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When landlords neglect to pay their water bills, tenants may suffer a drought.

Sister Maria Lapazaran spends the majority of her days addressing other people’s problems. A social worker at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 16th Street and Park Road NW, Lapazaran works directly with the church’s growing Latino congregation. Many of her parishioners live in apartment buildings on neighboring streets, where recent immigrants pursue the American dream amid gaping holes, peeling paint, and leaky ceilings.

Lapazaran knows their concerns all too well. She lives in a 64-unit apartment building at 1458 Columbia Rd. NW, which houses some of her fellow congregants. She adds a few of her own complaints to the list: infrequent garbage collection, a sizable rat population, and a kitchen faucet that spurts only hot water.

It could be worse. In July, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) served notice via an advertisement in the Washington Post to 121 District landlords who collectively owed $3.6 million in back payments to the authority. The owners of Lapazaran’s five-story brick apartment building, M.S. and Andrew Serafin, appeared near the top of the list, with $500,000 owed. Unless the Serafins made good on outstanding payments, WASA threatened to cut off water to Lapazaran’s apartment building. (The Serafins could not be reached for comment.)

WASA originally planned to turn off the spigots Nov. 1. The threat had little impact on the building’s owners, who haven’t paid their water bills regularly for nearly two decades, according to sources at WASA. But the ultimatum catalyzed tenants like Lapazaran, as well as Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who worked with the water authority to create an alternative payment option in which the tenants’ rent payments will go toward their past-due water bill. If all goes according to plan, the building will be placed in a court-ordered receivership that will keep the water flowing. Tenants of other deadbeat landlords might not be so lucky.

Following the July notice in the Post, about half of the delinquent landlords promptly trudged to WASA’s offices, checkbooks in hand, to clear their ledgers or at least negotiate an installment plan. After about a month’s grace period, WASA began aggressively hounding the 60 remaining slackers.

WASA’s version of playing rough doesn’t involve burly collection agents or custom-molded cement shoes. Once the notice has appeared in the Post, WASA delivers a written notice threatening water termination. The authority then sets up a meeting with the building’s tenants to discuss the situation. The strategy is quite effective, says WASA public relations director Libby Lawson. Most of the landlords pay up.

Not so with the Serafins. When WASA officials showed up at 1458 Columbia Rd. to slip meeting notices under tenants’ doors, the Serafins’ resident manager physically blocked the building’s entrance and threatened to call the police to prevent what he deemed to be trespassing. WASA officials decided to put the notices in envelopes and have the U.S. Postal Service do the dirty work.

The mail drop met with limited success. “Some tenants said they saw the resident manager pry open the backs of mailboxes and take the notices out,” says Lawson.

Lapazaran and her two roommates, also nuns who work at Sacred Heart, decided that residents needed to know that they were about to be left high and dry. They photocopied and hand-delivered notices announcing an Oct. 14 meeting with WASA authorities to their neighbors. The sisters’ efforts paid off: Fifty residents boarded a fleet of five WASA-supplied vans to talk the situation over at the authority’s downtown office.

At the meeting, WASA officials informed tenants that the authority planned to petition D.C. Superior Court to designate a receiver to collect rent and take care of utility bills for their building. Lawson explains that WASA generally avoids receivership arrangements because the administrative costs of such programs usually outweigh the amount a landlord owes. But since the Serafins’ debt had by then surpassed the $500,000 mark, WASA officials thought a receivership would be worth their while. WASA authorities expect that the court will agree to the plan. Until then, the authority will continue supplying water to the building.

Graham pushed for the receivership. “The real target here is the deadbeat landlord,” he says. “The water bill is just the red flag waving in the wind.”

WASA’s negotiated detente with the Serafins’ tenants stands in contrast to another effort at collection it made three weeks earlier: On Oct. 5, WASA cut off water to the apartment Richard Holbrook lives in at 3415 Croffut Place SE. Holbrook’s landlords owe $66,000 to the water authority. After the supply was turned off, television news cameras interviewed confused tenants, who said they felt helpless and had no other housing alternatives.

Though WASA officials say it’s within the law to terminate water service, some tenants’-rights activists disagree. “D.C. has a law on the books that prohibits WASA from cutting off water to buildings on a master meter,” says David Conn, a lawyer who volunteers as legal counsel for the Tenant Action Network. According to Conn, D.C. Code specifically prohibits the disconnection of public utilities such as gas and electricity. Conn believes that water and sewer service is implicit in the regulation.

Lawson disputes Conn’s interpretation. She points out that the law explicitly states that only gas and electricity are immune from cutoff. “D.C. Code clearly doesn’t include water in its definition of public utility,” notes Lawson.

Whether or not water is defined as a utility, Holbrook decided he’d had enough after three weeks and left. Four other tenants of the 12-unit building have fled as well. WASA officials say that the building’s owners have shown no interest in clearing their account balance. “We’ve made them our final offer—$16,000 up front and $50,000 over the next 24 months,” says Donna Lewis, a WASA customer service manager for collections. “But it doesn’t look like they’re going to step up to the plate.”

The attorney for the landlords, Stephen Hessler, says waterless tenants have WASA to blame. Hessler claims that the water authority has improperly billed the property for the past 18 years. “WASA has painted themselves into a corner,” Hessler says. “They realize there’s a billing problem with our account, and all they could do is leave the water off to make other people look bad.”

Whether the fault lies with WASA or the owners, it’s clearly Holbrook’s problem as well. According to Lawson, the landlords’ $66,000 debt doesn’t make receivership a worthwhile proposition for WASA. Unless and until the owners pay up, the only water Holbrook will see in his apartment will be hand-carried from the Safeway.

The irony is clear to folks like Holbrook. If your landlord owes WASA a ton of money, the water will continue to flow via a receivership arrangement. But there’s nothing to prevent a drought from striking your apartment if your landlord isn’t deep enough in arrears. CP