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During the 2003 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, while Mayor Anthony A. Williams marched on foot down Atlantic Street SE, some residents of a small apartment building directed his attention to their yard.
The dwelling at 108 Atlantic St. SE was more of a shelter than a home—and a barely functional shelter at that. Water and sometimes urine would find its way out of pipes and soak into the drywall. The building’s unsecured front door was open to all comers, and the hallways had become a place for outsiders to conduct their business. But what was evident to anyone who passed by on the sidewalk—and what would have been difficult for the mayor to miss—was the trash. The hauling company had ceased emptying the dumpster, and a heap of garbage bags had reached the height of the yard’s iron fence.
This wasn’t the first time the building had caught the attention of city officials. In recent years, landlord Allen Scott Sr. had compiled more than $30,000 in fines and late fees for code violations. But code enforcement couldn’t address the kind of neglect that was routine at 108 Atlantic St. Joseph Jones, for instance, once went nearly a week without running water in the second-floor apartment he shared with his 4-year-old daughter. Now, though, the mayor himself was on the scene. Constance Bush, who lived on the third floor, recalls that the mayor said he’d help the tenants, and that he’d return later in the week to talk further. “But he never came back,” she says.
For the dozen or so inhabitants of 108 Atlantic St., the mayor’s promise to help marked a turn for the worse. In the following weeks, they would lose their apartments and then their possessions. Nearly two years later, many of them are living in temporary housing. Last month, seven of the building’s former residents filed a lawsuit against the District for the troubles they say official intervention caused them.
According to the tenants, about a week and a half after the mayor offered his assistance, fire inspectors knocked on their doors and informed them that, due to serious fire code violations, they would have to vacate the building within two weeks. That evening, city officials returned with a more dire message: Instead of two weeks, they would have to leave within two hours.
Tenants were told to pack enough clothes to last the weekend. Vans and taxis then shuttled them to the homes of relatives or to a couple of local hotels, where the city would foot the bill. In a few days, after the problems were fixed, tenants would be able to return. In the meantime, they were told, their apartments would be protected.
A few days became a few weeks. Tenants were allowed back, but only to pick up more clothes and some personal items. A temporary situation was now indefinite. “I just took their word for it,” says Bush, “that the city would fix the building and let us back in there. Someone tells you that, you’re going to take their word, and I looked forward to it.”
In April, about three months after the evacuation, Bush heard from one of her neighbors in the building, who that day had happened to be walking down Atlantic Street. “[She] told us that Mr. Scott was there with some guys, taking stuff out of people’s apartments,” says Bush.
As they learned the news that evening, the residents of 108 Atlantic St. returned to their building. It was now a scene of ruin. In the yard, Bush found her dining-room table and her dressers, broken beyond repair, as if they had been simply launched from the window. Her mattresses had been ripped up. Her personal safe lay in the grass with its door busted open, and her marriage certificate and wedding ring were missing. Bush dispatched her son to survey the losses inside. All that was left was a white armoire.
Jones’s furniture also lay demolished in the yard, but the toys he had bought his daughter that Christmas, including a small bicycle, were gone. So were his CD player, VCR, microwave, and TV.
All the tenants’ doors appeared to have been forced open. It seemed to be not just a looting, but a gutting as well—sections of drywall were torn away. LaKenya McGrue, who lived on the second floor, says her bed was still in her bedroom, probably only because it was buried in pieces of the ceiling.
The residents never returned to 108 Atlantic St. Not to live there, anyway. “The majority of them were made homeless,” says Antonia Fasanelli, an attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who attempted to contact the ousted tenants after the city stopped paying for their hotel stays. “Most of them had to double and triple up with family members, or go into the city shelter system.” Of those Fasanelli was able to locate, Jones is the only one who has secured private housing.
“On disability, it’s hard to find a place,” says the 56-year-old Bush, who is living with family in Alexandria, her fourth home in two years. “If you want [an apartment] with a low income, you have to be on a waiting list for three or four years….Every time I call, I’m still on the list.”
In June, Scott sold the building to new owners, who are now renovating it. (He could not be located for comment.) For now, the residents’ ire is focused on the city. In their lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, they claim they were evicted without being offered a hearing. They are seeking compensatory damages for their lost and destroyed belongings.
“Of course we would want the residents to be made whole,” says Sharon Gang, a spokesperson for the mayor. “But lawyers on behalf of the mayor are trying to determine what took place.”
Says Jones: “Basically, what you have to do is start over.” CP