Greg Ferebok, a Bethesda resident and commercial property owner on Brentwood Road NE in Ward 5, installed lights, security cameras and fences to deter criminal activities on the property after he learned neighboring residents felt unsafe due to people committing illegal activities within and around the property’s businesses.
Working with neighbors and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG), Ferebok worked to remedy allegations that a Chinese restaurant and 24-hour convenience store housed on his property aided and abetted criminal activity by allowing patrons to stash weapons and complete drug transitions on the premises. But the commercial tenants failed to turn the lights on and lock the fence when they left, making the fixes useless for concerned residents.
“Very few of the neighbors, especially seniors, will dare to patronize those businesses or even walk on that block,” said Ward 5 resident Verna Clayborne, 69.
Clayborne, who has lived in Brookland for nearly 50 years, said that for about a decade, her neighborhood on Brentwood Avenue has become an “active open-air drug market.” She and neighbors blame some for aiding illegal activity, saying the commercial strips near her home and in the area have left the community vulnerable to shootings, robberies and public drug use and sales.
“Violence stemming from the activity on Brentwood Road often flows over the neighboring blocks and has been a cause of several neighbors selling their homes and moving away,” Clayborne said. “This past summer, one of the men who frequented the drug market every day died just a few feet from my driveway.”
She and other neighborhood civic associations had been instrumental in the changes made on Ferebok’s property and inspired the proposed expansion of a law that could oust offending businesses with a moving speech at a March public safety meeting.
The D.C. Council passed the Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Abatement Act in the late 1990s, allowing the city to bring civil actions against residential property owners and tenants who allow and maintain illegal activities related to drugs, guns and prostitution.
Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who said he has walked into businesses with his children and witnessed illegal activity that the owners were aware of, proposed an expansion of a bill to bring civil actions against commercial tenants who are complicit in illegal activity, as well as establish a $10,000 civil penalty for such tenants.
Three of the past four nuisance abatement cases undertaking by OAG has been against commercial properties, said Assistant Attorney General Argatonia Weatherington at a hearing about the legislation last week.
“In many cases against commercial properties, the owner is complicit,” Weathington said. “However, its commercial tenants have greater autonomy than residential tenants, and it is often difficult to get commercial tenants to address the problem.”
But advocates stand opposed to the amendment, calling the underlying bill a “relic of tough-on-crime policing” that targets the city’s most vulnerable communities.
In 2016, The Washington Post reported that about three dozen people whose landlords received drug nuisance abatements were evicted, even though they had no charges filed against them or were charged with misdemeanor possession offenses.
“You can’t divorce the effects of this bill from the effect on of the enforcement the current law,” Nassim Moshiree, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s D.C. chapter, said of the latest nuisance abatement amendment.
McDuffie admitted that the language of the bill could be drafted more clearly to assure his amendment does not target residential tenants.
“Perhaps in my zeal to work with the community to address these issues, I was unaware of what some people have alleged as abuses of the underlying statute,” he said.