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Having grown up on a farm in Potomac, Md., Kim Dutton wasn’t overly concerned when she heard scratching noises coming from behind the closet of her new Dupont Circle apartment. “You knew they were rats because they were big,” recalls Dutton, who moved in at the end of 2000. “I kind of ignored it, thinking, This is D.C. There’s going to be rats.”
The noise was enough of a nuisance, but then the rats made a second assault on her senses. “One of them came into the house and died,” she says, though it was only after a period of decomposition that the dead rat behind the wall made its presence known. “It’s a pungent, kind of acrid, sour smell,” Dutton says. She left her windows open.
At some point in the summer of 2001, she believes, mass casualties occurred. “For at least two months after that, the place was totally uninhabitable,” Dutton says. “Then there were the flies. And you’d come home, and there’d be a swarm of flies, the really big ones, and you’d just know they were from a dead rat.” She abandoned the apartment for two months.
Though Dutton returned to close out her lease, she remained uncomfortable with her uninvited housemates. And since Dutton’s flight, the building’s owner, Mark Bjorge, hasn’t had much luck in finding someone who isn’t. The problem is one of location, he says, though at 17th and P Streets NW, the issue isn’t the neighborhood. It’s the neighbors.
Bjorge’s property shares a wall with Chef’s Express, a carryout incongruously located in the English basement of a late-19th-century row house. Open seven days a week until at least 10:30 p.m., the restaurant supplies Dupont Circle’s condos and office buildings with fried chicken and spring rolls. But crammed with two woks, two rice cookers, cutting tables, and a massive steel sink, the basement it occupies would be a hard space to keep rat-free for even the cleanliest of restaurateurs—and Department of Health (DOH) inspections suggest that the owners of Chef’s Express are anything but.
DOH records show that Chef’s Express has been cited three times since January for rodent harborage, along with other common health-code infractions such as a dirty kitchen and the improper storage and handling of food. “Rodent activity observed below furnace—Burrows in floor….Feces on top of freezer,” an Aug. 18 inspection reports. Awarding Chef’s Express only 42 of 100 points, the inspector temporarily shuttered the restaurant. It reopened the next day.
The owners of Chef’s Express concede that the carryout has a rat problem but claim it’s one they can handle. “We have a pest-control company that comes four times a month,” says 11-year-old Chen-Wei Zhang, speaking on behalf of his father, Ming Jin Zhang. “And they take the trash away every day except for Sunday. We’re not saying we don’t have rats—we do have some. But there are rats on the street; there are rats in the houses. If there’s rats somewhere, you can’t just say that’s all because there’s a restaurant around.”
The owner of the building in which Chef’s Express is located, Vienna resident Salvatore Gorgone, did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him regarding the property’s maintenance.
Bjorge would like the city to take legal action against Chef’s Express. And, in fact, there’s a good chance it already has. In August of last year, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) alleged that Chef’s Express was operating a restaurant—not a deli, as permitted by its license—and in violation of zoning law. A DCRA judge heard the case, but the agency did not issue a ruling before its administrative-hearing division disbanded in October. DCRA spokesperson Jennifer Black was unable to track down the case before this article went to press.
Michele Molotsky, an aide to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, assisted Bjorge in trying to locate the verdict and claims to have been told that it has spent the last year simply waiting to be typed up. “I offered to come in and [do it] for them,” she says—an offer that the agency declined.
In the absence of action by the D.C. government, Bjorge has attempted to deal with the rodents on his own. A resident of the town house himself, he says he’s dropped around $20,000 on exterminators and sealing his building’s walls with a layer of cement and chicken wire. “After concreting up three stories of walls—I really thought, Finally, I’ve made myself an airtight cube,” he says. But though the work apparently stopped the rats themselves from moving through the walls, it couldn’t prevent their flies and odor from migrating. Despite his efforts, Bjorge’s property is still vulnerable to the final stage of what he’s deemed “the life cycle of a dying rat”: life, death, and decomposition.
Despite asking submarket rent, he’s lost several tenants over hygienic concerns, he says, and another is currently packing her bags. Bjorge doesn’t blame them and is coming to doubt whether he can rent the basement apartment out, even at a steeply discounted rate. “There’s the ethics of it,” he says. “I couldn’t make an accurate description in the walk-through and hope to get a taker.”
And while his renters are free to leave, Bjorge says he has no choice but to continue to live in the house himself. He regularly burns incense to combat the smell of rats, he says, but still, “you walk in and you’re immediately hit by a wave of depression.” In early August, his 18-month-old son, Jonathen Borris, came down with a high fever just as the summer heat—and the stench of putrid rat—was at its peak. Bjorge decided the house was no longer fit for children; Jonathen now lives with his mother in Columbia Heights. “I’ve got 2,400 feet of living space, and I can’t live here with my family,” says Bjorge. He’s not planning to bring his son home, he adds, until the rats are gone.
That’s an optimistic goal; the rats have lived on the block several times longer than Jonathen has, outliving frequent Department of Health inspections, a mandatory monthly extermination schedule, D.C. rodent control, inquiries by the offices of Evans and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, and the tenure of a DCRA neighborhood service representative. Last fall, Bjorge won a seat on the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission—a move he admits was partially driven by his desire to encourage local government to monitor his street’s rat population more closely. “I was hoping the problem would be taken care of by now and that this would be a chance to give back and focus on other issues,” he says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Deanna Staffo.