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When Ricardo Alvarez went to sleep on the night of Sept. 4, 1995, he had no reason to expect a visit from the D.C. cops. He obeyed the law, paid his bills, and worked hard to support his family. But at around 2 a.m., he heard a few loud thuds at the door, and before he knew it a team of police officers was rousing him, his wife, and their kids from bed. The cops repeated the drill at the doors of Alvarez’s neighbors in the Churchill apartment building at 1520 16th St. NW.
“The children were the ones most affected. They were terrorized,” recalls Alvarez.
Alvarez and his neighbors, though, were not being arrested; they were being evacuated. A flood in the basement boiler room threatened to spill into the electrical linesa fire hazard severe enough to force the police to bash in the doors. Most of the evicted families spent the next three days at the Master Hosts Inn on Bladensburg Road NE. Then they scattered almost untraceably around the D.C. area.
By the time they were shoved out onto 16th Street, the Churchill tenants had grown weary of the indignities dished out by their landlord, D.C. attorney Fulton Krupsaw. Weeks before the evacuation, management cut off the building’s water and power, transforming the eight-story tenement three blocks east of Dupont Circle into a pungent sauna. To combat the heat, many tenantsmainly Salvadoran refugees crowded into low-rent efficienciesopted to sleep on the lawn of the Foundry United Methodist Church next door. After the tenants found shelter elsewhere, thieves plundered their apartments.
“Somehow our belongings disappeared,” says Alvarez, who lived in the building for 15 years. “Jewelry, the children’s piggy banks, telephones, air conditioners…all gone.”
“I get sick thinking about all that,” adds Evonne Grande, 17, who was born and raised in the building. The Churchill tenants, most of whom had secured special work authorization in the U.S., were prone to stuffing cash in their mattresses or stashing gold jewelry in their homes. After their apartments were tossed, those nest eggs were history.
The tenants say power outages and broken boilers were part of a plan by Krupsaw to oust them from the building and make way for a more upscale crowd. It seems to have worked. Despite promises to fix the boiler and bring the tenants back in, the building fell into such disrepair that the District’s fire department shut it down for safety reasons and it stayed that wayuntil now. The building is undergoing a conversion to high-priced condominiumsa move that will push Dupont Circle another step closer to full gentrification.
Soon the Churchill will be buzzing with the same crowd of wealthy white professionals that has made Dupont Circle one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods. And the voices of its vanquished ex-tenants will be heard only in antiseptic landlord-tenant hearing rooms. “There’s no excuse for my clients being uprooted from their homes,” says Eric Rome, who is representing the roughly 12 families in the “Churchill Wronged Tenants Association” in a suit against their former landlord. Rome says that each family is seeking at least $50,000 in damages for the dislocation and losses they suffered in the eviction.
The Churchill tenants say their troubles began in 1990, when Krupsaw allegedly turned off the heat at various times in the winter. The residents immediately complained to city authorities but got no response. Instead, the problems only got worse. In alleged retaliation, Krupsaw took them to landlord-tenant court and accused them of not paying their rent. Fortunately for the tenants, they had their receipts.
Tenant Mirta deLeon, for example, claims that Krupsaw dragged her into court three times over two years for nonpayment of rent. DeLeon says she paid her rent every month even though her kitchen flooded several times and was infested with rats. The case, says deLeon, was never resolved.
The landlord’s abuses took many different forms, the tenants charge. Sometimes Krupsaw would turn off the hot water, they say, even though utilities were included in the rent. The dumpster in back of the building would go for weeks and even months without being emptied, they allege. Soon enough, rats and other vermin overran the building.
“My father was bitten by a rat, and so were some of the children in the building,” says Jose Viera, a 14-year tenant.
The lights in the hallways and stairwells of the building didn’t work, and the tenants say building management never did anything to maintain the common areas. Prostitutes turned tricks in the building’s dark recesses. Drug dealing flourished. Some tenants even operated an illegal casino and sold liquor 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, the rent kept creeping up. At the time of the eviction, a run-down Churchill efficiency went for about $515 a month.
“The city has a lot of culpability in not enforcing the housing code,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. To make a profit, Lynch says, “people find a way around the laws.” The landlord seems to be the main perpetrator in the tenant’s dislocation, but the city’s complicity begins with the fact that there was a shortage of residential building inspectors enforcing housing codes.
The tenants claim to have filed numerous complaints with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the city agency entrusted with enforcing the housing code. But the reports seem to have vanished almost as quickly as they were filed, they insist. When the tenants filed follow-up complaints, DCRA would say it had no record of any previous complaints, so it would have to send inspectors out to the property anew, according to the tenants.
“It’s a complex where we did have some complaints,” says DCRA spokesperson Janet McCormick. “But before we could act on the complaints, the fire department had closed the building.” McCormick says DCRA made amends by footing the hotel bills for the evicted tenants.
In between filing their housing complaints, the tenants claim they dutifully paid their rent. “We thought paying rent would entice them to make repairs,” Alvarez says. Some of the tenants even paid in full for the month of September 1995even after the utilities were shut offonly to be kicked out days later.
Krupsaw died before the eviction. However, Philip Margolius, who represents Krupsaw’s real estate company, Fernwood Corp., acknowledges that Krupsaw had been trying to sell the building for years. Krupsaw’s dream, though, was on hold as long as the building was filled with low-income renters.
The city’s landlord-tenant laws were designed to obstruct just these kinds of attempts by developers to clear buildings of tenants and convert them to condominiums.
Among other things, landlords are required to guarantee tenants right of first refusal on sales of buildings that they occupy. Although the provision enables tenants to stave off conversion, it forces them to come up with enormous sums of money. At the time of the eviction, Fernwood had a bid on the table for $1.5 million. To stay in the building, the tenants would have had to cough up a down payment of $250,000money they simply couldn’t raise. Moreover, the building was divided into 48 efficiencies, a configuration that made financing a renovation of any sort impossible for the tenants.
“There was no way to renovate the building to allow families of two adults and three kids to afford to live in the units for the same rent they had been paying,” says Rosario Gingras, an associate of Rome, the tenants’ lawyer. The new owners have offered the former tenants a small, undisclosed settlement for relinquishing their right to purchase the property.
The mass eviction, however, cleared away the legal hurdles, enabling Fernwood to market the building as a tenant-free property ripe for condo conversion. On Oct. 18, 1995, the Churchill Development Group LLC bought it for $650,000. “[Fernwood] represented that there were no tenants,” says Charles Reed, a Churchill partner, who adds that his company would not have bought the building if the tenants still lived there. This winter, Churchill sold it to another developerthe 1520 16th St. Limited Liability Co.which is overseeing the conversion to luxury condos.
“Gentrification has already occurred,” Rome says. “Low-income and working-class people have been pushed out of downtown.” And the landlord’s tactics were some of the most egregious that Rome, who specializes in representing tenants, has ever seen. “It was a horrible thing,” he says. Besides “not being able to get your pictures or your underwear, being thrown from your home not by choice takes a huge emotional toll.”
The tenants are still holding out for an explanation from the Krupsaw estate and Fernwood. Among other issues, “They still haven’t returned our [$400] deposits,” says former tenant Marlena Garcia. CP