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In the past year, signs have proliferated around the Capitol Park complex in Southwest. “Welcome home,” say the ones at the entrance to Capitol Park Plaza Apartments on I Street. Others promise: “Up-Scale Living/Down-Sized Rents.”
But through the lobby, which is papered with construction permits, past a broken elevator, and up the stairs, there’s another set of signs tacked up:
“Apt. 128 doesn’t need new cabinetsI already have wooden ones.” “Don’t need windowsThanks!” “ATENCION! PROHIBIDA LA ENTRADA!”
The messages are the work of tenants trying to fend off renovation crews. Last October, three of the four mid-rise apartment buildings carrying the Capitol Park monikerCapitol Park Plaza and a pair of buildings along G Street SW formerly known as the Capitol Park Twin Towerschanged ownership. The sale, backed by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency (HFA), was supposed to produce “a top-quality affordable-housing complex,” HFA Executive Director Milton J. Bailey promised at the time.
The HFA issued $30 million in tax-exempt bonds to help the new owner, developer James J. Wilson, renovate the 648 rental units, which all now operate under the Capitol Park Plaza Apartments name. But the renovations that followed, tenants say, have made their living conditions worsethanks to sloppy work, leaky plumbing, and other shortcomings. At the same time, rents have spiked, prompting irate residents to stop paying.
Tenant Constance Jenkins-Stephenson is among those withholding the rent check. Jenkins-Stephenson says that her kitchen was inoperable for a month and a half this spring while workers struggled with wrong-size cabinets and battled floods after breaking a drainpipe. The new cabinets were never sealed properly, Jenkins-Stephenson says, offering easy access to mice. “I’ve got one in the freezer if you want to see one,” she says.
Resident Ruby Saunders, who’s lived in Capitol Park Twin Towers since 1979, laments the buildings’ current state of affairs. Before the current makeover, she says, the facility offered such amenities as 24-hour security. “There’s none of that now,” she says. “They’ve turned it into the projects.”
Despite the reduced service, Saunders, a retired teacher on a fixed income, saw her rent increase 12 percent this year. Because public funds were used to finance the purchase and renovations, the American Rental Management Co. notified tenants that their apartments are now exempt from D.C. rent-control rules, which allowed only a 2.1 percent increase this year.
Over the summer, at least 19 Capitol Park tenants went on rent strike in protest.
At the same time, tenants say, construction has become a constant irritation. In the I Street building, balconies have been bolted shut from the outside while workers on scaffolds make exterior repairs. But shuttering the sliding glass doors doesn’t block out the noise of pneumatic drills.
Inside his fifth-floor apartment, tenant Kevin Fitzgerald measures the sound with a decibel meter that he borrowed from a friend at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In August, during the day, when construction was at its noisiest, Fitzgerald says the readings often exceeded 90 decibels. Federal safety regulations require limiting worker exposure to noise at that level.
When Fitzgerald, an active member of the tenants’ association, invited District housing inspectors to come measure the clamor in his apartment, they turned him down. City regulations, they told him, stipulate that sound measurements “shall be made 25 feet from the outermost limits of the construction site.”
“Evidently,” Fitzgerald says, “whoever wrote that section never anticipated that people might actually be living inside a construction site.”
Noise isn’t the only thing that Fitzgerald is documenting. On a shelf in his living room sits a “Professional Mold Test Kit,” complete with petri dishes for sampling.
Emerging from an odorous, dripping stairwell, Fitzgerald steps into a hallway he calls “the infected wing,” where sections of carpet have been ripped up from the floor.
Fitzgerald says that building managers refuse to correct the underlying pipe-leakage problems that have caused sprawling mold growth along floors, walls, and ceilings.
“Any time you do construction work, you’re gonna have issues,” says project manager Kenton Drury. Developers, he says, have hired outside experts to help correct water and mold troubles. “We’re trying to do the right thing,” Drury says.
Arthur Simpson first noticed leaks in the walls of his first-floor apartment in late May. “Within six days,” he says, “mold had spread all over the place: the living room, bedroom, floors, walls.”
Simpson, his wife, and their three children remained in the apartment for months while contractors ripped up the floor tiles and attempted to abate the problem, he says. But in early August, building managers relocated the family to a Best Western down the street.
On Aug. 30, Simpson was told that it was safe to return to his apartment. But behind a fresh coat of paint on the walls, he says, “you could see bleeding of the mold coming back.”
For now, the Simpson family is staying put in the hotel room. “Until I can get a clean bill of health from somebody other than Capitol Park management,” he says, “I do not intend to put my family back in there.”
Angry Capitol Park tenants have bombarded HFA officials with complaints. “Everything from letters describing [the developers] as psychotic bitches,” says HFA spokesperson Tia Matthews, “to an envelope that I got with asbestos in it.”
In response, HFA officials agreed to tour the premises in July. Afterward, the agency issued a scathing report, noting pest infestation, mold and mildew, and shoddy renovation work. “[T]he new kitchen cabinets look like the old cabinets, except they are much smaller and were not specifically measured for the apartments,” the report said. “Many residents are left with considerably less space and damaged walls from the replacement work.”
In the basement of the building on I Street, HFA officials took note of “an amber-colored substance” dripping from pipes in the ceiling.
“The substance has formed stalactites, which has in turn formed stalagmites on the garage floor,” the report says. Residents claimed the substance was human waste; developers say that inspectors concluded the deposits were chlorine and other chemicals from leaky pool drains.
Developers have since responded in writing, listing steps they’ve taken to correct the problems. The stalactites, for instance, are gone. Still, tenants say the issues are far from resolved.
On Sept. 11, eight rent-striking tenants appeared in D.C. Superior Court, facing charges of overdue rent. Each cited poor living conditions as their reason for withholding payment.
“The conditions are getting worse and worse,” testified tenant Peggy Williams. Williams blames a leaky ceiling for destroying her bed and a moldy closet for ruining her clothes. Her bedroom is currently quarantined with plastic sheets and duct tape.
Neighbor Adrienne Redden cited the “mold-spore invasion” of her apartment as causing her respiratory woes.
Landlord lawyer Joanne Sgro replied in court that building managers “vigorously dispute” the tenants’ claims, and specifically stated there were “no spores” in the buildings.
But moments later, Judge Stephanie Duncan-Peters announced that she was recusing herself from the case, after learning that her own law clerk was a tenant of the complex. The clerk had recently relocated to a hotel”because of the mold,” the judge said. CP