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In the early ’90s, Maryann Jones worried a lot about her housing situation. A public assistance recipient, Jones shared a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast with her son. A fire had broken out in the apartment, charring the living room and leaving a nasty smell.
As Jones contemplated her options, she watched as workers renovated the abandoned building at 4065 Minnesota Ave. NE, just down the street. The hollowed-out structure was a haven for crack addicts, who tore away the wooden planks nailed over the windows. But as work progressed, the project began to look just like the sort of place that would be priced way out of the reach of people like Jones.
Then a friend told her that So Others Might Eat (SOME) was refurbishing the building for low-income families. And in the summer of 1991, she applied to be one of the families that SOME planned to let move into the building in the fall. Out of a field of approximately 120 families, Jones and her son were one of 12 accepted; they moved into the newly christened Thea Bowman House in October 1991.
SOME’s sliding rent scale, which was based on income, cut Jones’ payments from $300 a month in a scorched one-bedroom to $230 a month in a well-managed community. “I loved it,” says Jones. “We even had [a tenants association] with positions and everything.” Jones’ son got to go to football games and plays, and received free tutoringall courtesy of SOME. Tenants had Thanksgiving potlucks and exchanged gifts on Christmas.
Jones would have stayed foreverif SOME hadn’t moved to evict her. Sometime during her seven-year stay at the Bowman house, SOME embraced the national trend of forcing welfare recipients to fend for themselves. Jones believes that SOME’s version of tough love included putting a lot of families back out on the street.
Three years ago, Jones attended a meeting at SOME headquarters in Southeast along with her fellow tenants. At the meeting, a SOME official presented the tenants with Hobson’s choice: either sign a paper waiving their rights under D.C. rental laws or pay market rate for their dwellings. For Jones, that meant a hike from $230 a month to $450 a month.
Jones held on to the paper for the full 30 days before signing. She didn’t think too much of the whole thing until she attended another tenants’ meeting. “They told us we had six months to live there,” she says. “They said this was no longer permanent housing; this would be transitional housing.” Jones points out that one of the original ads for the project advertised “permanent rental housing for families who have been displaced, or are in danger of displacement.”
According to residents, SOME began to impose a series of stringent rules near the end of 1995, including random urinalysis and other forms of scrutiny by an uncredentialed worker at the facility. The organization also required tenants to open bank accounts and save $10 a month. In September 1997, when Jones came up $4.38 short in her account, the building manager told her she had to pack up and clear out.
Instead of packing up, Jones fought back, hiring a lawyer and filing a complaint in landlord-tenant court. Other tenants didn’t put up quite as much resistanceof the 12 original Bowman House families, Jones’ is the only one that remains. SOME has told Jones and her son they now have six months to leave. Jones is asking for one year so that her son can finish high school.
SOME Director Father John Adams argues that what Jones and others call a change in housing policies is actually a codification of the program’s original guidelines. “It has always been like that, but we’ve become more specific,” says Adams.
While Adams concedes that the organization did tighten some of its rules in 1996, he says it had a higher purpose in mind. “It was more about having people move ahead in life,” says Adams, who has headed SOME for 20 years. Adams faxed Washington City Paper a copy of what he says is the testimony of former Bowman House resident Pamela Lawrence. “Thank God for the chance to live in Thea Bowman House,” reads the testimony. “If Thea Bowman had not turned into Transitional housing, I don’t believe my career would have went this far.” Adams contends that the Bowman House was never supposed to be permanent housing, that tenants were only supposed to stay for a maximum of two years. “The house is meant to help people get established and get skilled,” says Adams.
Angela Pratt says she picked up a useful skill at SOMEstress management. “They changed on me,” says Pratt, who rented a three-bedroom apartment for $155 a month. She says she was told by Bowman House’s director, Larenda Jones, that her biweekly salary of $404 wasn’t enough. “She told me, ‘You have to move if you don’t do what we tell you,’” says Pratt.
Pratt says that when one of her four sons spilled rice on the hallway floor, Jones went ballistic. “She said, ‘If you do anything else, you have to go,’” says Pratt. When Pratt had another run-in with Jones, her rent was immediately raised to $675, she says. And the rent hike came with an ultimatum: Pay up or get out.
Pratt, who signed the waiver form, never received a court order and was summarily evicted. The locks were changed, and her possessions put in the street. “Guess who got my stuff?” asks Pratt, noting that she saw her mirror in a house across the street.
The District’s Rental Housing Act of 1985 is designed to save tenants from the powerlessness suffered by Bowman House residents. The act erects a barrier of red tape that landlords must hack their way through before the U.S. Marshals arrive at the scene with eviction papers and hand trucks. For a lease violation, a landlord must first serve a 10-day notice to correct the violation, after which point the landlord can sue to oust the tenant. At that point, the tenant can contest the landlord’s claim. Even tenants who lose at this stage can appeal when the landlord files for writ of possession. The tenant can remain on the property for the duration of the dispute, which can take months and sometimes years.
When SOME collected the signed waiver forms from its Bowman House tenants, it presumably secured the right to flout all of those cumbersome tenant protections and evict tenants on a whim. However, it’s unclear whether tenants have the authority to waive their right to legal protections. On the notion that Bowman House could not exempt itself from D.C. rental laws, tenant Winifred Horn challenged an eviction order from the organization in 1997. SOME settled with Horn, who was allowed to remain at Bowman House. (She was eventually evicted over another matter.)
Adams says SOME asked its tenants to waive their rental rights because the organization wanted to be recognized as a program and not a landlord. He notes that the program receives no subsidy from the government for being a program and says that the decision to change housing policies was not a financial one. “We’re not in the business of being a big landlord,” says Adams.
Yvonne Fendell was referred to Bowman House by a substance-abuse counselor at a transitional home where she had been staying while trying to keep off of alcohol and drugs. Fendell moved in in March 1997. “When I got in, it was truly a blessing,” says Fendell, explaining that the housing gave her a chance to be reunited with her estranged daughter. But Fendell says Jones became too controlling and started calling Fendell’s psychiatrist to request personal information.
When Fendell refused to sign a paper to give SOME access to her psychiatric files, she says she was given five days to leave. “Everything [Jones] learned she tried to use against me,” says Fendell. Though she was fighting alcoholism, Fendell says she saw other residents with alcohol on the premises. To make matters worse, Fendell’s son was murdered in the summer of 1997, and she exhausted all her savings on burial expenses. As a result, Fendell was unable to make rent. She says SOME was unsympathetic and threatened her with eviction.
Fendell says she wanted to stay and fight. “It changed to a nightmare,” she says, “but I said I could make it.” She couldn’t. In April, at her psychiatrist’s request, Fendell says she moved out of Bowman house “for health reasons.” CP