Larry and Leroy Perkins are tired. They sit together on a concrete slab along the 1400 block of Ives Place SE, a few feet from their red-brick house, looking like broken umbrellas. Their hair is kinked with grease under knit caps. Their eyes are puffed and bloodshot. It has been a long three weeks since their house was boarded up after a fire engulfed an upstairs bedroom. Despite the fact that they are homeless, the brothers refuse to leave the neighborhood. It’s all they’ve ever known, they say.
The two don’t sit for long. They have a circuit to walkthrough the Pizza Hut parking lot, down Pennsylvania Avenue SE, past World Liquor, and back along the more than a dozen color-coordinated two-story row houses. Over and over, Larry and Leroy cruise. They pepper passers-by with requests for smokes. They chat up friends at the liquor store and hit up any driver willing to pull over.
As the recent Friday afternoon sky curdles to overcast, the brothers split up. Leroy, 50, disappears down an alley with his girlfriend, Denise Jackson. Larry, 47, picks up his mail. The mail carrier hand-delivers it, since the front door is barricaded. It’s just a billthe latest in a long line of citations from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The two have been caught up in a two-year struggle with the DCRA and other city agencies to save their housea residence their neighbors claim serves as a crack den.
Today, the brothers have been fined $250 for the cost of boarding up their house, and for the trash, debris, and feces found around their property. Paying to have his house barricaded makes no sense to Larry Perkins. “I don’t feel anything about this,” he says waving the pink form. “I can’t get $2, let alone $200….This is going in my back pocket, where I’ll keep it.”
To judge by his track record, the bill will likely sit in Perkins’ back pocket for quite some time, just like every other attempt by politicians or bureaucrats or neighbors to make the brothers either play by the rules or hit the road. In the last two years, they’ve been hounded by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), been inspected countless times by DCRA, and become the target of an eviction campaign led by the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC).
Leroy Perkins admits they once used 1424 Ives Place as a crack house for neighborhood users, but he says he and his brother are scapegoats rather than a real threat. Leroy contends that they have in many cases stopped friends from committing crimes in the neighborhood.
Other residents of the block, however, say the two have held their neighborhood hostage. They describe a constant stream of out-of-town license plates, stop-and-go guests, and shady friends and hangers-on, plus the trashy yard. The brothers’ next-door neighbor, who refused to give her name, says that during the summer months, the feces stench from the Perkins home was so strong she could smell it in her living room.
Kirk Beatley says his garage has been broken into three times since he moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago. “There is always people congregating,” he reports. “There is always subtle sleight-of-hand transfers. The worst of it, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t find at least one hypodermic needle in my yard.” He adds that he’s leery of letting his 2-year-old daughter play outside because of the crop of needles.
Former ANC Commissioner Deborah Bandzerewicz says the festering household isn’t exactly hot news. “When hasn’t it been an issue?” she asks.
Despite all the anger, the Perkinses have proven immovable. They’ve outlasted a lawyer who has tried to evict them, a few city inspectors, one city council member, and ANC Commissioner Bandzerewicz. The fire is simply the latest setback. The brothers say they have no plans to leave the place they grew up. It’s their home, Larry Perkins explains: “As simple as that.”
James Delgado, a building inspector with DCRA, got a call from PEPCO in May of 1995. Just check out 1424 Ives Place SE, the caller said. When he arrived, he quickly noticed some do-it-yourself hot-wiring. Delgado wrote up a ticket and gave the Perkinses a $500 fine.
It was the first citation in a paper trail that is as long as it is fruitless. PEPCO called Delgado again in October 1996. According to records from the DCRA’s office of adjudication, the brothers were again caught pirating electricity. The matter was brought up at a hearing, which they failed to attend. They were found guilty and fined $3,040.
This time, however, the inspector decided to keep paying attention to the house. Over the next two years, he documented more and more violations. At first it looked as if the house was abandoned: At the time, the brothers had neither electricity nor running water. Pictures taken of the scene showed a trash can filled with human waste, a toilet overflowing with feces, a downstairs living room set up of broken furniture, trash, clothes, and baggies.
Delgado contacted Operation Crackdowna team of lawyers out to shutter crack housesfor assistance. The group went to work researching the property, gathering crime statistics and reports of police radio runs to the house, and meeting with community members. Jennifer Quinn, chair of Operation Crackdown, visited the house and says a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper hung above a mantel where crack pipes, baggies, and powders were laid out.Quinn says the house fit every definition of a nuisance property.
“It was unbelievable,” Quinn says. “I’ve never seen anything like that, ever. This is the worst house that we’ve dealt with in terms of health [problems]….This house wasn’t only a serious drug problem, but there was a serious health hazard.”
A series of police raids followed the second electricity-pirating citation. The house raids didn’t do much to stop the Perkinses. According to MPD crime statistics for the past two years, police had been called to 1424 Ives Place SE and the surrounding two blocks more than 100 times for disorderly conduct, drug charges, simple assaults, recovery of a stolen auto, and break-ins to houses and cars. The flurry of activity eventually waned, but the house’s reign as a nuisance property continued.
Last spring, Quinn and several neighborhood activists decided that the best option for getting the brothers out of their block was to work with DCRA. In March, they met with James Aldridge, administrator of the housing regulation administration. Nothing happened. After meeting again with Operation Crackdown and local D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose’s staff last summer, Aldridge decided to move on the house.
In August, Inspector Leon Weston cited the Perkinses for trash and debris in the yard, noting in his report that there appeared to be evidence of drug trafficking. Within a few days, Aldridge says, his records show that the house was cleaned up. Though Aldridge insists DCRA housing inspectors visited three times a week, it was only in October that they took a look inside. They found a number of violations, including no electricity and broken windows. But Aldridge says they found no evidence of drug activity. By Oct. 16, inspectors had reported the property in compliance, much to the chagrin of neighbors.
Quinn says inspectors could have come down harder on the brothers but were wearing blinders to the real effects of their houseas an element in the entire neighborhood’s decay. Though inspectors had declared the building safe, she says it was inevitable that something like the Jan. 7 fire would happen. “I’m not happy about what happened at all,” she says. “DCRA dropped the ball. What we did should have worked.”
When the Perkins family moved into 1424 Ives Place SE, they were one of the first black families in their Capitol Hill neighborhood. Their father, Leroy Perkins Sr., worked long hours at a nearby power plant while their mother, Rosa, worked with senior citizens at a local church. They were well-respected in the neighborhood. Rosa, the brothers attest, always kept the front yard in perfect shape.
But by the time the brothers entered their late teens, things had started to fall apart. Their father drifted into alcoholism and eventually was forced to resign at the plant. The two brothers soon picked up heroin habits. “I’m 18, I’m young, and I’m wild,” Leroy explains. “I wish somebody had told me [heroin] was bad.”
As long as their parents were around, Leroy says, they never got high in the house. They would always smoke up in alleys, cars, and nearby abandoned buildings. When their mother died from cancer about five years ago, their habits became domesticated. The two had never really workedtheir mother had supported themso they began charging folks to use the house for smoking up.
The Perkins’ story is repeated throughout the District’s neighborhoods: teenagers succumbing to drugs and eventually turning parents’ homes into crack dens. Just as the Perkins house became a notorious hangout for users, Beatley says, the crack epidemic hit his neighborhood hard. When the police started raiding the nearby housing projects in the early ’90s, the addicts moved over toward Ives Place. Eventually, the Perkins house became a well-frequented pit stop.
The neighborhood, boxed in by upscale Capitol Hill, the Potomac Gardens public housing project, and the Anacostia River, couldn’t handle the drug barrage, say neighbors. In the surrounding blocks, seven houses sit boarded up.
Some folks view the Perkinses as harmless. A neighbor talks about seeing Larry read on his front porch every morning and recalls talking about the Redskins with the brothers. Beatley says that the two have at least listened to his complaints. But most folks haven’t talked to them and don’t see the point. “This is a bad habit for 40 years,” says Beatley. “I don’t know what to expect at this point except the same old stuff. We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who suffer. I think Larry and Leroy suffer more than they realize.”
Early in the morning of the fire, according to Leroy Perkins, his brother fell asleep reading by candlelight. The candle must have fallen and started the fire, Leroy says. By 6 a.m., flames could be seen jabbing out of the bedroom window. A neighbor called 911. No one was hurt by the blaze, but it caused enough damage for the DCRA to temporarily board up the houseone sign reads “Team Up to Clean Up”until the brothers can get enough money together to fix it up.
In the meantime, Larry and Leroy see themselves as the real victims. They aren’t proud of their drug habits, but they aren’t impressed by a neighborhood that sits in judgment. When they lost electricity, they went door to door asking for candles, with no success. And they see DCRA as not being able to grasp the bigger picturethat they are drug addicts who need help, not housing-code citations.
Larry Perkins still insists that it’s a war. “It seems like I’m fighting city hall with a pop pistol,” he says. “I have just a few people on my side. But they’re street people. There’s nothing they can do except sit here, like I’m doing.”
For now, Larry is satisfied to sit on a concrete stoop with his brother and two friends. They are fantasizing about a fish. A trout, to be specific, with a dab of ketchup, a dab of tarter sauce on “lily-white bread.” As they talk on about this trout, they make sure to note the bread’s purity and the fish’s deep-fried perfection.
There will be no trout. Just pavement under their feet and their boarded-up house at their backs.CP