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Visit Checcia Durham’s apartment at 11 50th St. SE and you’ll see plenty of reasons she should complain to her landlord: The building’s main entry doesn’t lock; broken windows and plywood abound; the busted doors of the second floor’s empty apartments are loosely chained to keep out squatters.
Inside the apartment where Durham lives with her 13-year-old son, Marquese, conditions are worse. There’s a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling from when the pipes in the vacant apartment upstairs burst one freezing night in 2003. Since the bathtub faucet stopped working, she’s washed up every night in the sink. And when her apartment’s heating failed in 2002, Durham made do by setting her oven to broil and opening its door. After a year and a half, the oven gave out and she switched to leaving her stove’s gas burners on almost continuously from late fall to spring. It’s unsafe, Durham says, “but better than being cold.”
Durham, 27, has one problem: She has no landlord to complain to.
Until the summer of 2000, Durham and her fellow residents paid rent to Gregory Ferguson, a man involved in the management of several buildings in the area who they believed was their landlord. But in June of that year, after District authorities charged Ferguson with criminal housing-code violations, he disappeared and was later revealed not to own the property at all. Since then, 11 50th St. has become a perverse victim of the District’s booming real-estate market.
Once abandoned and dismissed as worthless, the property is now being fought over by at least five parties with various claims to its ownership, tax certificates, and assorted debt. None of them, however, has made a commitment to the upkeep of the building, which is now in worse shape than when Ferguson was in charge.
The ongoing dispute over who actually owns 11 50th St. SE does come with one significant benefit: Since Ferguson left, Durham and her neighbors have regularly paid no rent. The cost of living in the building has been only as high as the month’s electric bill. (Under D.C. law, the building’s jointly metered water and gas lines cannot be disconnected, despite years of unpaid bills reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars.)
Many residents have evidently found free rent comes at too high a price: When Durham arrived in 2000, the 12-unit building had no vacancies; today, only six units are occupied. “People moved out if they found a better place,” she says of her former neighbors. Those who stayed did so out of either economy or, in Durham’s case, necessity. “It’s not a place I want to be,” she says.
In 2003, after losing many of her possessions to the flooding in her apartment, Durham packed her bags. She found a job working as a receptionist for a doctor in Landover Hills, and with the help of a friend who worked in a nearby building’s rental office, she moved herself and her son into a new place. They lasted six months. After suffering what she describes as sexual harassment, she lost her job, and a few weeks later, they moved back to 50th Street. Returning, she believes, was hard for Marquese. “He’s got a little girlfriend now, but he doesn’t want to bring her over because of where we live,” she says. “He doesn’t want people to know.”
Not every tenant who remains is in such a rush to leave. “It’s a blessing, because you’ve got someplace to stay,” says one resident who answered the door on a weekday afternoon. The tenants of 11 50th St. have formed a small tenants’ association that takes care of remedial maintenance, such as covering broken windows and sealing off vacant apartments from vagrants. Not all residents lack functional heating or have suffered major water damage, and there’s reluctance on the part of many residents to protest about the quality of free accommodations.
Linda Argo, spokesperson for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), says her agency used to receive regular complaints in the couple of years following Ferguson’s departure. As a result of building inspections, the agency performed $18,000 worth of emergency repairs at the address between 2001 and 2003. “Usually it’s a tenant bringing something to our attention,” Argo says.
But as the perhaps more maintenance-sensitive tenants moved out, the agency began to receive fewer and fewer complaints. “I can also understand why they wouldn’t come to us,” Argo says. “Because when we come in and file papers against the owner, things start moving in a way that could potentially lead to a situation where they’d have to pay rent.”
Indeed, the decrease in complaints hardly indicated safe living conditions: Over the weekend of Dec. 17, as a result of what Argo says is the first resident request in several years, the DCRA performed a building-wide inspection, finding what Argo characterizes as “numerous housing violations” ranging from water damage to dangerously unsecured bathroom fixtures to an absence of smoke detectors. Argo expects that the DCRA will have drawn up a list of violations to present before the end of this week.
Finding an owner to hold responsible isn’t exactly an easy task, however: After the estate of Harry Weisman lost the property to nonprofit Affordable Residential Housing LLC following a 1998 tax auction, it filed suit against the new owners alleging the government sale was invalid. Neither Weisman’s estate nor Affordable has paid the property’s taxes since, so another company, Heartwood LLC, bought the property’s tax certificate in 2002. Complicating matters even further, Affordable has gone bankrupt, postponing all hearings regarding the building, which continues to run up municipal fines and utility bills.
“I can understand a party in that position not wanting to pay taxes or make repairs until it’s determined by the court who actually owns it,” says Bill Waller, a real-estate-tax lawyer for First Liberty Bank, which is involved in a related dispute between Affordable Residential Housing and the Weisman estate. “Because once you pay the taxes to the District, it can be hard to get them back.”
Hearings in the court case have been postponed to at least February 2006. Whoever wins the property can look forward to paying off the more than $55,000 in fines and debt that have accumulated before even getting to the problems with the structure itself.
By that time, Durham expects to be living somewhere else. In February, she landed a position in a natural-medicine office in North Cleveland Park and has saved enough for a rental deposit. It won’t be anything fancy, but she’s looking forward to having a landlord again: “That’s my Christmas present—I’m getting out of here,” she says.CP