Should anyone have to live like this?


Sheila Wright, who lives at the Greenleaf Gardens public housing complex in Southwest Washington. Her apartment is just one of many that has sewer water coming up through the kitchen sink and bathtub, and coming out of the walls and flooding the place time and again. (Courtland Milloy/TWP)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist December 23, 2012

Inside Shelia Wright’s public housing unit in Southwest Washington, water seeps through the walls. Mold grows on the ceiling. Black, sudsy muck comes up from the drains in the kitchen sink and bathtub. The toilet gurgles and overflows, leaving the stench of sewage.

“I was defrosting frozen food in the sink when it began filling up with dirty water and ruined everything,” said Wright, 53, who lives in Greenleaf Gardens, a 110 unit mid-rise building at 203 N Street SW. “The odor makes me nauseous, and something in the air makes my eyes water and irritates my throat.”

No one should have to live in such a toxic environment. And, of course, nobody is forcing Wright to stay. She could move — which would probably mean leaving the District, because public housing is about all she can afford. But then there would still be others living under those awful conditions, including scores of children.

“This isn’t just about me,” said Wright, a graduate of Trinity College who worked as a preschool teacher in the District until being diagnosed with uterine cancer a few years ago. After leaving her job on disability, she was unable to keep up the rent on her apartment and ended up moving to Greenleaf Gardens in 2010.

Now she plans to stay and fight, even if it means putting her own health at greater risk for what some might call a mission impossible.

“It’s about improving living conditions for everybody who lives here,” she said. “For people who can’t speak up because they don’t know how or because they are afraid of retribution.”

On Saturday, as Wright’s kitchen sink was backing up again and other tenants were complaining about not having any heat, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) just happened to be visiting the Greenleaf community center to deliver Christmas gifts for children. Wright wanted Gray to see the water damage in her apartment, but the mayor’s holiday party was invitation-only, and she could not get in to speak with him.

“The children get toys, but no heat,” Wright said. “It’s absurd.”

Turns out, the Gray administration is aware of the problems at Greenleaf Gardens. As recently as May, the city spent $44,000 on repairs to the building’s sewer lines, according to Dena Michaelson, spokesman for the D.C. Housing Authority.

By November, however, residents were again complaining about foul-smelling water coming out of the walls and up through drain pipes. Wright’s kitchen is no longer fit for cooking. Chances are she’ll be eating Christmas dinner at some fast-food joint.

Michaelson sympathizes but says tenants bear a lot of the blame.

“When we reamed out the building sewer lines, we discovered that people were putting things down the toilets that clog up the lines, like diapers,” Michaelson said. “During the holidays, the residents cook more and they pour more grease down the sink, and it clogs up the pipes. We send out fliers telling people to think before they act, but it doesn’t always help.”

During my visits to the housing complex, Wright and other residents pointed out examples of shoddy maintenance by city workers: ragged electrical wiring, sloppy painting, plumbing repairs that appeared to have been made with chewing gum.

The way Wright sees it, city officials ought to subject public housing complexes to the same stringent building code enforcement that they do privately owned apartment buildings.

Some residents believe city officials are deliberately allowing the complex to fall into disrepair. A building can take only so much water damage before it has to come down. That would make way for more luxury condominiums — not to mention hundreds fewer low-income residents for the emerging “world class city” to worry about.

Greenleaf is roughly eight blocks from the Nationals’ baseball stadium. In a city that ranks as one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, the site would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Wright is undaunted by the prospect of developers pushing her and others out of the city. In her view, there’s a principle here that trumps profits.

“Just because we are low-income, just because we get sick and lose our jobs, doesn’t mean you can treat us inhumanely,” she said.

For previous columns by Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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