An Anacostia landlord claims he needs some help from his tenants to pay the water bill.
Letitia Agyekym gets riled up when the tenants of 2301 Pitts Place SE hang out on their stoop. “If I have people sitting out front lollygagging, nobody wants to rent the empty apartments,” says Agyekym, who manages the property along with neighboring apartment buildings in Anacostia, which are known collectively as Hunter Gardens. She tells the tenants to disperse, to go back inside.
These days, Agyekym is working harder than ever to make Hunter Gardens more marketable. Two days after Christmas, an envoy from the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) arrived on the scene, notifying tenants that the owners had failed to pay the building’s water and sewer bills—a total of $25,567.05, stretching back to April 2000. Unless payment was made soon, the water to 2301 Pitts Place would be cut off on Jan. 16.
Yafet Alem of Independence Management Co., which owns 2301 Pitts Place, can’t rely on rent payments to meet WASA’s demands. Of the building’s 12 apartments, six are currently vacant. And only half of the other units are occupied by tenants who pay their rent. That’s not enough, Alem says, to keep the building afloat. “The property doesn’t support itself,” says Alem. “It has a very high interest rate, like 12 percent. In the rougher neighborhoods, you can’t get those low rates that are advertised on TV and the radio.”
In the folklore of the District, landlord-tenant disputes are governed by one simple principle: Tenants get victimized because landlords are greedy. But some landlords, such as Alem, bristle at the suggestion that it’s the owners who are the outlaws.
Recently, Agyekym became the target of numerous attacks, and she and Alem suspect that disgruntled tenants may be responsible for the intimidation. So far, Agyekym has escaped physical harm, but her 1984 yellow Mercedes sedan has taken a beating. “I’ve had my car burned, my tires flattened, and my windshield broken,” says Agyekym.
After one recent incident, Alem called local TV stations, trying to get some coverage. “They told me that 75 percent of their audience are tenants, so they can’t show my story even though they know what I’m saying,” says Alem. “Everyone makes it seem like the owners make a ton of cash from their buildings and then don’t pay their bills. But you have to be in the building business to see some of the problems.”
Like most apartment buildings in the District, 2301 Pitts Place has one water meter for the entire building. Unlike homeowners, tenants in D.C. rarely see their water bills. Instead, the landlords are left to pay the bills out of the rent they collect from tenants. At 2301 Pitts Place, the monthly water bill averages about $1,000. Between the high mortgage rate and the accumulating water tab, Alem says, the property has become insolvent. With no surplus funds to reinvest in the property, the apartments have fallen into disrepair.
“It’s unfit to live in right now, to be honest,” says Theresa Brown, a tenant at 2301 Pitts Place. Brown can cite a long list of problems with her apartment, from a sagging kitchen floor to an “unsafe” balcony to leaky pipes. Brown says she has little hope that any repairs will be made on her apartment: “We don’t even have any maintenance people for the building.”
The current situation at 2301 Pitts Place benefits no one—not the owners, not the tenants, and not the city—but none of the parties can engineer a solution, either. Agyekym, for one, would like to kick out the delinquent tenants, clean up the property, and attract new renters. She says that she is taking several of the tenants to court to evict them, but she expects the usual results. “In the District, the landlord has no rights,” says Agyekym. “The tenants know that, so they look for any excuse not to pay the owner.”
“The larger companies can go to lenders and borrow money for capital improvements,” says Shaun Pharr, vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. “But if smaller housing providers can’t get the money by collecting rent, they’re not going to get it at all. Then they have to make difficult choices, which often include deferred maintenance.”
And deferred water bills. When WASA was created, in 1996, its staffers inherited nearly $30 million in uncollected water bills from their predecessors in the D.C. Department of Public Works. “With our collections policy, we decided to go after the egregiously delinquent landlords,” says Libby Lawson, WASA’s director of public relations. “For years and years, they had a free ride. That had to stop.”
In July 1999, WASA agents launched their current campaign to collect the unpaid bills. “The best collection tool, according to people who have been in this business forever and a day, is, unfortunately, the threat of terminating water service,” says Lawson. “The landlord knows if the tenant doesn’t have water, they’re going to move out and take their rent with them. Some people live without a telephone. Some people make do without electricity. But you can’t live in a building without water service. You just can’t do it.”
Over the past two-and-a-half years, WASA has threatened to sever the water service to approximately 65 buildings. “Once landlords know that we’re serious about shutting off the water,” says WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, “they usually come in and pay.” Only once has WASA actually terminated the water service to a building and thus effectively evicted the tenants.
WASA officials begin the process by notifying the tenants and the owners of the upcoming cutoff date. Tenants are then invited to an informational session where WASA administrators apprise them of their legal rights and options. On Jan. 7, nine days before the threatened cutoff, Brown was the only tenant from 2301 Pitts Place to show up at the announced meeting.
Three WASA employees walked Brown through several scenarios, from petitioning the court for receivership to forming a tenants’ association. They told Brown that she could also ask her landlord to install individual meters for all of the apartments, which would make the renters in each unit responsible for their own water bills. WASA administrators consider this option ideal, but the cost of such a project (approximately $1,000 for every unit in a building) puts it out of reach for Independence Management Co.
However, all of these choices may be irrelevant, WASA told Brown, because the owners of her building had contacted WASA earlier in the day, promising to have the money by Friday, Jan. 11.
“In some cases, like this one, it’s a disaster being an owner,” says Alem. “You’re better off as a tenant.” CP