On Tuesday morning, officials from the U.S. Marshals Service dragged the belongings of Joe Mullin from his basement apartment at 1755 N St. NW and deposited them on the curb. The dislodged items included a Fender guitar, an array of creaky furniture, and several board games. The evictors also removed boxes of legal briefs and motions, plus an ancient manual typewriterrelics of Mullin’s 10-year battle to keep the marshals at bay.
When Mullin moved into his apartment in 1978, he never expected a fight with his landlord. At the time, Hamilton “Polly” Morrison used 1755 as a hotel and boarding house for her employees. Mullin got a free apartment in exchange for doing maintenance work. Even when he stopped working for Morrison, he paid only $300 a month, and the rent never went up.
After Morrison’s death, developer Morton Bender bought the property. According to Mullin, Bender began a war against the tenants so that he could empty out the building and sell it. Mullin charges that Bender refused to fix leaks in the roof, barred the tenants from the building’s patio, and intimidated them into bolting.
Mullin, however, refused to budge, seizing on the city’s rent control laws to stave off eviction and preserve 1755 as one of the last residential buildings on the block. Mullin’s persistencehe acted as his own attorney and forced Bender to pay thousands in legal feesturned him into Bender’s nemesis. According to Mullin, Bender stopped at nothingincluding vandalizing tenants’ carsto retaliate against him and the building’s other remaining tenant, Georgette Miller (see “Hissing Fit,” 6/12).
Mullin was evicted for failure to pay rent, which he claims is a smokescreen for collusion between Bender and rent control authorities. In 1993, Bender filed a hardship petition, a mechanism that allows landlords to raise rents in order to turn a profit on their properties. Mullin’s rent nearly tripled. However, Mullin claims that the hearings on this petition were mishandled. Half of the tapes of testimony in the hearingtestimony in which Mullin and Miller cross-examine Benderare missing.
“How convenient,” Mullin notes, as he whaps a miniature baseball bat against his palm. Eric Rome, an attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law who once represented Mullin, confirms that if the taped testimony is incomplete a “hearing de novo” has to be held.
Mark Brodsky, Bender’s attorney, says the matter is much simpler. Mullin, who has filed for bankruptcy, has paid no rent at all since November 1997. “Justice prevailed,” Brodsky says. “He didn’t pay his rent. It’s a fairly simple axiom that if you can’t pay, you can’t stay.” He calls Mullin a “freeloader,” spoiled by years of “ridiculously low” rents. “He leaves the owner owed $69,000….This is part of what undermines the whole business climate of the District.”
After years of litigation in the case, Brodsky apparently wants more than a mere eviction to chasten Mullin. “[The marshals] found a handgun in his apartment,” he points out. “Why they didn’t arrest him I don’t know.”
Mullin vows that his fight is not over. He has filed a petition for a re-hearing of his eviction and another for a review of the hardship decision. Until then, Mullin will have to live with Brodsky’s take on the situation: “Mr. Mullin has painted this as a David and Goliath struggle,” says Brodsky. “I think today it’s Goliath 1, David 0.”CP