Forced Out

Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 11, 2008 12:00 PM

A real estate boom that transformed neighborhoods across D.C. also took a human toll: bitter fights erupted as landlords drove out hundreds of tenants in order to convert buildings to condominiums. Post reporters Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen were online Tuesday, March 11 at noon ET to take questions about the paper's investigation.

A transcript follows.

Full coverage: Forced Out


Debbie Cenziper: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us. Sarah and I are here to take questions.


Fort Washington, D.C.: This is clearly a bad situation, and I hope your series will bring about needed changes. But there are irresponsible people in all walks of life, and for every landlord who lets things decay, there is a tenant who actively contributes to that decay. And D.C. is known nationwide as the place where you do not want to own rental property.

My late husband and I owned a few D.C. rental properties until we were driven off. The 1970 Landlord/Tenant Handbook said flat out, "Failure to pay rent is not cause for eviction." That has now been changed, but a tenant can still disconnect a wire to the oven and claim the place is uninhabitable. Or break a window or take a hammer to the required smoke detector and run crying to the D.C. Housing Authority. I've seen pigstys (I grew up on a farm) that were cleaner than some of our properties after the tenants moved out.

I don't know what the answer is, since you can't legislate responsible behavior, but I do know there are two sides to this story. Thanks for letting me have my say.

Debbie Cenziper: You've got an interesting perspective, Fort Washington. D.C. is indeed known as a city with very strong tenant rights laws, and there are certainly cases of irresponsible tenants and responsible landlords who are trying to work within the laws and make a living at the same time.

The tenants we met were doing what they could to make their situations livable -- mopping the floors, buying jumbo chains and locks to secure buildings when landlords wouldn't step in. One woman used bleach and rubber gloves to clean used syringes and condoms off the floor of her apartment building after strangers broke in. She couldn't get help from the landlord.



Washington, D.C.: Thank you for exposing the corruption that started under Anthony Williams. Everyone is always bashing Marion Berry, but Anthony Williams could have cared less about the people of this city. His love was developers and big business. I just want to state that the comments made by many bloggers to the article today disgust me. I am terrified to know that people in this area have so much hate toward poor people. I am well off and could never look down on anyone. To those cold hearted, ruthless people ..No one know where their future lies. Just because you are on top today doesn't mean that you will remain there. The same people that you stepped on and looked down upon on your way up are going to be the same people you may need a helping hand from on your way down.

I've had enough of this. It is too depressing.

Debbie Cenziper: Almost everyone we met was working, sometimes two jobs. We met city government employees, secretaries, construction workers, waiters and college students. Many of the people we met simply couldn't afford to move -- it can cost thousands of dollars to give up an apartment and come up with the money for moving expenses and deposits for a new place.


Arlington, Va.: As someone looking to buy a home, is there a way that I can verify that a condo building I might purchase didn't use these kind of tactics with former tenants?


Debbie Cenziper: Hi Arlington. We studied building code violation reports and court records from landlord-tenant court, among other things, to learn about the histories of troubled properties. Getting records from DCRA can take time.

By the way, there's an online link on our series that takes you to DCRA's website for requesting records.


Washington, D.C.: I think you article is so slanted. D.C. is the most tenant-friendly jurisdiction in the country. Tenants can basically stop paying rent for six months and trash your house and you have to pay thousands to evict them. Why don't you interview a bunch of landlords to hear the other side of the story, of how low income tenants lets dozens of people live with them, and destroy the property, etc. No other city in the country gives so much power to tenants. I will never understand why D.C. punishes people who actually manage to own their own properties!

Sarah Cohen: This is one perspective


Washington, D.C.: I don't believe you examined the vacant property tax law, which imposes a 5 percent tax on vacant properties. If the owners are admitting to DCRA that the properties are vacant to avoid paying the 5 percent conversion fee, then that's also an admission to DCRA to pass along to Office of Tax and Revenue to collect the 5 percent vacant real property tax. The owner has to pay one or the other but they're not. Why?

Sarah Cohen: This issue was a small obsession of mine while reporting the series. I didn't understand why one arm of DCRA would declare a property vacant without proof that the owner had properly registered the property.

For those of you less intimate with the vacant property law: the government considers them a nuisance because they attract squatters, and can become dangerous. So there is a very high property tax on vacant buildings, and owners have to pay a fee and guarantee they are properly boarded up and safe. DCRA did not require that this registration be done before they granted the vacancy exemption that we wrote about.

A new agency now administers the tax break, but its officials said they basically have to take the owner's word that the property is vacant, and approve it unless there are big red flags.


Herndon, Va.: Too bad we can't make some of those landlords live in those buildings.

I also agree with the poster who was disgusted at some of the blog postings. People, with the economy going the way it is nobody knows how or where they'll be living in a year or two. Most families are a job loss or major illness away from being on the streets. Some compassion, please.

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Herndon:

It was an amazing experience to meet the families featured in these stories.

One lawyer representing families on 10th Place SE (featured in the paper today) described a father who doesn't have heat. He keeps the oven on at night to make sure his kids are warm. Problem is, heat from the oven makes the air in his apartment really dry, and his daughter gets nose bleeds. So he boils hot water as a makeshift humidifier.

We met another woman, not featured in the stories, who spreads paint thinner around her daughter's toddler bed to keep the bed bugs at bay -- much of the building is infested. She doesn't sleep because she's so worried that her daughter will get bit up at night.


Rockville, Md.: Even with my awareness of the District and its problems, this shocks me. There is no justification for such activities. What does the new mayor say?

Debbie Cenziper: We haven't talked to him yet. Late last year, as we reported, he proposed legislation that would ban developers with outstanding housing code violations from converting to condos. Hoping to talk to him soon.


Arlington, Va.: Baltimore and NYC have an active community of public interest attorneys and local nonprofit organizations that help residents fight owners of derelict property and city officials whose inaction aids these owners. Will your series address what role these nonprofits play in D.C. and how D.C. laws either permit this or need revision to permit?

Debbie Cenziper: We talked to a lot of housing advocates and attorneys representing tenants, who are working across the city on these issues. I recently moved here from Miami, where I spent almost two years writing about housing. The advocates here are extremely organized and active.


Washington, D.C.: I want to know why DCRA is so lax on owners of multi-units (developers) while extremely strict on owners renting out single-family homes. DCRA takes owners of single family homes through the ringer to rent out property. First you have to get a business license, then go through a rigorous home inspection. Then I forgot to mention that you have to spend all day in DCRA to get the business license -- if you are lucky. It doesn't make sense to me. Why isn't the playing field equal? Just shows that big business and money continue to run D.C. Thanks Anthony Williams!

Sarah Cohen: And this is another.

Sarah Cohen: Here's another perspective.


Re: Slanted Article ???: I don't agree with Washington, D.C. that the article is slanted. Didn't the article show how the current system is not working because of less than honest tactics by both tenants and landlords ?

Debbie Cenziper: Another perspective:


Washington, D.C.: I would like to commend the both of you for this excellent series of articles. I am a former renter of almost 25 and I have worked as a tenant advocate for nearly 15 years. I know what you write is absolutely true. I have had generally good experiences with all my landlords and none of them ever tried to empty any of the buildings I lived in by letting it run down. I therefore know the difference between good landlords and slum lords. Your articles are the M.O. of greedy slumlords trying to make money at any costs.. The other side of your article is about how an agency so ineptly run, continues to fail in its duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants.

The mayor should send a clear message to these slumlords that we don't want you in this city. The attorney general should prosecute slumlords as criminals who are risking the health and safety of residents of the District of Columbia. The city council should pass laws which will enable the city to take these buildings from slumlords and put them into receivership so that the bldgs can be fixed and the bills are paid. The mayor should also extract the housing inspection functions from DCRA and provide funds to set up a separate organization which will implement a systematic citywide inspection system of all multifamily housing in the city and provide funding to hire inspectors and training to get the job done.

Last, I would like to tell your readers there is a tenant receivership law which allows tenants to request a receiver for the building who will collect rent to pay for repairs and bills. They should contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate for help on this and any other tenant problem.

Sarah Cohen: Thanks for the comment, and for the information for renters.

We didn't write about the attorney general's role in all of this. There have been only a handful of criminal prosecutions in recent years.


Washington, D.C.: I'm curious about how the decision was made to do this series. I must say the pieces struck me as The Post looking for scandal where none really existed. The pure speculation without proof of the arson by the building owners was quite a stretch. Why are these stories any different from the usual D.C. bashing The Post does with regularity?

Debbie Cenziper: Thanks for the question.

Just to clarify, the fire on Vernon Street was officially ruled an arson. Fire investigators have not determined who was responsible.

It capped an 18-month battle between tenants and the owners, and was the subject of a series of District Council hearings. We felt it was important to take a look back at one of the more widely publicized and contentious disputes of its kind in the city.


Silver Spring, Md.: The article was very painful to read. In both your article and the Monday article, it was stated that neither landlords nor tenants would cooperate. The tenants would not allow the D.C. Government staff to see how terrible things were. Yet, you show these horrific pictures.

I am confused. If the tenants refuse entry, why is that. Also - for the sake of the children in the building - is there a way to donate blankets, money, etc?

Debbie Cenziper: This is a good question, Silver Spring.

DCRA says it can't inspect apartments without permission from tenants. Housing advocates say the agency doesn't try very hard to reach them, that there's little communication and that inspections are often canceled if someone isn't home.

At the same, some tenants are also incredibly afraid their buildings will be condemned and they'll be put out of their homes without assistance from the government.

But I met very few tenants who have refused access to inspectors.

Other readers have asked about donations. We'll try to post some info on the web site for the series. If you want to follow up, please call us directly:

Debbie: 202-334-6107

Sarah: 202-334-6259


Washington, D.C.: I am curious if either of you rent your housing. I am concerned that there might be retaliation by real estate interests because of your reporting. Plus, do you know if The Washington Post Company has received any threats to cut some real estate advertising in The Post because of your stories?

Sarah Cohen: Right now, neither of us our renters. But I've been a renter for many, many years -- for a long time in the District.

We have heard of retaliation and we're following up.

On the advertising -- I don't know that we'd hear about it if there was any retaliation there. The company keeps the news and advertising sides pretty separate.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't this an indictment of the rent control system? Rent control creates perverse incentives that lead to bad outcomes. Why not scrap rent control for a system of payments to lower-income families?

Sarah Cohen: This is a great question -- thanks for bringing it up.

The rent-control issue wasn't directly addressed in our stories, but we've been hearing from landlords about their frustration with it. It's probably a good question for the politicians.

The series addressed whether owners were following the intent of the District's law on condo conversions -- which has been on the books for 28 years -- and whether owners were forcing tenants out in dangerous ways


Washington, D.C.: Several of the comments so far have suggested that many posting comments on the article in the Washington Post blog are heartless and have no compassion.

For the most part, that's simply not true. No one likes to see people living in filth and bad conditions.

What we are commenting on is the root causes for the situation.

Everyone (or most everyone) would like to see a fix to these problems. It's just that some of do more than just react with a knee-jerk condemnation of landlords to the exclusion of other factors, like rent control or tenant damages.

So please don't assume just because people say there are other factors at play they are hateful or want to see people live in squalor. That's just not the case.

Sarah Cohen: Thanks, DC.


Washington, D.C.: As it relates to bedbugs and roaches, have you considered that many tenants bring bedbugs and roaches to their apartment? Many people in these apartments have extended families that come and go. Boyfriends and girlfriends that come and go. They haul their belongings in and out bringing and taking whatever with them. A landlord couldn't possible continue to exterminate a small building when people are coming and going. I can't enforce cleanliness.

Debbie Cenziper: You've raised a good point. Thanks for making it.

The cases we found were building-wide infestations, with little or no extermination. Tenants were repeatedly bombing their apartments, throwing away furniture etc. One woman had her couch covered in thick plastic to keep the bugs away.


Arlington, Va.: Kudos on a well-researched, well-written piece. How long can we expect to read about this, i.e. how many articles do you plan to publish on this?

Debbie Cenziper: Yep, please keep reading. We have more stories planned.

If you have tips and story ideas, send them my way:


Washington, D.C.: Debbie, Great articles. I've been navigating the DC Govt agencies (DCRA, OTA, DHCD) for nearly a year now - to no avail. They're either too understaffed or not knowledgeable enough to acually do anything. The legal system is not a good option for most people in these circumstances becuase if they don't have the means to move into a better situation, they usually wont have the means for legal representation.

Sarah Cohen: I can understand your frustration.

We had a lot of difficulty even finding records and then more getting access to them. Many of the records were inaccurate when we did get them, and we had to return many times to get things right.

So we feel for your frustration - it's a rough government to navigate.


Debbie Cenziper: Thanks for writing in today. Enjoyed it.


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