Trenton's Story

By Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On a mild afternoon last fall, 11-year-old Trenton Robinson watched his sister pedal a tricycle on a crumbling patch of sidewalk in front of their apartment at 3339 10th Pl. SE, over the broken glass, past the mangled fence, beyond the windows splintered by bullets, around the dead rat, next to heaps of reeking trash that hadn't been collected in weeks.

Trenton was happy to be outside, in his roller sneakers after school.

Inside, through a softball-size hole in the floor of his family's apartment, Trenton can peer into the building's basement, so dark he can barely make out the walls. But he can smell the raw sewage on the floor, alive with bugs, and hear the constant gurgle of water streaming down collapsed walls.

For at least four years, Trenton's father said, their apartment has had no heat. Thomas Robinson said he leaves the oven on, but Trenton can still see his breath in the icy air.

"I have to put, like, five blankets over me," the sixth-grader said. "Three isn't going to do it because I'll still be cold."

The red brick building with 13 units is owned by Prince George's County resident Edward Knott, who bought it in 2002 for $215,000. Tenants fear that he's refusing repairs to drive them away.

The District's 28-year-old tenant rights law requires property owners to give tenants the first shot at buying their apartments before buildings are sold to outside bidders. The law also requires that tenants approve a conversion to condominiums.

Tenants on 10th Place say they are working with a lawyer from the nonprofit Bread for the City to try to buy the building.

Knott, who presented an offer of sale to tenants for $690,000 last summer, said that the process is time-consuming and that he wants the building sold quickly.

"I want it vacant," Knott said. "If I didn't have tenants, then I could sell it."

Knott said that he's made repairs over the years, including replacing windows and doors, but that many tenants are "squatters" who don't have legitimate leases and don't keep up the building, often allowing strangers to get inside and cause damage.

"I've cleaned that place up so much," he said. "I don't understand why the tenants allow that to happen."

Attorneys representing the tenants say they have legitimate leases and have tried to maintain the building themselves, replacing broken locks on doors and putting plastic on windows to cover holes in the glass.

Records show that tenants have repeatedly asked the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to step in, complaining about bad smells, rodents, the lack of heat and collapsing ceilings. In many instances, DCRA said, it closed cases when it couldn't reach the owners or tenants to get inside the building.

The agency has made roughly $20,000 in emergency repairs at the building, which Knott has not repaid, despite a special charge on his tax bill. But most of the problems linger. The building was still without heat on a blustery winter day, and a cat lay dead in the sludge on the basement floor.

"We can't get support," said Thomas Robinson, a sheet-metal mechanic who mops the building's hallways. At the advice of housing advocates, he said, he has recently stopped paying rent, which city officials say is legal when landlords fail to fix code violations. "It's a depressing thing. They treat you just like the building looks."

DCRA Director Linda Argo said the agency has cited Knott for hundreds of violations in recent years, but there has been little cooperation from Knott or the tenants, who have "denied access or ignored requests to enter the building and individual units."

Late last week, after The Washington Post asked DCRA about the building, the agency sent inspectors. It has arranged to remove trash, scheduled another inspection and might make repairs using city money set aside to fix up buildings when owners refuse to step in.

Tenants, meanwhile, are working with a pro-bono attorney from the Jones Day law firm to sue Knott for negligence, among other things.

Trenton stays away whenever he can. He takes the subway to a public charter school in Northeast and catches a ride with his coach every fall Saturday to practice football. He loves the game. But it also signals the beginning of cold weather, when his apartment is unbearable.

"They say we could die in that house," Trenton said. " . . . I don't know. I never thought about it like that. But they say, 'Man, we could die.' "

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company