When city officials forced Katrina Neal to leave her Washington Highlands apartment on the cold night of Feb. 9, she didn’t expect to be gone long. City inspectors declared her building uninhabitable and gave Neal and 11 other tenants of the three-story brick building on Chesapeake Street SE less than an hour’s notice to pack three days’ worth of clothing and hop on a waiting Metrobus.
The tenants were taken to the President Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast—among the city’s unofficial holding stations for tenants of buildings determined unfit to live in—supposedly just for the weekend. A week and a half later, Neal says, officials with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)—the agency that closed down the building—realized that the relocation process would take longer than originally thought. So they gave Neal & Co. a few hours to collect some more of their things.
When they returned, they found their homes very unlike they had left them.
“We went back in that building and everything was destroyed,” Neal says. “They stole computers, they took everything I had.” She says she lost her television and DVD player, kitchen appliances, and a set of gold-trimmed dishes that had been in her family for many years. She says her clothes were damaged and everything that wasn’t stolen had been destroyed.
It looked like “Hurricane Katrina had come through,” Neal says. And she and her neighbors are still wondering who’s going to replace the things that were taken.
Neal says that when the city shut the building down, the tenants were told not to worry. “That’s why a lot of us didn’t really want to leave the building, because we didn’t want to leave our things,” she says. “But when they shut the water off, they said we couldn’t stay here. The mayor’s [office] said that if anything got stolen or messed up, they would replace it. But so far I have not heard anybody saying they’re going to replace it. Now I have nothing but the few little clothes that are in my basket.”
According to mayoral spokesperson Mafara Hobson, the mayor’s office only got involved after the mayor’s Ward 8 neighborhood services coordinator got wind of the situation. “She acted promptly and put them up in a hotel,” Hobson says.
Hobson says her office is working with the DCRA to get the tenants stuff replaced and that the tenants will be reimbursed for any application fees when they move into their new apartments. Norris Goines, who owns the building, says he was on the premises when two thieves came. He says he called the police and two suspects were taken away. Goines says he now leaves his dog there at night to deter any more break-ins.
Tenants say that Goines’ neglect of the building is the reason they were forced out in the first place. DCRA inspectors evacuated the tenants after they found the building had no running water or electricity and was poorly heated.
Rebecca Lindhurst, an attorney with Bread for the City, got involved in October when a tenant contacted the nonprofit to get help restoring the electricity. According to Lindhurst, Pepco cut the electricity off in the building after a fire, but it was turned back on illegally. As soon as Pepco noticed the gaffe, it promptly cut the power again.
Lindhurst says that five city agencies have been involved in what she calls a poorly coordinated effort to resolve the tenants’ issues.
Debra Daniels, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Human Services, says her agency has been assisting the Chesapeake Street residents since the evacuation with food, household items, bus tokens, and family counseling through its Strong Families program.
Neal says that she received a $25 Target card and a $50 Safeway card. Those cards were a one-time gift.
“They told us to go to soup kitchens,” Neal says. “Then they gave us $20 vouchers for Wendy’s. I appreciate the gesture; I really do. But being a diabetic, I can’t be eating Wendy’s burgers.” She now goes across the street to a car wash and offers to dry cars for a few extra dollars.
She’s heard from the city that federal housing vouchers will be provided for all nine families—she’s almost settled on a building, the Wingate, near her old home in Southeast.
In the meantime, Neal’s stuck in her third-floor room at the President Inn. On a recent weekday morning, the shades are drawn. A bulky black stereo is on the nightstand and a Valentine’s Day gift basket sits on the dresser next to her television, unopened. A pile of spent cigarettes lies in ashes in a tray on the nightstand between the two full-size beds. She has a minifridge and a microwave but no stove. She shares the room with her nine-month-old cat, Apple Pie.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I appreciate what [the city has] done. But I’m trying to find out who’s going to replace my things.”