Much to the concern of two elderly tenants, Pepco shut off the electricity for four hours yesterday at a small, rundown apartment building in Southeast Washington because the landlord had not paid his utility bill.
The shutoff lasted only four hours and had a narrow legal purpose - to create a technical housing code violation so the city could go after the landlord legally.
But it worried William Dorsey, a retired serviceman, and his 78-year-old mother as they sat in their first-floor apartment and watched the peculiar ritual of Pepco and city officials accomplishing the shutoff.
Because of concerns that tenants could be injured - physically or financially - by even such a short shutoff of utility service, the D.C. Public Service Commission is considering forbidding the shutoffs and finding another way to force delinquent landlords to pay their utility bills.
"We've been living here seven years," said Dorsey. "Nobody in this building has even been behind in their rent [and utility costs] are all included in it . . . I don't see why they have to turn the electricity off."
At 10 a.m., Pepco lineman L. A. Smith, 29 years with the company, sat before the building at 2822 28th St. SE in his big "trouble truck" with the engine running, keeping warm.
"All I do just lift the taps," he explained."Those other boys do all the paperwork and all."
Then Raymond Colie drove up, 32 years with the company, sharp in his blue suit with three cigars sticking out of the pocket. He supervises shutoffs.
"You gonna shut us off" Dorsey asked him.
"We're not sure yet if we do, we'll be doing it shortly," Colie said. He went and made a phone call and returned and then he was sure.
A woman from the city housing inspection division, Shirley Buie, showed up with a prepared violation citation to give to the landlord.
The landlord, Roy E. Lee Jr., soon appeared, looking nervous and laughing from time to time. Another Pepco officer appeared. The stage was set.
Lee acknowledged he was $6,000 behind in his utility payments for this building and another one next door, but said that this was because of "rent control in the District. I can't afford it," he said laughing.
Lee said he worked at four jobs "and I still can't make ends meet." He said he was a government engineer, a college janitor, a news distributor and "an investor."
He said he bought the two 4-unit buildings three years ago and that each unit rented for about $130 a month. They are all rented, he said.
"I'm in the process of trying to pay," he said. "It's not that I'm walking away from the bill. I don't walk away from bills."
The other Pepco official who had arrived, Samuel Boyd Jr., general manager of billing and credit, held a brief discussion with Lee and then gave the high sign to Smith, the lineman.
Smith climbed into the cherrypicker on the back of his truck and elevated himself to within reach of a connection on a nearby utility pole. He disconnected the building's electric service and expertly returned himself to the truck.
Lee was served with the violation citation. Then everybody left except Dorsey and his mother. They sat in their small apartment which had this inscription on the electric light switch: "Bless this house, oh Lord, we pray. Make if safe by night and day."