The notice on the living room table told the story. It was headed: "Premises Unfit for Human Habitation.
George Lee, dressed in an overcoat and sweater, picked it up and shook his head. "They're right about that," he said. "This place is unfit for human habitation."
Lee's condominium unit at 1909 S. Addison Rd. is one of 78 in the Old Towne Village condominium development in District Heights deemed by Prince George's Country housing inspectors unfit to live in. The reason is that there has been no heat in any of them since Dec. 4. And it will be at least two weeks before the heat returns because it will take that long to replace the area's damaged, leaky gas pipes.
Adding to the residents' misery is the fact that the considerable-but still unknown-expense of digging up and replacing the pipes must be borne by the condominium owners-the residents themselves.
"It's just the worst thing that's ever happened," said Constance Watkins, who lives at 1907 S. Addison Rd. with her three daughters and two grandchildren. "We're all separated, living all over. And there's no end in sight."
The problems began for the residents of the 78 units (another 84 were unaffected) when the Washington Gas Light Co. shut off their gas, which is used both for heat and cooking, saying there was a leak in the pipes.
Communications Management Services, property manager for the condominiums, called in plumbers, who found a leak. Then they found a second leak. Then a third. And a foruth. And so it went.
By yesterday afternoon the lawns in front of the two-story buildings resembled a blown-up minefield with gaping holes every few feet exposing areas of pipe where leaks had been discovered.
"We've all lost a lot of sleep on this one," said Carl Ruff, the property manager for the area. "The pipes (placed in the ground in 1966) were just worn by age and weather. We hadn't checked them at all because we hadn't had any problems with them in the past.
"Now we need new pipes, it appears. It's just a difficult situation for all of us."
Some of the residents, like Watkins, have split up their families and gone to stay with friends. Others do not have that alternative.
"I've only lived in this area for a short time," said Carolyn Wilson, who lives at 1911 S. Addison Rd. with her husband, two childrend and mother."I don't know that many people and I certainly don't know people well enough to just move in on them."
So, the Wilsons have purchased three electric heaters to provide heat, knowing their electric bill this month will sky-high. "If it's two more weeks we can't remain," Wilson said yesterday. "I really don't know what we'll do."
The condominium owners-met as a group last Friday night to decide what to do next. Hal Silvers, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, was at the meeting and said his office would set up a dormitory at a local elementary school if necessary. That idea was rejected. "We were hoping this would be over this week," Wilson said.
But it will not be over this week. Plumbers were on the scene yesterday preparing an estimate on new pipes. Once the condominium owners, who pay about $350 a month each in mortgage and condominium fees, get that estimate, they will have to vote on whether to approve the new pipes, for which they would pay.
"The problem in a situation like this is that all of these places are individually owned," said county building inspector H.L. Cave, who declared the premises unfit as of 6 p.m. last Saturdday. "In an apartment complex, the manager can afford to have plumbers working round-the-clock to get the problem fixed. These people can't affort that."
According to maintenance director Oswald Keys, the worn-out pipes are made of galvanite, a material popular in the '60s that is almost never used for gas pipes today.
Thus, both literally and figuratively, the owners of the neat, two-story three-bedroom units are out in the cold. Few are covered by insurance while they are heatless. The pipes are not covered by insurance because they were destroyed by "natural causess."
And so, as temperatures plummeted yesterday, the homeowners ran in and out of their freezing homes-it was colder inside than out-to make sure their water was running so pipes wouldn't freeze, to share electric heaters, and to ask one another if they had heard any news.
"We keep waiting for news," said Jim Gantt, president of the condominium association. "And we don't get any. The only thing I know is that things can't possibly get worse.
"We don't care about cost naymore," Carolyn Wilson added. "All we care about is getting some heat."