District Planning Push Against 'Slumlords'

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles will petition Superior Court next month to oversee a sweeping crackdown on negligent landlords, promising the push will have a "significant, immediate" impact on tenants in dozens of the District's most decrepit apartment buildings.

Nickles said yesterday he will ask the court to appoint an independent officer with broad authority to seek fines and penalties against problem landlords if they don't repair their buildings. Nickles met last week with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and decided to focus on five property owners, but he said he might expand the list if the court agrees to the proposed "receivership."

He said the plan would allow the city to clean up properties and penalize owners in a comprehensive way. The city has occasionally tried to take on landlords through individual civil cases, but Nickles described that approach as time-consuming and often ineffective.

"This will make an impression," said Nickles, who has been working on the plan for a month. "It is an opportunity for slumlords to recognize that business as usual will not be tolerated. This has been a pervasive problem for decades."

Nickles said he will meet with DCRA again Friday to talk about the plan and the landlords. "We're going to get them all," he said.

He did not identify the five property owners, but he said they oversee dozens of buildings across the city. He said he would seek to have a court-appointed receiver with broad latitude to address housing code infractions, such as leaking roofs, defective appliances and utility outages, as well as fire and health violations. The receiver could also seek to use money from rent payments to make repairs.

Housing advocates and tenant attorneys lauded the plan, saying it is necessary because some property owners have refused for years to fix rotting buildings in order to drive tenants from rent-controlled apartments.

The District's tenant rights law, one of the strongest in the nation, gives renters the right to approve apartment-to-condominium conversions and requires landlords to pay a fee on the sale of new condominium units to help uprooted families find new homes. But if a building is vacant, the owner does not have to pay the fee.

The Washington Post reported in a series of articles last week that landlords in the past four years have emptied more than 200 buildings, receiving $328 million in condominium sales while saving $16 million in conversion fees. More than half of the buildings had housing code violations, including lack of heat or electricity, cracked walls and bug infestations, the newspaper found.

Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) called last week for emergency legislation to repeal the 28-year-old provision in the law that allows landlords to seek a "vacancy exemption." The two council members said they will propose the measure at a meeting April 1.

Council members said Nickles's proposal is a novel way to deal with the chronic problem of code enforcement.

A Mount Pleasant apartment building that was destroyed in a massive fire last week, leaving about 200 people homeless, had been cited for more than 7,100 housing code violations since 2004. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

"A court-appointed receiver would not permit the kind of situation that had existed at the Mount Pleasant property," Nickles said.

If the court agrees to a receivership, Nickles said landlords who refuse repairs will not only face fines but could also be held in contempt of court orders. Currently, DCRA can pursue fines against owners, but Nickles said that process has been "no credible threat" and that "landlords basically thumb their noses at the city."

The agency has pursued roughly 1,000 housing code cases for apartment buildings in the past three years, but nearly half of the completed cases were dismissed, often because of agency lapses, The Post reported.

"You have good landlords out there . . . but for those who have no intention of ever fixing up their units at all, and doing it so they can kick people out and create condos, that is something that is unacceptable,'' said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). "People are just so tired and so frustrated living in these conditions.''

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