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Above: An extension cord supplies power to the laundry room at 1331-1333 Alabama Ave. SE.
There were bedbugs, leaks, and broken appliances. Countless phone calls and court appearances. Still, after dealing with deteriorating housing conditions for years, many D.C. residents in low-rent units have found themselves caught in the gray area of a system that struggles to hold landlords accountable for providing functional, healthy living spaces.
Over the past two months, Washington City Paper has met and interviewed tenants, housing advocates, and landlords across the city, and heard stories about infestations lasting years, frustrations with neighbors and building management as development money pours in, and, for some, fears of losing the home they’ve lived in for years.
These issues are tragically common: In a survey of nearly 600 District residents by the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers, more than 43 percent of respondents said they had problems “keeping up with rent increases and getting their landlords to make repairs.” More than 30 percent of those surveyed said housing was the “most serious problem they had faced in the past two years.”
The official route for tenants to deal with poor living conditions and unresponsive landlords is through the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, whose inspectors conduct housing code inspections when residents report problematic conditions in their rented houses and apartments. When an issue gets reported to DCRA, “certain things are obvious, certain things are almost always not going to be [obvious], and then you have the stuff in between, where, depending on what it looks like, it might need to be treated like an emergency,” says Matt Orlins, a spokesperson for DCRA.
“Something like bedbugs,” he says, “could require an emergency inspection, but it may depend on the severity of what someone is reporting. If it sounds like something that’s going to be an immediate harm to someone’s health, we’re going to treat it like an emergency.”
Even with repeated visits by DCRA inspectors to units that have faced ongoing problems, it’s often difficult to hold landlords accountable, as they do patch jobs and make temporary fixes to avoid fines and violations.
Anita Ballantyne is a program director at Housing Counseling Services, where she helps individuals navigate the process of improving their building conditions. One way she does this is to start tenants associations to pressure landlords for changes, to varying effect.
A problem with this, Ballantyne says, is that some tenants are hesitant to invite inspectors into their buildings. Having been neglected for so long, tenants fear an inspector will condemn a building, forcing them out of a space whose only comfort is its affordability.
Neglect can also be a tactic landlords use to pressure their tenants into leaving, as developers seek vacant buildings to renovate or demolish.
“Extreme neglect is often coupled with, ‘Oh I’m selling the building anyway or you have to leave,’” Ballantyne says.
Will Merrifield is a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who’s worked with tenants at buildings facing that dilemma. “They just let the properties go to hell. This is what they do. This is their business model,” Merrifield says of the buildings’ owners. “For that to be a business model, to exploit and displace people so you can make maximum profit through redevelopment, that’s what’s wrong with this city. That’s a big part of why we have a homelessness problem… You’re betting on people being displaced who have lived here their whole lives and pay taxes. It’s sick.”
City Paper met and toured four buildings that are facing such situations. Two of these addresses were part of 31 Freedom of Information Act requests City Paper sent to DCRA seeking inspection reports from the last five years. City Paper received 21 of these reports back, all of which detail various rodent and bedbug infestations, water damage, faulty appliances, and poor conditions that tenants are left to live with.
1451 Sheridan St. NW
The lock on the front door of 1451 Sheridan St. NW is broken. On a Sunday in mid-March, it takes a group of volunteers from the Latino Economic Development Center to pull it open. They head down to the apartment building’s basement laundry room, where a tenant meeting is scheduled for that afternoon.
The meeting, organized by LEDC organizer Talia Brock, is meant to serve as a venue for building residents to voice concerns and identify problems they’re having with the conditions of their apartments. Over the course of an hour, about 15 tenants, mostly Ethiopian immigrants, describe deteriorating appliances and internal plumbing and electrical issues, which they say their landlord has neglected to fix for years.
The building, along with several others in the neighborhood, is owned by Saifur Khan, who operates as 16th St. Heights Noah LLC. At the tenant meeting, guided by Brock, residents discuss different ways they could potentially hold the attention of and get much needed results from a landlord they say is unresponsive and often difficult to work with.
Among them is Kassahun Workneh, who has lived in the building with his family for the past 16 years. For most of that time, he says, there has been a recurring leak in his bedroom and living room that has never been permanently fixed.
“My son is 12 now, he was born in this building. And when my wife was pregnant I started to worry,” Workneh says of the health hazards the leak has created, like mold and fungus. Twelve years later, after a series of temporary fixes by building management, water still comes through parts of the ceiling and walls in his apartment when it rains or snows heavily.
After years of frustrating patch jobs, Workneh says he has stopped contacting Khan about the leak. “Now I stop asking [Khan] because you know, same story, I don’t want to fool myself when it starts dripping,” he says, shaking his head. He says that he’s been sending photos and videos of the leak to Khan for years, but it hasn’t resulted in any lasting solution.
During a phone call with City Paper in mid-April, Khan repeatedly denied neglecting issues in his properties, saying that “the apartment condition is good” and that he has fixed all of the problems in the buildings he owns in 16th Street Heights. “The city inspector came and they went to my buildings… Whatever violation I get from the city inspector, I done,” he says.
Over the past four years, inspectors from DCRA have inspected individual apartments at 1451 Sheridan 33 times, according to Orlins. At 1405 Somerset Place NW, a nearby building Khan also owns, 30 unit inspections have occurred in the same time period.
Workneh, who recently started working as a cab driver, says he pays $700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and son. Moving to a different apartment, he says, just isn’t economically feasible. “The problem is that of course, next day, I can find something expensive, but I cannot afford it,” he says. “So I’m stuck here. We cannot afford it. We pay [and] live with this problem.”
1405 Somerset Place NW
A block east of Workneh’s building, at 1405 Somerset Place NW, Tesfa Adamssu hasn’t paid her rent in 10 months. After years of persistent bug and mice infestations in the second floor apartment she shares with her mother, Adamssu stopped paying rent last summer, demanding that her landlord take action that would lead to a permanent fix.
Adamssu’s building is also owned and operated by Khan and 16th St. Heights Noah LLC, and, like 1451 Sheridan, it’s occupied mostly by Ethiopians and a few Hispanic residents. Adamssu immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 2002, and works as a nursing assistant at Sibley Memorial Hospital while taking classes part time at University of the District of Columbia and Academy of Hope.
Since moving into her current apartment four years ago, Adamssu says she has been battling waves of infestations without any real solutions from building management. Mice, roaches, and bedbugs have nestled into the corners of her bedroom and destroyed pieces of furniture, but for the past three years, Adamssu says, getting Khan to deal with the problem has been almost impossible.
“We moved in, and we didn’t know what it was. Then roaches on top of roaches, mice. We kept on calling [the landlord]. After you call him, it would take him six, seven months to come.” The bedbugs, Adamssu says, forced her and her mother to constantly rearrange their apartment and get rid of infested belongings. “I had to throw my couch [out]. I got rid of three, four mattresses.”
“The bugs,” she adds, have “been hiding in the living room, bedroom, everywhere.”
Similar to Workneh’s leak down the street, Adamssu says that even when management would complete repairs and exterminations, they weren’t extensive enough to solve any problems. “They weren’t going at all,” she says of the bugs after initial attempts to get rid of them. “The extermination they did was not strong enough to kill the bugs. Here, it was so infested and they didn’t care.”
Copies of DCRA inspection documents that Adamssu provided show a history of violations detailing rodents, roaches, and bedbugs in her apartment, and totaling in the several thousands of dollars in potential fines for Khan. “The problem with DCRA,” she says, “is… they giving him time, before one week he will get the job done, which is a lousy job. Then six months, it is the same thing. He’s not maintaining the extermination on time.”
The infestation, and lack of responsibility from management, Adamssu says, has been extremely disruptive to her life and her mother’s. Last year, with help from lawyers and housing advocates, Adamssu took Khan to court, forcing him to combat the conditions of the apartment which, she alleges, he had ignored for so long. The case settlement resulted in a rent abatement for Adamssu, which lasts until June 2016.
By the end of March, because of her case against Khan, Adamssu says most of the problems have been fixed and adequate exterminations have finally occurred. “He change the oven, he change the refrigerator, they change the floor, the kitchen floor,” she says, but only after the court ordered him to do so. A DCRA notice from January 2016 includes two violations against 16th St. Heights Noah LLC for failure to eliminate infestations of rodents, roaches, and bedbugs. Adamssu says that since then, the roaches and mice are gone.
But even with improvements, Adamssu is still grappling with her apartment’s conditions. During an interview in her living room in early April, she repeatedly smacked her hand on the table, killing tiny bugs as they crawled up from the wall and floor.
“He doesn’t care. He never cared,” Adamssu says of her landlord. “It’s a complicated situation.”
76 M St. NW
Barbara Wood has lived at 76 M St. NW for 45 years. When she first moved in, rent was about $100 per month for her two-bedroom apartment. Now, since she benefits from rent control, her rent is about $600 a month.
The apartment building she calls home is in the middle of (but is not part of) the Sursum Corda Cooperative. That resident association, with developer Winn Development Company Limited Partnership, wants to buy the building so they can tear down the space and include it in the redesign of their community.
Under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, landlord Peter Odagbodo has to offer to sell the units to the tenants before he offers to sell the building to the developers for the new co-operative community. Odagbodo will make more money if he sells the building empty, and he’s incentivized tenants to leave with a $25,000 payout each, one that won’t sustain them for more than a year or two in a comparable unit in D.C.
Odagbodo stands to make $3.8 million from the sale, which means individuals who want to buy their spaces would have to pay about $270,000 each. This is not the first time Odagbodo has sold a decaying building for a profit: In 2003, he sold an apartment complex in Fort Stanton for $3.2 million to a nonprofit that was given millions in federal dollars to deliver affordable housing, the Washington Post reported. The nonprofit, saddled with mortgages it couldn’t pay and buildings that needed extensive repairs, folded. Odagbodo declined to comment for this story.
Photo courtesy Barbara Wood
Even if tenants could afford it, the building has not been kept in a condition that would be worth the price. During a visit in April, Wood showed City Paper photos of holes in her ceiling and people sleeping outside her neighbor’s door. The stench of urine lingered in the stairwell.
Wood has been calling the District since Jan. 8 to clear dozens of empty liquor bottles and piles of trash that have accumulated out front.
“If this was a certain neighborhood, you can’t tell me that stuff would be out there. It wouldn’t still be there,” Wood says.
For smaller projects, her landlord will come in to do patchwork repairs. He replaced a faucet once, she says, but things like the leak in her bathroom ceiling have stayed untouched for 10 years.
The lock on the front door is easy enough to force in, so Wood frequently has to push past trespassers, who often spit and urinate in the stairwells, to get to her apartment. The hallways sometimes become so crowded that she finds herself stepping over individuals openly abusing drugs. During City Paper’s visit, a woman Wood had previously captured on video writhing near the stairs—Wood believes the woman had been using drugs—came in the front door without a key.
“Then they get indignant, and I’m like, ‘You’re not even supposed to be in here,’” Wood says. “Some of these people are crazy people. I can bluff so much, but I can’t show my scaredness.”
Photo taken by DCRA and obtained via FOIA
At Howard Manor, located at 654 Girard St. NW, residents started to become suspicious in October, when they began receiving flyers for surveys from Zalco Realty, which manages the building on behalf of Howard University.
One resident, who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity, says she was put off by a question on the survey that she felt was trying to pin down which families were still left. Soon after, a notice went out to the remaining families that they would have to vacate their units while the building underwent construction.
The resident had become increasingly paranoid about building operations when her usual service contacts began redirecting her to Zalco offices, who in turn would redirect her to an automated response system.
The building, at one point, had been strictly for employees and students of Howard University, but that rule has since been lifted. The tenant has been in the building for 14 years, where she has witnessed 30 families dwindle down to about 10 in recent months.
When her apartment lost power, she says she had a hard time getting someone from the building to fix it. She even offered to pay for a repair out of pocket. Zalco refused this arrangement, the tenant says, and instead she was moved into a one-bedroom next door.
Zalco did not return requests for comment.
The tenant says she at one point had an opportunity to attend school in New York City, but she was hesitant to leave. She would have needed to find her then-young son a decent public school, a process that had been a chore in D.C., and she also knew that the $570 she paid monthly for a two-bedroom apartment in D.C. would not stretch nearly that far in New York.
Plus, she had been there for so long that the other residents felt like her extended family.
“I can’t call Chicago home even though it’s my birthplace, because when I walk in the building here my neighbors will say, ‘Oh you made it home!’” she says. “So you’re genuinely missed.”
In October, the tenants were told in a letter sent by Zalco on behalf of Howard that they have to move out because the building “requires significant work.” Tenants were offered the opportunity to meet with a “relocation counselor.”
The list of damages the landlord has allegedly avoided addressing over the years is lengthy, tenants say: electric and gas that constantly goes out without being fixed, an open-wire electric box in the basement left over from a job half-done, broken appliances, and flooded apartments.
“We haven’t used an oven or broiler in years,” the resident says.
Advocate Ballantyne says she has seen this tactic before. Landlords will avoid making repairs until they can call an inspector in to condemn the building and force its residents out, which they think is a loophole around TOPA.
In this case, the landlord also allegedly held off on cashing residents’ checks for six months, finally depositing them all at once. At best, it was a headache for the resident who kept her rent money in a separate account and had to explain the sudden withdrawal to her bank. For other residents, it wreaked havoc on their financial stability, having not expected the large sum to be withdrawn.
It’s also a tactic that can hurt tenants’ chances in court, since a landlord can claim they aren’t technically tenants by refusing their rent.
“I think that’s one of the things they’re trying to do… set up that suddenly, you’re not really tenants,” Ballantyne says.