There was an air of quiet despair about the man, the owner of an apartment building. "I'm one of these suckers that saved money all my life," he said. "Now I'm so desperate to try and conserve and cut corners...I never dream inflation would go crazy the way it has. I'm being squeezed on the fixed income. I'm beginning to realize why people blew their brains out in 1929..."
The recent rise rise in electric utility rates and the 14.5 per cent OPEC oil price increase that will drive up prices at the gas pumps and the cost of home heating oil in 1979-these are complex matters that economists and government officials debate.
In far Southeast and Southwest Washington, however, where most people subsist on low- or moderate-incomes, these far-reaching developments will have a direct impact on people's lives and business.
The impact seems most immediate in this area of large apartment and cooperative buildings, small individual houses and broad streets lined with small business, enterprises. Here a price increase of even a penny a gallon at the pumps means that business will fall off at James Gouldin's Exxon station, 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SW
"A cent a gallon would make a difference, but I still think they're gonna ride. I hope they do," said Gouldins, who started in the gasoline business 40 years ago and has sold it as cheap as 12 cents a gallon.
Although customers would still ride with small increases, Gouldins said, if the price of gasoline should reach a dollar a gallon "thry're not gonna ride. I'm down in a poor area and some of them complain [about any increase]."
There has been official talk of $1-gallon gas to cut demand and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The current price increase by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which will be phased in gradually in 1979, is expected to raide gas prices 4 cents a gallon by year's end.
The prices at Gouldins's station one day last week were, for self serve : 62.9 for regular, 71.9 unlead and 74.9 premium. Full serve: 75.9 regular, 77.9 unlead and 79.9 premium.
The man whose quotation begins this article, and who asked not to be identified, owns a modest, four-unit apartment builing. His main concern is with the rising cost of home heating oil to heat the apartments, a cost he says he must absord personally because heat is include in the rents.
"Every little angle for me to cut my heating bill is frustrated," he said. "my oil company says it will install a flue damper to cut the bills, but it costs $200 to install them dern things. There's a conspiracy going on. I'm just trying to hang on. The bottom line become so powerful that they have a blank check."
The man had his oil bill spread out on the table. In October he paid 51.9 cents a gallon. In November the price went up to 53.9 cents.
Another thing: Although his tenants pay their own electricity used in the halls and basement, which are monitored by separate meters. And he must pay at the commercial rate, which is higher than the residential rate.
"The minimum bill used to be $1.50 a month. Now the minimum service is $6 a month."
The man used to have a watch repair business. About 10 years age he got tired or the long hours and intricate work, so he sold out and invested in this small building. He thought he could make his investments prosper while having time to tinker with building repair work and other things that interested him.
"I was stupid," he says now. "I felt very secure when I got out of my business, but now you can't raise rents but so high. I'm barely surviving and I have practically nothing left over for improvement and extramaintence. You end up working for the oil and utility companies."
Raising rents is no solution to rising utility costs, the man says, because he wants to keep good tenants and is afraid that higher rents will drive out the ones he has. The apartment building is not under rent control and the units rent for$129 to$150 apiece.
When the man bought his small building 10 years ago, he said, heating oil was 14.5 cents a gallon. He remembers that before the 1973 arab oil embargo it was 19.5 cents a gallon.
"People like me are just left behind (by price increases), just sol. They don't care what your problems are."
Not far from this man's apartment building and Gouldins's service station, Burton Prusky has run the Atlantic Carry-Out for 13 years. Although he pays himself a "higher middle-class" salary, he says that rising electric bills and inflation generally are substantially erosing the profits from his business.
"Utility bills have become the second largest cost of doing business next to wages," Prucky said. "...I'm not going out of business but I would say my business, with increased volume, is'nt as stable as it used to be. I'm not as profitable as I was five or six years ago...I would say there has been an 8 or 9 percent decline in profits."
Prusky dug around on his cluttered desk and found his Pepco electric bills. They showed that he is paying more than $1,000 a month for electricity, while the bills for comparable periods in 1976 ran $650 to $720 a month. His gas bills showed only a slight increase, from about $100 a month in 1976 to about $125 a mont now.
"Sometimes I get rather angry as I read in The Post about price increases and cost-of-living , and there's no realization...that customer resistance means there comes a point where we can no longer pass on costs... Much of the crunch is being absorded (by small bussines owners). Everbody I talked to is telling me they are working on lower margins."
At the Trenton Park Apartments in the same Southwest area of the city, 250 families are facing a crisis. Somehow they must pay large Pepco bill or their electricity will shut off. Because the apartments went cooperative in the early 1970s, and there is no landlord to foot the bill.
"At the present we don't pay any utility bills. It's all included in the rent."said 65-year-old resident Daniel Peel, who lives with his wife, who is paralyzed, on a government retirement income in a $255-a-month two-bedroom apartment.
Technically Pee may be an owner, but he does not feel like one. "When we moved in here in '72 the man said it was all included," he said of the utility bills. "Now they say that we'll get a notice sometime this month that we'll have to pay the utilities. How the hell can we pay that much rent and pay the utilities too?"
The board of directors of Trenton Park-all co-owners, like Pee, who live there-seem embrarrassed by the problem and refused to disclose the precise details of their overdue bills. But other residents said they have been told by the board that they will either have to pay their own utility bills or their "rents" (actually, their share of the mortgage payments) will be raised by about $100 a month.
"I don't get that much. That's a lot of money," said Pee. He said he and his wife already are living at the edge of their resources.
"Sometimes we eat good and sometime we don't-that's the way we live."
Pee said he will have to move out if his bills go up substantially.
Frank Underwood, 42, another resident, said. "We don't see any way around it. If it was possible to pay my own gas and electric I'd come out much cheaper because I could control it, but if they make it a flat increase (in the 'rent') I'd have to move out because I can't afford it . . . I'd have to find another suitable place, and God knows where tha's at."
Underwood and his wife, who have three children and who have lived in Trenton Park for 15 years, also worry about the coming rise in gasoline prices.
"We pay 72 to 74 cents now for unleaded (gasoline) in our '78 Olds," he said. "My wife drives it to GSA to work and I take the bus. An increase is serious to the moderate-income family, because really you just can't afford it."
The Underwoods already are cutting corners, Underwood said. For example, although they take vacations each year, they cannot afford to travel so they just stay home.
Trenton Park's problems with Pepco came to light in public hearings recently before the D.C. Public Service Commission, which was considering prohibiting utility cutoffs during the winter. Pepco, which was on the verge of cutting offpower to the complex, will not discuss the case further. Now, the board of directors say, negotiations with Pepco have been successful and arrangements to pay the back bills are being made.
Pepco has requested a 16 percent rate increase in the District of Columbia-its sixth request ineight years. During that period the company has been granted-not counting the current request- $109 million in rate increases out of a total$177 million requested.
These figures do not include the automatic pass-through of costs in the fuel adjustment portion of customer bills, which is where customers will pay for the impact on Pepco's oil bills for its generating plants of the 1979 OPEC price increase.
"I really don't think the people at Pepco or the gas company are to blame as much as the (Public Service Commission) people who control it downtown," said Trenton Park board president Waiter Wilson, a heavy vehicle repairman. "They okay these increases. Pepco's just like any other business-they're trying to make money. They got to ask for increases."
"It seems that every year the gas and electric companies go the commission and ask for a raise," said another board member dressed in a blue work suit and who refused to disclose his name. "To me that's unfair. The cost of living is going up every day and people in the ciyt is suffering from this increase."