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When Hudie Fleming met James Washington last fall, he thought he’d found the perfect tenant for his four-bedroom brick rambler on LeBaum Street SE. The elderly gentleman was resplendent in his Sunday best, along with his young wife and two teenage daughters. A smooth-talking, friendly man, he allegedly told Fleming all the right things, assuring him that he’d take special care of the yard, and even plant a flower garden.
It all sounded good, but what most impressed Fleming was Washington’s 40-year stint as a nursing assistant at nearby St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he earns $30,000 a year. Same job since the Eisenhower eranow that’s the kind of steady work history and employee loyalty you don’t see much these days. Even better, the 62-year-old Washington received a monthly VA check for $321 that certainly wouldn’t hurt come rent time.
After talking with Washington’s supervisor, Fleming needed to hear no more: He had his dream tenant and turned down other qualified rental applicants.
It didn’t take Fleming long to realize that his first impression of Washington was mistaken. Washington bounced his first two rent checks and offered well-worn excuses for his delinquencylike, the bank had failed to credit his deposits on time. Fleming, who has rented out the LeBaum Street property since 1981 and owns two other rental properties, was finally paid for the first two months.
Since then, though, Fleming hasn’t received a penny from his tenant, who continues to report regularly to his night-shift job at St. Elizabeths two blocks away. Washington now owes $3,648 in back rent and according to Fleming has refused repeated attempts at negotiation. As if fighting a recalcitrant tenant weren’t hard enough, Fleming has also run into a web of landlord-tenant rules woven in favor of renters.
In late December, Fleming went to Landlord and Tenant Division of D.C. Superior Court to try to evict Washington and regain possession of his house. He argued that as a small landlord, retired with only a tiny pension, he desperately needed a paying tenant or he’d soon be in danger of losing his house to foreclosure. According to Fleming, Washington blamed his poor rent record on medical problems, including diabetes. The judge apparently wasn’t impressed, especially after hearing that Washington managed to show up for work every day.
When Fleming on Jan. 10 won a court order to evict his stubborn tenant and regain possession of his property, he figured he was through paying for his faulty judgment. “I thought I’d got my house back and I could say, ‘Get out of my house,’ you know,” says Fleming, who lives in the nearby Hillcrest neighborhood. “And here it is three months later and I still don’t have my house back, and it looks like I won’t for a while.”
Court orders don’t evict tenants; the U.S. Marshals do. Fleming has twice obtained writs from the marshals to strong-arm Washington out of the house, but the marshals are too busy with the other rent scofflaws in town. Hundreds of landlords are ahead of Fleming on the eviction backlog, and District law prohibits evictions when the temperature dips below freezing anytime during the 24-hour period of the scheduled day. (The prohibition was enacted a few years ago by the D.C. Council shortly after a well-publicized case in which a homeless woman died on the steps of the HUD building.)
Which means that Washington may continue to enjoy free lodging well into spring.
Stymied by the eviction process, Fleming attempted to reach straight into Washington’s wallet by securing an order in small claims court to garnish his St. Elizabeths wages. Don’t even bother, said the clerk: As a District employee, Washington is protected by law from salary garnishment. (The District government inherited the law from the federal government, which had enacted it to reduce paperwork. The feds later dropped the law, but it remains on the books in D.C.)
While few summon compassion for a landlord trying to evict his tenant, Fleming’s predicament is an everyday business problem for D.C. property owners.
“In the District, there are a lot of things that make it very difficult for landlords to operate,” says Jay Zawatsky, a Washington developer. “Which is one of the reasons we have a housing shortage in the city, because the rules are so skewed against landlords.”
Fleming says he has tried to contact all the political powers that be, from his council representative, Kevin Chavous, to Mayor Barry. But even the city’s elected leaders are no match for the tenant protections in D.C. law. Through it all, Washington has remained apologetic even as he steadfastly refuses to pay rent, now three months in arrears. “He always says, ‘Oh, Mr. Fleming, I don’t want you to lose your house,’” says Fleming.
But that very situation is now looming: Fleming now faces imminent foreclosure as a result of his falling behind in his mortgage payments. And this isn’t just another rental property. It’s the house he bought for his daughter to live in someday. Fleming will soon be forced to get another writ, which expires after 35 days. The marshal’s office has told him not to bother calling; it will contact him when his turn comes.
Even when the marshals are ready to carry out the eviction, Washington could still get off the hook. In the District, a rule called the “translux law” allows the tenant to pay up until the very moment of evictionwith the marshals and landlord on the front steps. The translux law can provide the perfect escape hatch for a tardy tenant to make payments on his own laggard schedule.
“Once you finally get them dispossessed, they have a right to pay the back rent but without the court costs and penalties and all the restbasically use the landlord as an interest-free bank,” says Zawatsky. “A lot of these rules were passed with all the best intentions to protect the tenant, but what they’ve ended up doing is reducing the supply and quality of the housing in the District.”
Unlike the large corporate landlords, though, Fleming can’t simply pack up and head to the suburbs. He’s got everything invested in his District properties. “Everyone’s ripping me off,” he says.
Fleming strides through the trash-and-leaf-strewn yard on LeBaum Street on another visit to his delinquent tenant, who never bothered to plant that garden. In his long-rider leather coat and cowboy boots, Fleming resembles a bounty hunter and hopes to corral Washington face to face. Washington’s phone is disconnected, and he allegedly hangs up when Fleming calls him at work. (Washington failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact him for this storyat home and at work.)
“He had a nice Christmas,” grumbles Fleming, pointing to a tiny tree with holiday lights clinging to its scraggly limbs. “He didn’t have to pay any moneyliving here rent-free. But I’m not Santa Claus. This is business for me.”
Fleming knocks on the front door. After a while, a woman in slippers answers.
“I’d like to talk to Mr. Washington,” says Fleming.
“He’s not here,” says the woman, readying to close the door.
“I’d like to know why he hasn’t paid his rent, and I’d like to know when he’s going to leave my house.”
She quietly acknowledges they’re behind on the rent but explains that Fleming must speak with her husband about these matters. He’s presently away, taking care of some business.
“It seems like no one in the house has any conscience,” says Fleming.
“I have some consciousness,” snaps the woman. “I’m not gonna stand at my doorI have a grandbaby in here and the [cold] air is on her. I’m not gonna stand here arguing.”
“I’m not arguing,” murmurs Fleming softly, almost to himself. “I just want to know when you’re going to leave my house.”
“You can talk with my husband when he gets home,” she says, and shuts the door.
Fleming peers inside a rusting Lincoln Town Car with an expired license tag stuck in the back window. “He had this old raggedy car, not worth more than $200, so I have nothing that I can attachhe’s got no assets at all,” says Fleming.
“He’s like a parasite,” says Fleming, who claims Washington got petulant during the last conversation. “Now he says, ‘I’m not going anywhere until the marshals put me out.’ So he just sits in my house relaxing.”
Fleming says he has learned at least one lesson from his battle with Washington: He’s never going to rent to a District employee again.CP