5509 9th St. NW in March
5509 9th St. NW in March Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Arthur Williams has lived in a District-funded motel room for months, asking his friends for home-cooked meals and watching his neighbors eat out. With no kitchen and only a tiny fridge in his room, there aren’t many other options.

“There are some people in the other hotels who have to eat the fast food and I’m looking at them getting bigger and bigger, because they can’t cook vegetables or anything like that,” Williams says.

Luis Cruz gets hungry too. But with no kitchen in the New York Avenue NE hotel room that he shares with his family, Cruz has to spend what little income they share on takeout.

“It’s a lot more expensive, especially when it comes to your meals,” Cruz says.

Williams and Cruz are both paying the high cost of being poor in the District. After they were kicked out of Ward 4’s 5509 9th St. NW property when regulators declared it unfit for habitation, they became stuck waiting—surviving—in their hotel rooms for the building to be repaired.

Last March, on the day before inspectors closed it, LL visited the building where Cruz and Williams once lived. The building felt more like a derelict back alley than an apartment complex: It reeked of urine and sweat and stale air. Some units doubled as a squat for prostitutes and fugitives. When the building’s legitimate tenants tried to block transients from breaking into abandoned rooms, they faced a full-on assault from various crooks looking to use the building for their own purposes.

The Metropolitan Police Department discovered its pitiable condition after officers chased a suspect inside. The discovery triggered a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspection that ended with a condemnation and an order to vacate.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

These days, the outside of the place smells more of sawdust than urine. Many windows remained boarded up or busted open, and a construction crew was working inside when LL visited the site last Tuesday. An employee from DCRA patrolled the property—the agency’s Nuisance Abatement Fund is footing the bill for the repairs.

In 2009, the building’s landlord Louis Taylor died, sending ownership of the building into a probate court. The recipients of Taylor’s estate were looking to sell the building and get their share of the District’s real estate boom, leaving tenants in the lurch. The state of the facilities, already gloomy before Taylor’s death, declined rapidly, and at least some tenants stopped paying rent entirely.

The March eviction day turned into a sad carnival—residents hauled their clothes out while a DCRA inspector showed sympathetic neighbors how deep the building had sunk into filth. Police officers recoiled from trash-filled rooms, while a TV camera crew and future presumptive At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who lives nearby, inspected the rooms themselves.

Since then, many of the couple of dozen residents displaced from the building have lived in motels around New York Avenue NE and Bladensburg Road NE. Cruz says they were promised a chance to move back this month. Someday, the residents have been told, 5509 9th St. NW will be habitable. But deadlines for the rehabilitation of the rooms pass, and the remaining tenants are forced to either hang on as long as they can, or ditch their desperate odds and sell their rights to stay on in the building.

The estate that controls 5509 9th St. NW is eager to get rid of it. While residents report receiving offers to relinquish their Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act rights, estate attorney Gerald Belton says the estate recipients are looking to bail.

Instead, Belton offered to sell the building to LL. When LL demurred, Belton said he aims to ditch the building in less than a dozen days.

“From an estate-type situation, that’s a nightmare because you’re not dealing with professional buyers and sellers,” Belton says. “It’s a lot of drama.”

Belton declined to say how much he’s offering tenants to relinquish their right to live in a building that’s become unlivable. 

“Suffice it to say that there’s no such thing as ‘enough’ in dealing with people,” Belton says. 

Officially, the estate that currently owns 5509 9th St. NW should eventually reimburse DCRA for the repairs because the management (or lack thereof) let the building lapse into decay. It’s not clear whether the estate can pay, though. DCRA spokesman Matt Orlins says the property owner will eventually be billed for the repairs.

For Cruz, who shares his hotel room with several members of his family, there are worse options than waiting for their old building to be repaired. 

 “We’re just happy that we’re not on the street or in a shelter,” Cruz says.