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5509 9th St. NW is a miserable place to live. The apartment building’s stairwells reek of urine; the hallways smell like pot. Electrical problems regularly plunge the building’s graffitied hallways into darkness, an issue so frequent that one resident jerry-rigged a lamp to a wall.
Teenagers on the run from the police break into empty units. One woman says that she was hit by falling ceiling material while she was pregnant, then later slipped on a used condom while carrying her baby. Residents say they haven’t had hot water for a year.
For the building’s tenants, the only thing worse than living there might be leaving. But that’s just what they could be forced to do Friday morning, when the District is expected to carry out a March 8 condemnation issued by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
DCRA’s condemnation order notes 15 things wrong with the building, from inoperable plumbing and utility lines to trash scattered everywhere. It’s a sign of how hard the District’s housing market is for low-income people—and how little support the city offers them in finding a place to live—that some people living in the decrepit building say they want to stay despite conditions.
Residents estimate that 10 units in the building are still inhabited. Ahead of the planned exit, the District has offered residents two weeks in a hotel and space in a Maryland storage facility for their belongings. But the tenants say that two weeks isn’t enough time to find affordable replacement housing options, especially with many of their possessions either abandoned or in storage.
“After that, you’re just living stupid,” says tenant Ashley Coleman, who has lived in the building for eight years.
The condemnation order presents a challenge for Muriel Bowser‘s administration, which can’t let people live in condemned buildings, but also has sought to reduce homelessness. The residents LL talked with say neither Bowser or Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd has been much help.
A spokesperson for Todd says they’re aware of the condemnation; LL’s waiting to hear more on Todd’s response.
“Once they get in office, they ain’t got time for you no more,” says Arthur Williams, a tenant of 13 years.
Residents say the building has been in decline for years—its former landlord, Louis Taylor, died in 2009. Taylor’s wife, Inell Taylor, died last year, leaving the building’s fate tied up in probate court.
Tenants have a long list of symptoms of the building’s decay after Louis Taylor’s death. Left without hot water, some say they started cleaning dishes in their bathtubs with boiled water—which naturally created new problems with the plumbing. When hallway lights go out, tenants say they’re left to navigate the buildings with light from their cell phones.
The worst part, though, may be what happened in the building’s empty units. With management apparently gone, the building became a flophouse for anyone who needed a place to hide or do drugs—a problem exacerbated by what residents describe as a thriving nearby market for sex and drugs. The squatters ranged from 30-something homeless people seeking relief from winter cold to 12-year-olds on the outs with their parents.
Then there were the criminals, who hid from police in the building’s chaos.
“If they’ve robbed somebody, they’re going to come in here,” Coleman says.
In one of the empty apartments, flies circled a toilet ripped off its foundation and dumped in the living room. Another was decorated with a haphazard stack of canned food and graffiti declaring it a “trap.”
The residents’ attempts to push out the interlopers have mostly failed. An attempt to keep them away by blocking the busted front door failed after one squatter broke a ground floor window, sneaked in, and let his compatriots in through the door.
Last night, according to one resident, another squatter broke in through a window. The resident pleaded for the squatters to leave them alone. Just because they didn’t have building management, he told the squatter, didn’t mean that the building was abandoned.
What happened to rent and utility payments after Louis Taylor’s death could decide both the residents’ fate in the building and, if the building is sold, their rights of first refusal under the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Residents say they used to give Taylor payments in his building office. After his death, though, they say they had to trek to his house. When they attempted to pay, an unknown person who answered the door offered them a receipt by ripping a blank piece of paper in half and signing a name. As a result, residents say the situation led to a breakdown in rent paying.
Attorney Gerald Belton, who represents Inell Taylor’s estate, isn’t sympathetic to this explanation. He compares the tenants’ complaints to a man who murders both of his parents, then asks a judge for leniency because he’s an orphan. Belton says the building’s maintenance has been affected by the residents’ lack of payments.
“You should ask the tenants when was the last time they paid any rent to have upkeep done or taken it on themselves to do cleaning,” Belton says.
Belton is tight-lipped about the future of the property, valued at $1.7 million. Belton wouldn’t even tell LL the names of the beneficiaries of Taylor’s estate. Still, he says there are currently no firm plans to sell.
On the phone with LL, Belton focused on the difference between tenants who have paid rent and utilities, and those who haven’t.
“We also are respectful of the rights of legitimate tenants,” Belton says. “‘Legitimate’ being the operative word.”
The tenants might get a break on their forced exit from the building, scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday. With help from the Latino Economic Development Center, the residents filed an appeal Thursday afternoon disputing the condemnation with the District’s Office of Administrative Hearings.
It’s not clear whether the last-minute appeal will stop the building from being closed tomorrow. On Thursday night, DCRA spokesperson Matt Orlins said in a statement that the agency still plans to close the building.
If the building’s tenants are pushed out Friday morning, they’ll likely have just 14 days to find another place to live. That’s not enough time, according to Willi Delaney, a self-described “retired old woman” who lives nearby and has been helping the tenants.
“Who can find housing for two weeks in this town, even if you make $100,000?” Delaney says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery