Fund Gives Tenants Little Relief

A multi-million dollar fund to repair buildings in bad condition has sometimes been tapped to pay for expansive repairs at single-family homes and units in small row houses.
By Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 4, 2008

In December 2006, with temperatures hovering at 30 degrees, tenants in a crumbling brick building on Kennedy Street NW called the city with an urgent appeal. The heat was out, and they were cold and miserable. For months, they had lodged complaints, while city inspectors documented wet ceilings, broken lights, cracked walls, leaking sinks and defective radiators.

The District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has a lifeline for tenants living in dangerous conditions: a multimillion-dollar fund to repair buildings when owners refuse to do the work.

But in a city vexed by dozens of distressed buildings, DCRA has rarely intervened. In the past three years, the agency spent $617,000 on repairs at neglected apartment buildings -- just 4 percent of the $16.5 million in the fund -- even while its inspectors chronicled rampant code violations at complexes across the city, The Washington Post found.

At 809 Kennedy St. NW, DCRA put oil in the boiler but left the other breakdowns uncorrected. Over three years, records show, the agency kicked in $626 from the repair fund to one of the most troubled buildings in the city.

"This fund is the difference between safe and habitable housing and housing that no one should live in," said Natalie LeBeau, an advocate with the nonprofit Housing Counseling Services, who worked with the families on Kennedy Street. "But the fund is largely inaccessible."

Instead of investing in apartment buildings, DCRA in the past three years spent $440,000 to support a computer system the agency acknowledges is largely unreliable and $2.2 million on the development of a new one. An additional $2 million went to pay support staff, such as inspectors, researchers and schedulers, even though the agency has another fund flush with millions of dollars to cover operating expenses.

DCRA spent almost $1.6 million from the fund on repairs at single-family houses, some valued at $500,000 or more, including a sprawling house on Decatur Street NW that received a new front porch, 25 windows, fresh paint, roof repairs and a garage door. Millions more went to school buses and police and fire department equipment.

At the time, the District's real estate market was booming, and landlords in thriving neighborhoods were pushing to convert rent-controlled apartments into pricey condominiums. In dozens of cases, tenants said property owners had allowed buildings to deteriorate to force them out. DCRA's enforcement was falling short, with delayed inspections, poor follow-up and spotty efforts to pursue fines against negligent landlords.

From 2004 to 2007, landlords emptied more than 200 buildings, generating more than $328 million in condominium sales.

The Kennedy Street building is now vacant. DCRA had stepped in to help with the heat after advocates and D.C. Council members complained. The agency made minor fixes and spent about $4,000 from another account on the heating oil. But every family moved out within months.

Richard Deeds, whose company owns the building, said he paid families thousands of dollars to leave and is preparing to tear down the complex to build 70 apartments, with rents starting at $900 a month. He said that the building was old and could not be rehabilitated, and that tenants complained to the city to gain leverage for buyout payments.

"That's all of them trying to get money out of me," he said.

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