Joyce Edwards isn’t listening. Forgive her. On this late Monday evening, she flutters instead of standing still, bouncing around the entrance of her temporary apartment building in a complex along 46th Street SE in Marshall Heights. When she talks, she pants a lot; her sentences run on. Ignore it. The wiry woman with hollow cheeks has two young kids and their life’s belongings to watch over. Tomorrow morning, Edwards, her fiancé, Samuel Harvey, and her children, Prince, 4, and Erica, 5, will be out on the streets. But that’s a worry for tomorrow. And tomorrow is 12 hours away.
In the meantime, she watches maintenance men nail plywood over broken windows and use a blowtorch to seal the door. A Master lock the size of a fist secures the bolt. Landlord James Linn surveys the scene with a big fat smile.
Edwards is allowed entrance into her old building one last time. She ducks into a first-floor apartment where piles of clothes, furniture, and mattresses lie in a heap. She spots a blue-and-yellow Michelin jacket to wear against the chill of an April evening. Upstairs, in her old apartment, a hole in the bathroom floor gapes through to the room below. The gas stove was shut off on St. Patrick’s Day, and the hot water died with it. Her two other kids, Tamika, 9, and Pierre, 12, have already decamped to the homes of friends and family. Edwards slams the door behind her.
Linn has done the rest. Over the past year, he has closed down four of the six red-brick apartment buildings in the complex, including Edwards’ former home. Edwards’ interim shelter will be shuttered tonight. Linn is letting her and the other remaining tenants stay in his last open buildingNo. 5for one more evening. No. 5 goes in the morning.
“Can I have two dollars?” Edwards asks the building inspector, Frank Brown. He can’t resist and gets out his wallet. “Thank you,” Edwards says. She’s off to get her family settled for the evening.
Tons of time and money have been spent over the years trying to get the tenants of 46th Street settledto no avail. All the police raids couldn’t keep the “drug boys” from working the doorways. All the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) inspections only wound up encouraging Linn to give up on his buildings.
Still more time and effort are going into making sure the tenants get past this eviction. Edwards, 33, has the assistance of a sympathetic building inspector, the rapt attention of a D.C. councilmember and his staff, and the good will of a public housing authority working at warp speed to get her and the other remaining tenants past the long wait for Section 8 housing vouchers. But all their efforts combined may not be enough to help Edwards and the other remaining tenants.
“See you all in the morning,” Linn hollers. “I’ll try not to wake you up.”
Edwards doesn’t miss the irony, but still partakes in niceties: “Thank you, Jim,” she says softly.
Her temporary apartment isn’t fit for rats, let alone one-night stands: Dog hair coats all of the floor space; roaches and flies own the kitchen. A tub of Tater Fries and a 20-ounce bottle of St. Ides rest in the warm refrigerator. Locked in another room, a dog abandoned by the apartment’s previous occupant barks wildly.
With her youngest kids asleep on a single mattress, Edwards realizes she needs water. She walks past boys selling pills in the apartment’s entrance, across East Capitol Street to a friend’s house. She says the simple chore takes an hourthough the next morning Harvey will add that she was a little “tipsy,” too. By 12:30 a.m., Edwards nudges Harvey, who’s passed out in a beat-up chair: “Baby. Come on.” She lies down a mattress on top of the dog hair, broken bits of glass, and grime. It’s time for bed.
Edwards had four kids and a nasty coke habit when she met Harvey. She had graduated from McKinley High School in 1984 and bounced through a downward spiral of nursing school (she didn’t finish), word processing classes (she wasn’t interested), pregnancies, homeless shelters, and friends’ houses. Nothing lasted, except the drugs. She ended up staying at a house across the street from her current building. “[The house] was too much men, too much alcohol,” she says. Now Edwards says she wants to quit drinking and adds that she’s planning to start attending an alcohol treatment program.
Harvey, 43, was equally scattered. A big, muscular man, he played football for Bowie State. But when he ran out of money for school, he had to drop out. He played semi-pro ball and toyed with the idea of trying out for the USFL. But when he tried to settle a fight with a neighborhood kid on Jasper Street SE, a bullet in his gut cost him a kidney and his football career. He took a job as a carpet layer, which can pay as much as $16 an hour. The work isn’t steady, but he’s had it ever since.
It wasn’t until he ran into his old acquaintance Edwards one night in Marshall Heights that things started to click. Harvey likes to say their relationship was “love at first sight all over again.”
Edwards soon graduated from a rehab program at D.C. General Hospital. Through a friend, the pair got an apartment in the complex on 46th Street SE. Their rent was $500 a month.
The two tried to make their place their own. Harvey laid wall-to-wall rose-colored carpeting (No. 2 grade, thick carpet) and put in matching bamboo furniture with pink-and-blue cushions. “Everybody that visited loved it,” says Harvey. For a while, that is. Harvey and Edwards both admit the complex had problemsthere were drug dealers constantly cruisingbut they say the buildings really started to go bad a year later, when Linn took over the property.
A major in the Air Force, Linn bought the complex for roughly $250,000. He says he intended to rehab the buildings as condos, sell them to the residents, and walk off with his retirement nest egg. But Linn knew neither the neighborhood nor his apartments very well. He didn’t bother to find out that these buildings had been on a decadelong slide into crack houses. He says that his business partnerconveniently now long gonetold him it was a good investment. Linn, 48, says he didn’t have a clue what he was getting into.
Residents say that almost every apatment had broken windows. Smoke detectors didn’t work or simply disappeared. Trash piled up for days. Todd Jefferson, 49, a resident and former maintenance man at the complex, remembers tumbling chunks of plaster, sporadic electricity, and perpetually broken locks. Eventually, the majority of residents stopped paying rent, and Linn stopped paying attention to his buildings at all.
By his own account, Linn racked up roughly 20 fire- and building-code violations during the past year. He says he couldn’t keep up. “[The inspectors will] write you up every time they come over here,” he explains. “They write a ticket in D.C. for anything. They thought I was another guy they could get money from.”
Linn had bought his way into a nasty urban cycle of bad buildings, drug dealers, angry residents, and city agencies willing to write out tickets without addressing the inequities that feed them. But he became a nasty stereotype, too. Linn grew bitter enough to believe that the smoke detectors were only needed because “their cooking was so bad.”
He decided that the only way to get rid of the pissed-off tenants and drug dealers was to bulldoze the entire lot and build town homes. The city agreed. Instead of writing tickets, the DCRA and other agencies began issuing permits to clear the way. The tenants never figured in the equationthey were just unfortunate to be occupying a cluster of big-time nuisance properties.
“Eventually, it was going to go down whether he owned it or someone else owned it,” building inspector Brown explains. “I think it would have went anyway.”
Linn posted eviction notices on Dec. 23. Residents had one month to get out. Linn moved those who couldn’t find new places to buildings not yet boarded up. By February, almost half the tenants had left because of the deteriorating conditions and eviction threat. As Linn worked his way down the lot, boarding up successive buildings, Edwards and her family moved from their original apartment to the one without heat and gas.
In February, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous stepped in. The blighted block had always been a hot topic at neighborhood meetings. Chavous says he had seen the same cycle, of buildings going to waste and residents being kicked out, in the nearby East Gate neighborhood. Chavous lobbied the D.C. Housing Authority for the speedy release of Section 8 vouchers that subsidize market-rate housing for the poor. Though the waiting list is roughly 17,000 deep, Chavous and Brown argued that this was an emergency situation. Just before D-Day, they got the vouchers.
Linn made a list of all residents. Everyone on the list had a chance at getting a voucher. Brown and Deborah Scott, Chavous’ deputy director of constituent services, say they passed out fliers door to door. But, Scott says, there were more residents than certificates, and only about 15 of the roughly 50 residents have started to use them. Edwards got her voucher only on Monday morningthe day before her scheduled eviction.
Edwards had the opportunity to get a voucher much sooner. A month ago, she went to the housing authority, where she was told she didn’t have the right paperwork. She never bothered to go back. Edwards and Harvey both say they believed that they would never really be evicted. Despite the absent water and gas, and the drumbeat of boarded-up buildings, they claim they thought this round was just another in a series of false rumors of the imminent destruction of the complex on 46th Street.
This night, their last one on 46th Street, Harvey and Edwards are fixated on the voucher. “They said it’s almost like a one-day process,” Harvey says. “This is what I’m hoping and praying. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Linn arrives at 7:15 on the cold Tuesday morning of eviction day. He sweeps up green-tinted baggies, empty Doritos sacks, and discarded Wild Irish Rose bottles from No. 5’s doorway. At 8:15, a DCRA specialist and a 15-member maintenance crew from Lorton’s minimum-security prison have shown up with brooms and shovels. After decades of decay, it will take one day and one truck to empty out the building.
Ten minutes later, Jefferson pokes his 6-foot frame out the door. The ex-maintenance man is one of the tenants without a Section 8 voucher. Linn tells him that he’s sorry about that. It turns out that Linn never put him on the list. Linn blames his omission on the fact that the lanky resident had shaved his beard and cut his hair; the landlord simply didn’t recognize him.
Brown, who has just arrived, makes a frantic call down to the housing authority. “How can you not have my name on the list?” Jefferson asks. “This is a motherfucking shame.” It is the only hint of anger Jefferson shows. He spends the rest of the morning quietly packing and helping Edwards watch her kids.
There’s no answer down at the housing authority. Brown gives the number to Linn. Within an hour, Linn has driven off in his Camry. Jefferson is out of luck.
At 8:30, Harvey is outside, wearing the same black sweat pants and black ball capinscription: “Mi Vida Loca”he wore yesterday. His half-brother Michael is one of the inmates on the clean-up crew. Michael donates his prison sandwiches to Prince and Erica. They munch on bologna and cheese, and play with the few toys they’ve extracted from their home. “It stinks. That’s why we’re moving,” Erica says. Nearby, a woman who squats in the building lies curled in a ball, singing the Police’s “Roxanne” at the top of her lungs.
Edwards wakes up a little after 9 o’clock to a breakfast of extra-spicy pork rinds. Soon the police arrive to secure the building and make sure everyone is out. They stop by Edwards’ apartment and demand to know where her kids are going. With Harvey still outside with his half-brother, she refuses to give a full answer. Child Protective Services is called. At 11:40, the agency and Edwards have arranged for the kids to stay at their godmother’s house until Edwards finds a place. The “drug boys” from the previous night walk by and stare.
After a lunch of chicken soup, Edwards, Harvey, and another former tenant head to Meadow Green Courtsa set of newly refurbished apartments at Minnesota Avenue and A Street SEto apply for Section 8 housing. Getting the voucher is one thing, but actually finding and securing an apartment involves a whole other bureaucracy.
Harvey notes the playgrounds and the high iron gates securing the property. “You don’t have to worry about the kids, because they can’t go nowhere,” Harvey says. In the model unit, he inspects the carpetNo. 1 grade. He and Edwards soon play out their fantasies. “Where would you put the TV?” Harvey asks. They all want Meadow Green Courts to like them.
But back in the Welcome Center, when the occupancy specialist, Jo Ann Patterson, hands out the legal-sized maze of an application form, she tells them it will take at least 16 days to process their application. And it requires an up-front $13 money order plus Social Security cards for all prospective occupants. They have none of these things. They tell Patterson they will be back in the morning with the money order and completed application.
“Back to the shit,” Edwards mutters, pulling up to 46th Street. That night, their building is locked. Linn says they can get their belongings in the morning if they wake up in time for the 8 a.m. maintenance sweep. Edwards and Harvey stay across the street at the very same house filled with drunks that Edwards left two years ago. They sleep on a single mattress in the middle of the living room.
On Thursday morning, Jefferson, out of luck on vouchers, sits at a bus stop at the corner of East Capitol Street and Benning Road. He has nowhere to go and no money for any application. His stuff is still parked outside the locked building. He still hasn’t heard back from the folks at the housing authority; he thinks he has no way of reaching them. He protests that he is in God’s hands. “Takes money to look for a job,” Jefferson says. “Can’t do that on foot.” He says he will probably go to a shelter.
By the end of the weekend, Jefferson has disappeared. Garbage bags filled with his clothes still sit by his old apartment building.
Across the street, Harvey and Edwards are scurrying around, filing through crumpled papers and folders. They’ve lost their money order. They have 60 days to get together $13, process their application, and pay a security deposit, the amount to be determined by their income.
The eviction has come at a bad time. Harvey didn’t work much last year, earning about $15,000. Edwards used to get Supplemental Security Income support for Erica because she was born premature, but says that stopped months ago. Harvey says they have money saved, but it’s not enough to pay for a new place. They know that even if they get all the paperwork and money together for the Section 8 to go through, it still may be weeks before they can move in.
Edwards and Harvey say they wish they could move out of the District, maybe into Maryland or Virginia. But Edwards has the promise of the housing authority’s Section 8. By the end of the week, Section 8 housing is still a promise out of reach. They are down to 56 days on their voucher. They are homeless. And yet they think they can’t leave their hometown.
For now, Edwards and Harvey share a mattress on the living-room floor. Harvey has made Kool-Aid. The old drunks sit and moan off in their own corners. After a visit with Prince and Erica, Edwards begins to cry. She misses them, but she is thankful they’re not with her on that mattress.
“As long as my kids are not here,” Edwards explains, “I can manage.” CP