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The last residents of the East Capitol Dwellings, once D.C.’s largest housing project, moved out in October in anticipation of a new redevelopment. But the complex has some new tenants: As of last week, several units were occupied by squatters.

Squatting in abandoned properties is a constant problem for the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA). But the East Capitol squatters enjoy an unusually comfortable home life: Many of the project’s 577 units still have electricity, water, and cable television.

On the afternoon of Feb. 19, a squad of 5 DCHA Police Department officers and a K-9 unit searched the complex. After noticing that the board covering the front door of a unit on 57th Place SE was missing, officers cleared the building, guns drawn. All clear, a cop called out, “They got cable TV in here!” Sure enough, a length of coaxial cable had been strung from a line lying on the street, through the front door and into a back room; the TV, however, was gone. A car’s orphaned bench seat served as a sofa. Christmas lights, still on, provided the only illumination. The bathroom’s faucets and toilets were still working. In the living room, a message was scrawled on the wall: “I tried, the jigg is up!! Enter at your own risk.”

Even more homey was an upstairs room on 57th Street SE. A thick brown rug covered the hardwood floor, and a small space heater kept the 10-foot-square room fairly toasty. Neatly on top of a mini-stereo system sat a 3-inch portable television set, hooked up to cable through the boarded window. A pot of water sat on a hot plate; boxes of Top Ramen were in the closet. On the opposite side of the room, another portable TV was hooked up to a vintage Nintendo. Family pictures hung on the walls.

Two days earlier, DCHA cops had arrested a homeless man there. DCHA Sgt. B.J. Parker, who made the arrest, does not know how long the man had been living there, but says that it had been “some time.” “Seasons Greetings” and “Santa Stop Here” wall decorations hanging in the room offered a clue.

Sgt. Thomas Matthews of the DCHA police estimates about a half-dozen homeless people have been illegally living in the two-story brick apartments south of East Capitol Street. The entire southern part of the complex, which spans 56th to 58th Streets SE, is fenced off. But Matthews says getting inside is only a matter of pulling up a fence and climbing underneath. If people don’t want to pull the nails out of door and window boards, apartments have entry hatches for maintenance crews that are frequently left unlocked.

One resident of 56th Street SE says she’s noticed a higher than usual number of transients walking around the project over the past few weeks. Another neighborhood resident says he often sees people inside, mostly late at night. “They just go in and out,” he says.

Ryan, a 24-year-old man standing at a soup truck at Southern and Central Avenues SE one Saturday afternoon, says the squatters are innocuous. He says he’s been inside the complex, though he doesn’t stay there regularly. “People just go in there to get high and sleep for the night,” he says. “They’re not in there doin’ any worse than the next man.” Units along a cul-de-sac on 57th Place SE, the most secluded in the project, are the most popular, he says.

Anthony Brackett, property foreman for East Capitol Dwellings and the neighboring Capitol View Plaza high-rises, says DCHA authorities never ordered the utilities turned off. According to Cymando Henley, a DCHA spokesperson, utilities were likely left on for the maintenance crews, though 201 units are scheduled to be disconnected by PEPCO in early March.

During the roust, one officer sliced plugs off lights and appliances to render them useless. That’s not formal procedure, Parker says, but officers “make it as inconvenient as possible for the people wanting to live there.”

One DCHA officer suggests not boarding up the abandoned homes, and instead just leaving them open to the elements. “It’ll be wet and funky,” he says. “No one’ll want to go in there.”

The boards, though, will soon be beside the point: The project will be demolished this summer to make way for New East Capitol, a 500-plus-unit development featuring apartments, town houses, and a supermarket.

In the meantime, Brackett is concerned the squatters might move on to the high-rises, which were vacated in January. Right now, at Capitol View Plaza, dozens of refrigerators and stoves and stacks of furniture sit in a downstairs room, awaiting distribution to other DCHA properties, guarded by a round-the-clock security guard.

But once the appliances are gone, within the next couple of weeks, security will be gone, too. “I had them keep the curtains and all that stuff up so it looks like people are still livin’ in the building,” Brackett says. “[But] once they move us outta here, there’s gonna be all kinds of traffic in here.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.