D.C. Urged to Help Tenants Forced Out of Rooming House

By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

Housing advocates and recently displaced tenants demanded yesterday that District officials use emergency funds to repair a 14th Street NW rooming house after more than a dozen people were forced to leave last month because the building had no electricity.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, director of the Latino Federation of Greater Washington, said the landlord let the building at 3415 14th St. fall into disrepair to push out low-income residents. He said the city should tap its Nuisance Abatement Fund for money to fix the meter so that the tenants can go home. The job is expected to cost $3,000 to $4,000.

"We are here to denounce the failure of the city to protect these tenants," Ruiz said. "These hardworking people were forced from their homes. They deserve affordable housing."

At issue is whether the complex is a legal rooming house. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said that the building operated as a rooming house for more than 50 years and that he is working to find the residents a place to live.

"I am very troubled in the way in which these tenants were treated," Graham said. "I don't think there was proper displacement of the tenants. We have a complicated and very troubling situation here in terms of tenant rights."

A spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs disputed Graham's assessment. The "property was an illegal rooming house that was overcrowded, operating without a valid business license, without a valid certificate of occupancy and in [a] zoning district that has not allowed rooming or boarding houses for years," Michael Rupert said. "Due to this fact, the city cannot legally spend taxpayer dollars to renovate and refurbish a property to allow an illegal business to continue to operate."

A Washington Post investigation found last year that landlords, with little resistance from city regulators, had routinely profited by emptying rental buildings that were then converted into condominiums worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Linda Leaks, a leader of the advocacy group Empower DC, said that's what is happening at the three-story red brick building on 14th Street.

The building brought in about $5,000 a month in rent, with rooms renting for $230 to $550 a month and as many as four people in a room, tenants said.

The tenants "have been pushed out because they are low-income, moderate-income or no-income," Leaks said. "I've seen this before."

The building's owner, Lewis Washington, and property manager, Ulysses Romero, did not return phone calls yesterday.

David Cano, a displaced tenant, said an electrical meter malfunctioned May 18, cutting off power to the building. He said the tenants immediately began calling the city, hoping that the problem would be fixed. The tenants had been keeping up with their rent, he said.

The meter was not fixed. Instead, 10 days after the power went out, a city inspector told residents that they had to leave because of code violations. Tenants were moved into a Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW. According to Ruiz, several remain there. It was not clear whether the rest had found housing.

"We have been kicked out of our house, and we've been forgotten," said Octavio Ortega, one of the residents still living at Motel 6. "We don't have a place to go but the hotel. We don't have any protection. We are fighting for our rights."

Ortega said calls to the city have gone unanswered. Five days after they were forced out, residents said, someone broke into the building and stole many belongings.

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