Clifford Rowe expected some trouble when he saw the truck driven by people he believed to be his landlord’s henchman sidle up next to him as he walked along the 1900 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. He suspected that the man he knew only as “Butz” was interested in catching up with him, but not in a chatty kind of way. Rowe was already four days late with his weekly rent, and through the truck window Butz informed him that if he didn’t meet his obligation then and there, he needed to hand over the keys to his rented room.

Rowe thought he had the situation under control. He says he reassured the burly enforcer that he and his wife Millie could somehow scrounge up the $75 they owed their landlord, the Rev. Bernice Hughes-Sims, for the small basement room they rented in her building. But Butz was not interested in promises. As Rowe proceeded down the street, Butz countered with a second demand, according to Rowe. Rowe blew him off.

When Rowe reached the front of the corner liquor store where he usually hangs out, he says, Butz’s truck pulled up with two more vehicles. Rowe says that several men popped out, and Butz and another man grabbed him and dropped him to the sidewalk, shouting for the key. “I don’t let him get a punch in, because I’m holding his sleeves,” says Rowe, a short, sprightly man, who says he fended them off for a few minutes. “It was long enough to draw a crowd.”

Landlord-tenant negotiations are not a delicate matter in D.C.’s underground rental market. It’s an unsavory marriage of convenience, matching renters who have undependable incomes with landlords interested in making some extra cash without legal hassles. The arrangements typically stay below the radar until something goes wrong, like Rowe’s minifracas on the street, which he says ended with a sucker punch to his face. “Busted my lip,” he notes; the alleged attackers fled just before the police arrived.

Weekly rentals of low-budget rooms and apartments are booming in D.C.’s housing market. In spite of a generally robust economy, people who find themselves mired in the underclass are forced to scramble as welfare benefits are cut off and housing subsidies disappear. “As rents go up or people lose their income, they’re going to try to find these alternative housing arrangements,” says Gracie Rolling, the executive director of Change Inc., a nonprofit self-help center. “It’s been occurring more and more over the last five years.” But in exchange for cheap rent, tenants often get stuck with uninhabitable living spaces and unscrupulous landlords. And they have little legal recourse, since they don’t sign leases.

Not that they would qualify for traditional lease arrangements, which generally require deposits, credit checks, and other due diligence measures. “Their credit is bad or they have no credit. They messed up somewhere along the line, and they can’t get [a lease],” says Rolling. “The only hope that they have [is] to go back to those rooms.” Underground rentals are often a good deal for landlords as well, because they don’t have to file reports with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and face the litigation spawned by the District’s knotty tenant protections. And just as important, the income stream often ends up off the books, so landlords don’t have pay taxes on the renter’s payments.

“It’s a familiar story, definitely,” echoes Willa Morris, the director of Rachel’s Women’s Center, which deals with many people in Rowe’s position. “People are getting paid under the table, getting paid week to week, and that’s how [they pay the rent]. Then the job falls through, and they’re put out.”

As renters get more desperate, accommodations become more threadbare. Nowadays, small-scale slumlords are charging for “spaces” in apartments. “That means you don’t even have a room to yourself,” she says. “They’re rolling out a bed or a cot. I’ve come to be familiar with that [term].”

Rolling estimates that Change Inc. saw 20 to 30 cases like Rowe’s last year, including a repeat client she knows as “Mr. Clark.” She says Clark, who is mildly retarded, has been put out of rented rooms three times in recent years. On the last occasion, he had rented a room in what turned out to be a crack house. Others who lived there repeatedly robbed and threatened him.

“Then, when he complained, he got thrown out [by the landlord],” she says. “And his rent for that month was already paid.”

Despite the risks and hassles, there’s no dearth of landlords willing to rent on a weekly basis. “More and more people are renting rooms to help pay their own expenses,” Rolling says, noting that her clients typically find rooms through word of mouth or postings in the neighborhood.

Hughes-Sims, for one, denies that she’s technically a landlord. “I’m a minister,” she says. “I take people in with love and try to help them….I do not rent rooms, but I’ve got to ask you for something for you staying. I’ve got to pay light bills. I got to pay the water people. I ask for people to volunteer something.”

However, some of Hughes-Sims’ alleged business practices—like asking for cash deposits and collecting payments each Friday—sound more like business as usual than charity. For his part, Rowe says he’s sure he was a tenant when he occupied one of three rooms in Hughes-Sims’ basement. “You’d see the locks on the doors and the room numbers,” he says. “It’s a rooming house.”

Rowe wasn’t always living on the edge. He served for several years in the U.S. Army and left with an honorable discharge. Once he returned home, he landed a seven-year gig as the bassist for Sweet Inspirations, part of Elvis Presley’s permanent opening act on the road.

When Elvis died in 1977, the road show disbanded, and Rowe returned to the upper Rhode Island Avenue neighborhood where he’d grown up. As the years went by, his gigs gradually changed from carrying tunes to connecting pipes.

Last summer, a serious back injury halted Rowe’s odd-jobbing as a plumber, carpenter, and brick mason. With no workman’s compensation, Rowe says, he and Millie limped into the winter with “no savings, no money.” They found themselves a room in a Petworth house but didn’t last long there. The owner booted them in mid-November, he says, when she found that Rowe’s brother had stayed one Sunday night, in violation of the prohibition against “sleepovers.”

That’s when Rowe and his wife moved into Hughes-Sims’ house at 2577 Rhode Island Ave. NE. “A little rathole in the basement,” he calls it.

Rowe says that he had some work lined up when he first moved in, including a job working on an addition to the International House of Prayer for all People in Brookland. That church’s the Rev. Fred Ogunfiditimi remembers paying Rowe $50 before work on the project stopped.

When Rowe went broke, he says, Hughes-Sims sicked Butz on him. But Hughes-Sims says her problems with Rowe went beyond rent payments. The reverend claims that one of her sons saw Rowe smoking crack in the room one night and that she could smell the smoke through the vents. She did not call the police.

She also alleges that she found a tiny plastic case containing crack vials and a “dope bag” after going through Rowe’s things after the eviction. Again, she did not contact the police, saying Rowe had threatened to blackmail her by falsely accusing her son of selling drugs.

Rowe denies using drugs. “If I’m this bad a guy, they’d rush me out of there and not wait on the rent,” he says. Now living with a friend a few blocks away, Rowe grumbles that Hughes-Sims has declined to return his worldly possessions. “These are Millie’s jeans,” he says, limply fingering his outfit. “This is Millie’s sweater.”

When Rowe went back for his belongings just before Christmas, he says Hughes-Sims returned the tools and most of his musical equipment—but kept nearly everything else he and his wife owned. “She gave me what she wanted me to have,” he says. “I don’t have anything to wear. She’s kept all of my clothes. The one pair of shoes I got back I think someone else was wearing, because they’ve been relaced—you know the way one of these jitterbug kids would wear it.” Rowe and his wife claim they’re clinging to a pair of lengthy handwritten lists describing lost wardrobes, leather jackets, and mementos—most which they’re afraid they may not see again. “We’re between a rock and a real, real hard place,” Rowe says.

Hughes-Sims denies holding on to anything and says Rowe is out to besmirch her good name to avenge his eviction. “I’ve got many [coats]—leather jackets, suedes, minks, furs,” says Hughes-Sims. “I don’t need anything that woman’s got. I give men and women up and down the street clothes—I give them away.”

Hughes-Sims says she may look around again for Rowe’s belongings. “I [told them], ‘If I find something that’s yours in here, you’ll get it when I see you on Rhode Island Avenue,’” Hughes-Sims says. “‘I’ll let you know.’”

Rowe says he may sue to get his things back, adding, “The lie does not stand up over truth. I’m turning from a street knucklehead to a thinking person,” he says, pointing to his forehead. “Now I know.” CP