When Grozelia Stepney came home from Christmas shopping Saturday night, she found something under her tree that hadn't been there in the morning.
What she found was part of the living room ceiling.
Large chunks of the ceiling had collapsed at about 1 p.m. Saturday, striking two of her daughters - Arthinia, 5, and Constance, 17 - in the heads, Stepney said.
Except for some mild swelling, neither victim appeared to have been seriously injured. But Stepney left the debris on her living room floor until her landlord sent someone to clean it up yesterday. She wanted to landlord to see the evidence, she said.
Stepney's landlord is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took over the Sky Towers apartment complex at Wheeler Road and Wahler Place SE in 1972, after a previous owner had defaulted on a federally insured mortgage.
HUD has been trying to unload the property ever since, and tenants complain that their lame-duck landlord has has been getting progressively more light-fisted about repairs.
In Stepney's building, 1040 Wahler, PLSE, the heat was off all last week. Stepney's kitchen sink has been leaking for so long, she said, that "the wood is just about rotten now from the water."
Despite her complaints, Stepney is not about to leave the complex. She is one of a group of tenants who filed suit in 1974 and ultimately stopped HUD from razing the project and selling the land to a private developer.
What keeps Stepney's family, and 34 others, at Sky Towers, is the promise of a million-dollar renovation, with new kitchens, new bathrooms, new floors, landscaping, and recreational facilities, plus a spectacular combination of space and rent - Stepney pays $105 a month for a two-bedroom duplex apartment.
But that vision, which has been dangling before the tenants since their court case was settled a year ago, is not much nearer reality today than it was then. The problem lies somewhere between HUD and the District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development, which is set to take over the project - sooner or later.
HUD reached its agreement with the city last December, after years in and out of U.S. District Court. HUD would sell the project to the D.C. government for a nominal sum, and also would guarantee a permanent subsidy for maintenance, and help secure loan guarantees to finance the renovation.
Then came the red tape. "There were two recent court decisions which necessitated some changes in the original agreement," said Carroll Swanson, administrator of the city's neighborhood improvement administration, "and a lack of funding available to proceed as we had originally anticipated."
Funds since have been found under an alternate federal program, said Swanson, and "it is possible that within days or weeks the agreement between the city and HUD will be consummated and we will be in a position to go forward."
The tenants, meanwhile, with the aggressive assistance of Adelaide Miller, an attorney with the federally-funded Neighborhood Legal Services Program, have been battling for what they see as essential repairs.
"We have no manager," said Miller, who has become virtually a fixture at Sky Towers. "The manager quit last summer in disgust . . . HUD just doesn't want to spend the damn money."
Emily Butler, the acting manager, agreed that HUD had given her firm, Urban Management Services, "a limited amount of "leeway." She said there have been countless problems with clogged drains at Sky Towers, for example, but her request to buy an "electric snake" to clear them was turned down.
But "over-all, the tenants out here are treated pretty fairly," Butler said.
Stuart Malmon, an attorney with the Washington area office of HUD, denied that HUD has been trying to cut maintenance corners at Sky Towers. "Obviously, we are not going to do major rehabilitation," he said, "like if they wanted to tear out a wall or build a tennis court."
Otherwise, said Malmon, HUD has handled the project as it handles any similar property. He added that his office has only three people to oversee maintenance on every HUD-owned project in the Washington area.
After years of litigation, the tenants at Sky Towers seem acutely conscious of their legal rights and remedies. Although X-rays on her five-year-old did not show any injury, Grozelia Stepney was unwilling to describe the extent of her daughter's injuries.
"I have to consult my lawyer first," she said.