When it comes to those who live in the District’s poor public housing conditions, Latisha Martin, 31, says her two bedroom apartment in Southwest D.C. exemplifies every stereotype.
Martin describes the mushrooms growing out of her bathroom as “big” and “purple.” She does not have phone service. “The damp walls have caused the phones to go dead.”
Drug lords linger on the property, making it unsafe for Martin’s three children, who are 11, 8 and 5, to play outside. “Why are we not allowed to sit out on our porch when we have under-aged children, and y’all have all these thugs who do not live on the property taking over your property?” Martin, a yoga instructor who cannot afford a new apartment, asked. “They (the landlords) never catch the thugs to run them away.”
Shawn Simons, Martin’s eldest, said, “Our ceilings are tearing apart, and water leaks from them.” Roaches are a problem, but the bed bugs were taken care of last year.
In an effort to pass the “Tenant Protection Act of 2009, Bill 18-42,” which is currently stalled in the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs under Councilmember Muriel Bowser, a grassroots empowerment project Empower D.C., set forth an initiative to both preserve affordable housing and improve housing conditions.
Residents who are disproportionately affected by housing conditions took the opportunity to have their voices heard by participating in a listening circle on March 24, at the John A. Wilson building.
The Tenant Protection Act of 2009, proposed by Councilmember Jim Graham, who is chairman of the Committee on Public Works, as well as a member in both the Committee on Public Services and Consumer affairs and the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, requires inspection of residential properties to ensure habitability. The legislation allows tenants to sue landlords in court, and prevents the city from closing occupied rental properties and displacing tenants for the owner’s failure to maintain the premises in compliance with D.C. housing and building codes.
Upon examination, inspectors issue landlords a notice of violation, and give them a certain amount of time, known as the abatement period, to improve conditions. After the time frame expires, a re-inspection is carried out. If the landlords fail to make the necessary changes, they are fined. Depending upon the severity of the problem, the District can fix the problems itself and then fine the owner, or the city can continue to bill the owner, until housing conditions are habitable.
“We put people in jail last year for failure to make repairs,” said Michael Rupert, public information officer for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
Tenants and tenant advocates alike have criticized the DCRA for their slow response to inspection requests. Often times the inspector does not return after the first visit to see if the landlords addressed the violations. “We hear complaints about a lack of inspection and re-inspection happening,” said Joel Cohn, legislative director for the Office of the Tenant Advocate. “Fines are not being imposed.”
Linda Leaks, a community organizer for Empower D.C., said the landlords do not have any fear of retribution. “The fine is supposed to be a mechanism for holding them accountable.”
Landlords have allowed rental buildings to deteriorate, resulting in uninhabitable housing conditions. In this situation, the District will use the nuisance abatement fund to address the violations.
“The nuisance abatement law also gives the District the ability to move in on an emergency basis,” Cohn said. “Without warning the owner, the city can use the funds to cure a problem that poses an imminent health or safety threat to residents or to the neighborhood.” The city will then “lien the property, recoup the costs, and replenish the abatement funds,” he said. “It becomes a part of the tax liability of the landlord.”
Landlords sometimes allow housing conditions to worsen, in order to encourage tenants to leave the property. The owners then use the vacant buildings to create luxury condominiums. “I know this was the case three or four years ago, when the economy was booming,” Rupert said.
As higher-income people move in, current residents are being displaced. “I suspect it is intentional to allow the drug lords to roam the area,” Leaks said. “So the city can say ‘oh, the crime is so bad, it just makes more sense to close down the property.’”
Another reason for the neglect is due to “absentee landlords,” who collect rent without maintaining the building. “They may be willfully unaware what D.C. law requires them to do as landlords,” Cohn said.
With the introduction of the “Proactive Inspection” program last year, the DCRA made efforts to inspect those buildings with serious violations on a more regular basis than other buildings. Further, they are working to inspect, on a more frequent schedule, every rental building in the District. “One of our major duties is to make sure that rental properties throughout the District are safe for the tenants,” Rupert said.
Robert Walker, 56, said, “My place is full of mice droppings at all times.” Walker lives in private housing in the Southwest area.
Walker, who has not worked for three years, earns his income through disability checks and unemployment benefits. His unemployment benefits amount to $100 a week, after taxes. He pays a third of his income on rent.
Dissatisfied with the maintenance of the apartment, Walker formed a tenant association. Tenants in the building gathered for their first meeting in his apartment, and voted for positions. “We are going to make a difference,” he said.
Cohn said, “The reason tenants are organizing is because they are sick of uninhabitable living conditions in the building.”
Councilmember Graham first got involved with providing tenant rights after visiting the Clifton Terrace apartments on Clifton and 14th streets Northwest. Officials had called it the most troubling housing complexes in the nation. In addition to no running water, drugs dealers and prostitutes looked for customers around the bedraggled buildings. The owners had so many violations that they were forced to sell the building. Graham, believing something had to be done, proposed and drafted numerous legislations to extend and tighten the District’s rent control laws, as well as to end the abusive and illegal evictions of tenants. “There was limited to no recourse for tenants dealing with slum landlords,” said Brian Debose, Graham’s communications director. “The councilmember changed the easy playing field.”
The purpose of the listening circle was to close the communication gap between low and moderate-income tenants living in unsanitary conditions and their elected officials. The testimonies of those at the listening circle will be written up, and personally delivered to councilmembers. “This is our effort to put the pressure on the people with the power to make the change,” Leaks said.
“They (the councilmembers) will ignore us as much as they can,” she said. “It’s only when we join together and really be persistent and have tenacity that we can get change made.”