By Sylvia Moreno and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 5, 2008
The District held out the promise of relief to hundreds of tenants living in deteriorating buildings yesterday, suing 23 property owners whose 71 rental buildings have a history of "egregious" code violations.
Employing a rarely used legal hammer, the city asked to have 13 of the properties placed in receivership and declared "public nuisances" to ensure prompt repairs.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other city officials characterized the lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, as an "unprecedented" crackdown against problem landlords.
"These are a number of the most egregious buildings in the city," Fenty said. "But by no stretch of the imagination have we named all the egregious properties."
Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles called the lawsuit "the opening salvo in what will be a comprehensive program" to go after problem landlords in the District. "You can run but can't hide, and we are on your trail," he said.
The 71 properties are 25 apartment buildings and 46 rental houses that contain 470 residential units in seven of the city's eight wards, officials said. No properties were cited in Ward 3 in Northwest.
Officials said the lawsuit follows years, in most cases, of efforts to get landlords to bring their properties up to code, mostly through requests, fines, demands and civil lawsuits by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Employing the receivership law is laudable and a "great conceptual idea," said Michael Diamond, a Georgetown University law professor who runs a housing and community development clinic. Under the law, a court appointee would manage the 13 buildings targeted for receivership, collect the rent and use the money for repairs.
But the results of receivership on its own can be unpredictable, he said. The law requires 50 percent of rents collected to be used to pay a building's mortgage and utilities. The other half is for repairs. But the costs of repairs will probably exceed that amount, so D.C. officials said they would force landlords to come up with the rest of the money by asking the court to declare the 13 buildings public nuisances. If that request is granted, landlords would be vulnerable to contempt or criminal sanctions if they did not comply.
"The public nuisance angle adds an element that will induce some, if not all, landlords to do some, if not all, the repairs," Diamond said. But if landlords remain recalcitrant or are jailed for failing to comply, "that still doesn't get repairs made," or it impedes the work while tenants continue to live in blight, he said.
City officials said the "double-prong approach," as Nickles called it -- receivership coupled with penalties for not controlling a public nuisance -- would push landlords to comply. They mentioned the other instance in which the city pursued a court-appointed receiver to wrest control of a building. That action occurred in 2001 for a single building, and it was properly repaired, officials said.
The owners of the other 58 buildings -- most of them single-family rental houses -- also have a history with the city's regulatory agencies and have refused to comply with requests to repair buildings or obtain proper licensing to rent out their properties, city officials said. The lawsuit seeks to force them to do so or face heavy fines or jail time.
Hundreds of low-rent buildings in the city have languished in squalor for years, despite repeated complaints by tenants and their advocates. In some cases, landlords have collected rent without dealing with leaks, mold, pest infestations and security lapses because the tenants -- poor and often immigrants -- have few options for decent and affordable housing, advocates have said.
In other cases, landlords let their buildings deteriorate in hopes of forcing tenants out -- "eviction by neglect," as housing advocates call it -- so the vacant structures could be remade into upscale condominiums without violating the city's tenant-conversion laws. A recent Washington Post investigation found that landlords had emptied at least 200 such buildings in recent years to capitalize on gentrification in neighborhoods near downtown.
The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation Tuesday to repeal the law that gave property owners an exemption from the city's tenants' rights laws if their buildings were vacant.
Among those named in the lawsuit filed yesterday are Deauville Partners LLC, which owns a Mount Pleasant apartment building that was gutted in a five-alarm fire last month and several other buildings in the city, and Rufus Stancil, who was criminally prosecuted after a landlord crackdown by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams in the early part of this decade. As part of a plea agreement, Stancil agreed to spend six weekends in jail and two months living in a building where his tenants lived without heat, hot water or basic sanitation.
Stancil could not be reached. Eric Kretschman, a partner with Deauville, said through a spokeswoman that the lawsuit "has no merit."
Robert L. Williams, who is cited in the lawsuit, owns an apartment building in Southeast. He said that he is in court with the city over code violations in his building but that he has documented that he is taking care of them. He said he was surprised by the lawsuit.
"This is going a little too far," he said.