher credited with pioneering the housing-first model, called disregarding those recommendations “a setup for disaster.”

“It’s just not fair to put people in that kind of a situation,” Tsemberis said in an interview.

MBI Health Services, the company that handles Watts’s case management, has moved several of its clients from Quincy Street and is working on moving several more, including Watts, because of the issues there, said MBI Health’s chief executive, Marie Morilus-Black.

As Derosa gave a reporter a tour of Petra’s buildings recently, she learned that a man had died in one along Wisconsin Avenue. Soon, she was listening to a tenant describe how he’d discovered his overnight guest not breathing. “He came over last night and he was fine,” the man told Derosa. She suspected a drug overdose. “Literally, we’ve had dead bodies every week for like three months, just back-to-back,” Derosa said afterward.

Derosa, under pressure from the attorney general, has hired a security guard to make daily rounds at Quincy Street, the Madison and other buildings. She’s also collecting estimates for replacing aluminum doors with ones made of steel.

Watts, now in his fourth year living on Quincy Street, said his sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous told him to “get a rope, tie a knot and hold on.” He is, for now, even as so many around him have let go.