About the time the temperature was hovering near the freezing mark the other day, a small drama was unfolding around a four-story, rundown brick building at 1425 Chapin St. NW.
In tenant Sireto Maxey's apartment, the oven was on and all four burners of the tiny white stove were ablaze, providing small pockets of warmth. Maxey's children had been sent to visit their aunt so they might stay warm.
A District of Columbia housing inspector was searching desperately for an oil company that could make a late-in-the-day fuel delivery. And landlord Mary M. Bell, an employe of the U.S. Department of Energy, was apprehensive about a new bill that might join others she says she cannot pay.
The three families who continue to live in the eight-unit apartment building say that the heat has been turned off since mid-December but that the situation became critical recently in the extremely cold weather. Two weeks ago, tenants used their rent money to buy oil for heat, but the fuel lasted little more than a week.
The loss of heat followed two eviction notices received by tenants last year.
"This is an example of what's happening to a number of buildings,"said the Rev. Tom Nees, who heads the Community of Hope Church of the Nazarene, one block from the Chapin Street building. "Landlords are getting people to move by turning off their utilities and sending officiallooking letters that tell them to move," he said.
Nees said that one shipment of fuel to heat the building costs $275 and that the building uses about $500 worth of fuel a month. "There's no way they (the tenants) can afford to pay that," Nees said. He and John Lunsford, attorney for the church, are helping the tenants fight eviction and utility cutoffs.
Landlord Bell, on the other hand, said she feels she is the one being "mistreated" and "harassed." According to letters Bell has sent to the city's Rental Accommodations Office, her expenses for the building total more than $10,000 a year, including more than $5,400 a year for heat. Her income from the building, however, has been about $4,800 a year, and recently has been even less because one tenant family now pays only $40 a month, she said.
"I don't know what they (the tenants) expect me to do,"said Bell. She said she has a $2,000 water bill she cannot pay.
Bell cannot rent the five vacant apartments in the building until she rehabilitates it. She said she has no money to do that, and applied for a low-interest city rehabilitation loan three years ago. But nothing has come of it, she said, and she blames the city for her problems.
A city rehabilitatiion official said this week that according to his records, Bell's application for a 3 percent interest rehabilitation loan was held up in the beginning because of questions about the title of the property. When those questions were answered, he said, Bell was told she could qualify for a loan at 8 percent interest, but not at 3 percent interest. Since then, he said, his records show Bell has not chosen to pursue the application.
After days of having no luck getting help from their landlord or the city, the tenants finally received some good news last weekend. Late Friday, the city served the landlord with a housing code violation notice for failing to provide heat, and made plans to put one tankload of fuel at the building, using money from the District's appropriated budget.
Tenants finally had some heat in their apartments Saturday afternoon, but found their temporary victory still was not yet totally won. The heating unit, they discovered, needed cleaning before it could function adequately -- smoke from the system was so bad tenants eventually had to call the fire department to shut it off.
Thomas Butler, chief of housing inspections for the city, said that in situations similar to that involving the Chapin Street building, the city can pay the bill and place a tax lien against the owner's property so the landlord ultimately must pay, and can refer the matter to the corporation counsel for prosecution. The city recently was criticized by the federal government for using community development funds to pay utility bills when landlords either could not or would not do so.
Housing and inspection officials said landlords sometimes avoid legal channels and use such tactics as turning off utilities to force tenants out of apartments. There even is an official name for such actions -- "constructive evictions."
The recent crisis on Chapin Street began two years ago when her building started deteriorating and she decided to renovate, Bell said. She said the building has become a "meeting place for the community derelicts" because of its condition, and residents of the area noted heavy drug traffic nearby.
Tenants received eviction notices in August but contested them before the city's Rental Accommodations Office. A hearing examiner ruled that the notices were "legally deficient and technically defective" and said new notices had to be issued.
Bell sent tenants another letter last month, telling them she no longer could provide services at the building and would accept no more rent payments. Bell told the tenants they could remain in the building for 90 days without paying rent, but would have to provide their own oil, water and electricity after Jan. 15.
The letter wished tenants "a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, with lots of good health and happiness"
But last weekend a hearing examiner for the city's Rental Accommodations Office issued a provisional restraining order, again prohibiting the evictions. Bell said that rather than appeal the decision and "lose more time," she probably will issue another 90-day eviction notice.
Joseph Bynum has lived at 1425 Chapin St. NW for more than 25 years. His father used to be the maintenance man there. Bynum recalled that the property, which used to be in "pretty fair shape,"began to decline several years ago and tenants began to move out. Bynum blames the deterioration on neglect by the landlord.
"She says she no longer can maintain the building because the tenants moved out," Bynum said. "We shouldn't have to suffer for that. If she wants us to move, why doesn't she take the proper steps?"
Bynum, a mail supervisor at the Census Bureau, was born in Washington, and said he hopes to continue to live in the city, preferably in Northwest, when he eventually is forced to move.
But he acknowledged, "With the housing situation the way it is, there's not that much of a choice."
Anna Carroll, who has lived in the, building 15 years, said she began to look for another apartment and discovered that one around the corner was renting for $336 a month. She currently pays $135 a month.
"The whole thing is, they want to sell these buildings for high prices. They don't care where we go," she saidg.