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The end finally came Friday for the tenants of the apartment building at 5509 9th St. NW. After a year spent without hot water and more time than that fending off neighboring drug users and criminals, the tenants’ last stand in the building ended with questions about where the District would take their belongings and where they could board their dogs.
“Do you know where the warmest bridge in D.C. is so I can stay in it?” asked Arthur Williams, a tenant of the building for 13 years.
Then the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspector who ordered the building closed led police officers on one last walk-through, pushing open apartment doors to prove his point.
The smell of urine rose from a stairwell. One apartment didn’t have any doors, making it one of many in the building that doubled as a brothel or flophouse for transients. At another apartment, the busted door fell down entirely, exposing a living room knee-deep in trash.
“Jesus!” said one officer. “Oh gosh, come on!”
The inspector came away vindicated. He had to close the building.
Outside, residents argued with Johanna Shreve, the head of the District’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, about whether the building was still habitable.
“It’s my understanding that there’s dog feces in the property,” Shreve said.
“It’s human,” cut in tenant Ashley Coleman.
“OK, so it’s human,” Shreve conceded.
5509 9th is uninhabitable—a fact made clear by DCRA’s order and to the eyes (and noses) of anyone who walks through it. But it’s a sign of how hard the District’s housing market has become for low-income residents that so few of the building’s tenants were happy to leave the decaying apartments.
Quality of life in the building went from bad to abysmal in 2009, according to tenants, when landlord Louis Taylor died. When Taylor’s wife, Inell Taylor, died last year, the property transferred to her estate. Eventually, it will be handled by 14 potential heirs, who want to sell the $1.7 million property, according to estate attorney Gerald Belton.
That translates to more than a dozen people with a stake in a future sale, but not in the future of the building or its tenants. With the building’s ownership situation unclear, tenants say they stopped paying rent or utilities after attempts to pay their rent were met with suspect receipts.
Belton counters that the tenants didn’t have to shirk their rent obligations, suggesting that the payments could become an issue for tenants’ rights in a potential sale. Belton compares the complaining tenants to a man who kills his parents, then asks a judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.
“We also are respectful of the rights of legitimate tenants,” Belton says. “‘Legitimate’ being the operative word.”
With absent management and little rent money coming in, the building deteriorated quickly. Resident Luis Cruz laid out the problems, from the lack of hot water to the building’s busted front door.
The building started attracting break-ins from outsiders interested in the abandoned units, ranging from teens fighting with their families to drug users and sex workers. Tenants blocked the front door, only to discover an intruder broke a window to sneak in and open the door. The squatters became so comfortable that tenants say they moved in mattresses and punched holes in the walls.
“‘We already got holes,’” building tenant Coleman recalls telling the trespassers. “‘Why you putting more holes?’”
Early last week, Metropolitan Police Department officers chased a suspect into the building, only to discover its pitiful state. After the call from police, DCRA ordered the building closed. A legal attempt by housing advocates looking to stop the closure was filed in the wrong court. To compensate for their eviction, the District offered tenants just two weeks in a hotel while they look for replacement housing.
“Who can find housing in two weeks in this town, even if you make $100,000?” says building neighbor Willi Delaney.
Last Friday, the District brought movers to take the tenants’ belongings to a Maryland storage facility; other workers boarded up the windows. But it’s not clear how much longer social services will last for the former tenants in a city already overwhelmed with homelessness.
One tenant wryly noted during the closing that Mayor Muriel Bowser plans to open a new homeless shelter less than 10 minutes away, on 5th Street NW.
OTA didn’t provide figures on how many of the ousted residents have found permanent housing. In a statement, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, whose ward includes the property, says he’s working to get housing for the ousted tenants.
Now in his hotel room in Silver Spring, Cruz says he’s hopeful that DCRA’s order will force the estate to repair the property and let the tenants back in. It’s not clear whether it will happen in time for Cruz and his dwindling days at the hotel, which he’s hoping will be extended.
Right now, it’s his best hope. Cruz hasn’t found housing yet, and he has about a week left.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery