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Twenty-five-year-old Robin Winbush is a living chronicle of the nightmare that passes for life at Clifton Terrace Apartments, a federally subsidized housing complex at 13th and Clifton Streets NW. Two months ago, Winbush’s boyfriend, the father of her 2-year-old child, was shot dead outside the complex. And Winbush feels defenseless against the criminals who stalk the four-building, 300-unit compound: Her front door is broken, and her building’s security system is on the fritz.

She manages to forget about her vulnerability when she is forced to wrestle with more mundane problems—like the ceiling leak that has been spurting on and off for months in her apartment. “The first time, [the water] fell on my head,” says Winbush. And when she returns home from the market, Winbush has to lug her groceries and her kids up three flights of stairs—her building’s elevators are out of order.

Winbush’s predicament, however severe, is not exactly novel in the city’s embattled housing projects, which suffer from varying degrees of crime and decay. But Clifton Terrace has cast a particularly notorious blight on the Columbia Heights neighborhood since the late 1970s, when the property was managed by Mayor Marion Barry’s ex-wife Mary Treadwell. Treadwell was convicted in 1984 of conspiracy charges for skimming off $600,000 in rental payments and other federal funds intended for the complex’s upkeep. The skimmings allegedly afforded Treadwell an apartment in the Watergate and a stylish Jaguar. Meanwhile, Clifton residents were left helplessly fending off the growing population of rats and criminals that gradually took over the once-grand apartment complex.

Now, it seems, history is repeating itself. After a prolonged investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has alleged that Clifton Terrace’s current management company—Clifton Terrace Associates Ltd. (CTAL)—has pocketed $1 million in federal money intended to fix things like Winbush’s ceiling leak and distributed it as dividends to its partners. The housing agency has sued in U.S. District Court to seize control of the complex. Meanwhile, CTAL has filed for bankruptcy, claiming that the complex is so rife with problems that the $300,000 a month it receives in federal subsidies can’t possibly pay for adequate upkeep.

On a clear Wednesday night at the complex, Beatrice Jefferson, a Clifton Terrace tenant activist, patrols the apartment grounds, pointing out the hazards of her home. Congregated in the courtyard is a throng of residents and outsiders, who sit on stoops and benches playing cards. Kids run in and out of the apartments and doorways, oblivious to the adults around them. The scene appears harmless enough, but Jefferson insists that the crowd is teeming with squatters, who destroy the buildings and prey on their occupants.

“They don’t know who lives here,” says Jefferson, referring to management. She insists that squatters break into vacant units for a few weeks and “the next thing you know that turns into five years.”

In its pending suit, HUD blames CTAL and its president, Rick Marshall, for the squatter problem and related security breaches. Specifically, HUD charges that Marshall “experimented” for six months with suspending security altogether at the complex. The experiment produced predictably disastrous results, HUD says.

“We have always varied security,” responds Marshall, noting that thwarting criminals is a dicey cat-and-mouse game.

But security lapses are just the trimmings of HUD’s beef with CTAL. HUD has repeatedly tried to force Marshall to make needed repairs to the complex, which appears ready to collapse in a heap of peeling plaster, hole-ridden walls, and broken windows. The complex’s sorry condition is not lost on the District’s housing-code office, which last month issued over 100 citations against management, according to D.C. housing official James Aldridge.

The feds might be willing to cut CTAL some slack if they were convinced that the group was at least making a good-faith effort to attack Clifton’s formidable problems. But in the suit, HUD charges that Marshall withdrew $1 million from CTAL accounts and distributed it to his partners as dividends. The money, says HUD, should have been spent on repairs and security.

“There was never any dispute at the hearing that amounts of money were taken out of the project,” says John Herold, HUD’s associate general counsel for program enforcement.

Herold charges that the withdrawal is a blatant violation of Marshall’s contract with the feds. The contract obligates Marshall to collect rents from the tenants and make payments on the complex’s mortgage, which lists HUD as the property owner. Under Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act, Marshall receives over $300,000 per month in federal subsidies as compensation for renting the units to low-income tenants. HUD charges that Marshall improperly disbursed the money to his partners.

In a June 26 preliminary opinion, Judge Thomas Pennfield Jackson ruled that HUD’s allegations against CTAL did not warrant an immediate court order to take away CTAL’s control of the Clifton complex. “There is insufficient evidence that [Marshall] has not attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to manage the property effectively in difficult circumstances,” wrote Jackson, who also challenged HUD’s claims about the diversion of CTAL funds from housing maintenance to dividend payments.

Herold said the ruling reflected ignorance of the facts in the Clifton case. “Whatever Judge Jackson said in his ruling was entirely preliminary,” he says. “[Jackson] had not read the complete record.” Jackson’s ruling will force a prolonged trial on the matter, which will begin in early August and end in the fall.

HUD will spare no expense in pursuing its case against Marshall, according to Herold. The case, after all, is part of a nationwide crackdown on Section 8 housing spearheaded by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, who last year visited Clifton. “Clifton is among the more difficult of the projects that the secretary has dealt with,” says Herold.

Marshall agrees that the complex is deeply troubled, but claims he is struggling against a legacy of mismanagement—not to mention drugs, crime, and poverty. Marshall says the complex was “in atrocious shape” when he began managing it in the early 1980s; a third of the apartments were vacant, and he had to dish out $800,000 to make the complex livable. (In his recent ruling, Judge Jackson said that HUD may have misrepresented the condition of the complex to Marshall when he took it over, a claim vigorously disputed by HUD officials.)

Further, Marshall says his efforts to keep a clean house bumped against the District’s mid-1980s construction of the Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets NW. The construction, Marshall contends, displaced one of the area’s most active open-air drug markets and pushed it right into his front yard.

Tenant activist Jefferson agrees that forces beyond management’s control plague Clifton’s residents. “I don’t know if getting rid of Rick Marshall would [by itself improve living conditions],” says Jefferson. Neighborhood drug dealers and Clifton tenants bear some of the blame, she says. For instance, the complex’s courtyard fills up with debris within hours of being swept clean. And residents complain that parents do a poor job of supervising their children.

The only real hope for the complex, Jefferson says, is her plan to organize the tenants and purchase their common home. That way, she says, tenants can oust their negligent managers and fend off purchase offers from local developers. Clifton’s elevated view of the city and its proximity to a soon-to-be-constructed Green Line Metro stop make it a logical candidate for conversion to condominiums.

Still, Jefferson’s plans will have to wait for the court to hear HUD’s case against Marshall.

In the meantime, Clifton residents will have to work around the dangers, inconveniences, and disappointments the complex dishes out every day. In recent months, the complex’s senior citizens’ room closed down, a victim of building code violations. And management says that scarce funds will keep the library and day-care center closed for some time. To make matters worse, residents can barely enjoy their own apartments—many have been blocked from stepping onto their crumbling balconies.

—Jonathan Berr