Slumlord Rufus Stancil Jr. has exchanged his Gold Coast home for a bedroll and a roommate.
In December, Rufus Stancil Jr., 66, pleaded guilty to 70 of 429 alleged housing-code violations at 2922 Sherman Ave. NW. The most egregious of the admitted violations included failing to keep walkways free of solid animal or human waste, failing to keep interior common areas free of vermin and rodents, and failing to provide hot water.
Since Stancil took over the building, in 1989, “it’s all been downhill,” says Marsha Browne, a 31-year resident, who points out a hole that rats recently gnawed into her trash can inside her third-floor apartment.
Stancil was sentenced to six nights in jail, two years of probation, and a $1,000 payment to the victims’ compensation fund.
But the worst part of Stancil’s punishment? He was required to live among his angry tenants for 60 days, starting on Christmas Eve.
Since last week, 4th District Officer Jose Nieves-Campos has been assigned to stop by a few nights a week to make sure Stancil is tucked in, says Office of Corporation Counsel spokesperson Peter Lavallee. Nieves-Campos says he went looking for Stancil last Tuesday and didn’t find him. The officer returned the next day but had gotten bad instructions from headquarters. “I went there, but there was no such room,” Nieves-Campos explains. Another officer checked early Friday morning; again, no Stancil.
Determined to end the guessing game, the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel last Friday asked the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency to equip Stancil with a monitoring device. City attorneys plan to seek a court order to allow that agency to do so.
Once they get the slumlord wired up, the authorities may learn a few things about 2922 Sherman Ave. NW. First, the building has no vacant units, a situation that placed Stancil in something of a moocher’s dilemma: Either take up residency in the basement or squeeze in with one of his tenants.
That was an easy choice for Stancil, who is sharing quarters with building manager Jose Castillo in Unit 302. Stancil doesn’t usually make it home in time for dinner, Castillo says. But in the late hours of the evening, instead of heading to his $385,000 house on upper 16th Street, next door to the Washington Ethical Society, Stancil pulls up to the decrepit three-story apartment building just off Columbia Road and walks one urine-scented flight to Castillo’s one-bedroom abode. Once inside, Castillo says, Stancil heads for the living room, locks the door, and goes straight to bed.
Under his current arrangement, Stancil’s “bed” consists of a comforter and two matching pillows stuffed inside a black garbage bag. He keeps the homeless-style futon in a corner of the room.
Behind the bag, Stancil stows his toiletries, which include an aerosol can of Right Guard and a small tub of Vicks VapoRub. There’s no couch, just a weathered love seat, so Stancil lays his bedding on the thin carpeting and drifts off to sleep surrounded by pictures of Castillo and his wife, who lives in El Salvador; a wall hanging of the Virgin of Guadalupe; and posters of cats.
But no electronic device will tell the cops that Stancil, though not a model landlord, is a pretty good roomie.
Stancil picks up the phone bill and occasionally springs for food—usually takeout from a nearby greasy spoon, says Castillo. He doesn’t hog the love seat or linger too long each morning with Katie and Matt over a bowl of cornflakes. Instead, Stancil heads out soon after he gets up at 5 a.m. And he always remembers to put his bed away.
The first landlord sentenced to live in one of his own squalid properties was Milton Avol, a Los Angeles neurosurgeon and notorious slumlord, who in 1985 had to live in one of his worst buildings for 30 days. Since then, judges in New York and Connecticut have handed down similar sentences.
The seemingly perfect symmetry of crime and punishment is straight out of a cheesy late-night movie. In fact, Joe Pesci has already made one—the 1991 flick The Super, in which he plays a New York City landlord with a crude mouth who, after being forced to move in with his tenants for 120 days, learns his lesson and fixes up his building.
But Stancil can’t blame legal precedent or Joe Pesci for his punishment. Senior Deputy Corporation Counsel Sharon Styles-Anderson and Assistant Corporation Counsel Nicole Hughes Waid reportedly came up with the sentence. “The [Avol case] was not a specific inspiration, nor was the Pesci movie—as funny as I’m sure it was,” Lavallee says. “The point was, having him in jail wouldn’t accomplish anything for the tenants, and having him in there to ensure the building is repaired made the most sense.”
As far as some Sherman Avenue residents are concerned, a living-room floor is plush accommodations for the likes of Stancil, who could have faced 17 years in prison and $21,000 in fines. It’s certainly not what they had in mind when they first heard their landlord would be living among them.
What they imagined was more like the old laundry room in the basement. No one has done laundry there in seven years, and for good reason: The two washers and dryers that sit in the corner are covered in dirt. Cold air streams in through broken windows. A crumbling wall leads to what used to be an apartment. Anyone can enter from the outside; the door that leads to the street has no lock. For squatters and vagrants, it’s a public restroom.
Tenants are delighted at the prospect of having Stancil experience the conditions that have prompted years of unheeded complaints: the extremes in temperature, the cold showers, the rats. “The judge was really just in his sentencing,” Isabel Moreno, president of the tenants’ association, says through an interpreter as he sits in his kitchen on a recent weekday evening. “But it doesn’t mean anything unless the sentence is carried out.”
Moreno starts talking about the conditions in the basement when he suddenly interrupts himself: “That’s him coughing, right now. That’s him yelling. Can’t you hear him?”
I open Moreno’s front door. Sure enough, out in the hallway is Stancil, making an appearance at his house of penance. He is wearing a white Yankees baseball cap, a black leather jacket, and his trademark Rappers’ Delight-era gold-framed eyeglasses. Knocking on Castillo’s door, he shouts, “Jose!” Apparently, he doesn’t yet have a key to his temporary digs.
At the sight of a reporter, Stancil immediately puts up his hand. “I’m not talking,” he says.
“Would you consider posing for a photo?” I ask.
At the mention of the word “photo,” his eyes widen in terror.
“Can I at least give you a card?”
“Sure,” he says, putting his hand out as if to take it.
Then, as I reach to give him the card, Stancil starts hoofin’ it down the stairs, picking up speed as he goes. He sprints the last few feet to the front door. As he rushes out, he pulls the collar of his jacket up to his ears and looks back one last time. The door slams shut behind him.
The tenants’ back file on Stancil consists of such happenstance encounters. A rustling of keys, a voice in the hallway, a furtive glance by the front door—all enter the record. Since he moved in, the record has consisted of several sightings—and a bona fide appearance at the apartment of Martha Chavarria.
Chavarria, a 10-year resident, says Stancil walked through her apartment on Jan. 3 with a building inspector. “Every time the inspector pointed out something bad, Stancil would cut him off,” Chavarria says.
Of course, what residents care about more than where Stancil sleeps is that he makes the necessary repairs. Under the plea agreement, Stancil is supposed to come up with a renovation plan and arrange for contractors to repair the building before he leaves. The building must be free of all housing violations within six months. If it isn’t, tenants can always call up prosecutors or building inspectors to report that their landlord is slacking off. But Moreno says he, for one, is willing to give Stancil a little more time: “Everyone should have a chance to correct his errors,” he says. CP