Betty House has had six landlords since she moved into her apartment at 3281 15th Place SE four years ago. The first was Dr. Shao Ti Hsu. So was the third. And, although her building is now technically owned by someone else, city records list Hsu as the mortgage holder.
That would be fine with her and the other tenants, except for one thing: whenever problems crop up and repairs are needed, the building is sold to someone else, they say, and the problems continue.
William E. Boyden, assistant chief of the city's housing inspection branch, confirmed that several city housing codes are being violated in House's building and two others on 15th Place where Hsu is listed as trustee on the deed of trust. All have multiple violations for items like defective wiring, plumbing, cracked ceilings and peeling paint, he said.
Tenants, who have refused to pay rent since January because of the conditions, say they have been without hot water in one building since last November, without heat during last winter (both at House's address), and without gas for a month this summer (in the other two apartment buildings), all because the owners have not paid the oil and gas bills.
City Housing Director Robert L. Moore, whose department has paid gas bills and made repairs to keep the places habitable, said, "What's frustrating is when we try to determine who is responsible."
Although Hsu does not technically own the buildings, his continued involvement is obvious. James H. Burks, one of 15th Place property owners, indicated in an interview that Hsu not only arranged his purchase, but the buildings' previous sale also. He was reluctant to discuss Hsu, he said, for fear of ruining their business relationship.
The 15th Place buildings' owners of record are: Burks and Frank Braswell Jr. of the buildings at 3287 and 3275, and Grafton Nowlin and Teresa Harris at 3281. They owe the District $20, 692.09 for repairs the city had made on the properties in the past year, Moore said. (Braswell and Burks' bill is $12,151.19; Nowlin and Harris, $8,540.91).
But Hsu figures heavily in the history of the three buildings variously as owner, mortgage holder or trustee since 1974. A tenured professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland and millionaire landlord, he has owned apartment units in Prince George's County and the low-income areas of Southeast Washington.
He earned notoriety among District housing officials in the mid-1970s because of the large number of housing and fire safety code violations in many of his units. In 1976, city officials named him the single most frequent violator of the District's housing code.
Self-trained in the law, Hsu has frequently defended himself in court because he said he distrusted lawyers. However, following a 1976 conviction for perjury in a trial wherein he acted as his own attorney, he began using attorneys. (His perjury conviction was later overturned because the appeals court felt he was not fully aware of the consequences of his serving as his own attorney.)
He once described himself as a benevolent and abused property owner who, despite his tenants' constant property destruction, continued to operate his buildings because of his compassion for low-income people who might otherwise have nowhere to live.
Court records show his net worth was listed in 1976 at more than $3 million, including his $200,000 brick home in Potomac, outfited with a sky-lit ceiling, redwood paneling and plant-filled atrium.
Hsy sold the 15th Place buildings to their current owners, city officials say, but District records do not reflect how many times ownership has changed hands.
At least some of the ownership changes appear to have occurred in violation of city ordinances requiring that tenants first be notified and given an opportunity to buy their building, and that new owners register with the city's rental accommodations office.
However, the city can take no action against the new owners unless the tenants first file a complaint. None ever did, District officials say.
Burks and Braswell were the only current 15th Place owners who could be reached for comment. Braswell referred all questions to Burks, saying Burks handled all the business concerning the properties, and Braswell "never goes down there" himself.
Burks said he and Braswell saw their purchase as an investment. Although the buildings are valued at $130,000, they put a $700 down payment on each. Their monthly mortgage payments are $600, he said.
They have been unable to make all the needed repairs or pay fuel bills because the tenants have refused to pay their rent, he said. The tenants say they have refused because they have been without heat or hot water.
Burks said he is "anxious to get rid of the buildings" because of the mounting fuel and city repair costs as well as the tenant rent strike, and is in the process of selling them. However, when asked the price of the buildings, he did not know, explaining when pressed, "Things are being taken care of for me. . .well, by powers above me."
Of Hsu, he said, "He calls the signals on a lot of things."
Attempts to interview Hsu were unsuccessful. Encountered outside the apartments last week, sitting in his black Cadillac after dropping Burks off, he first refused to comment, then tried to grab a Washington Post photographer's camera and finally chased him, wielding a stout stick wrapped in black and white tape.
Not all of the problems in the 15th Place buildings are the fault of the owners.
"Some of the tenants, don't care about the building," a tenant in one said. "As fast as we clean it, people let their children back out and they mess it up again. It's discouraging."
Ethel Jennings, another tenant recalled, "One woman threw human waste out the window (of 3281 15th Place) because her bathroom was backed up. Flies were swarming all around." She said it was not uncommon to find human excrement discarded in the basement of the building.
Jennings showed a reporter a vacant apartment with torn-out walls and plumbing fixtures, broken windows and trash and debris. The place had been repaired and was about to be rented, she said, until nearby residents damaged it and tenants emptied trash into it.
Still, the majority of the complaints have been against the landlords. Gloria Redwood, formerly resident manager of 3281, said she gave up the position because "nothing was getting done.I would turn in (residents') complaints and collect the rent. He (Hsu) wouldn't give me supplies to keep it clean. For awhile, I was paying for supplies out of my own pocket, but I've got children and couldn't keep paying for supplies."
Although all three buildings are in various states of disrepair, 3281 15th Place is by far the worst.
Redwood said Hsu did not inspect the buildings. While she was resident manager, she said, she collected rents and would take the money to Hsu at his car. "He never got out of that car while I was collecting rent."
Although they are selling the properties, Burks and Braswell are still the owners of 3287 and 3275, and as such, were scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court last week to show cause for allowing gas to be turned off in their buildings. Failure to provide utilities violates the city's housing rules, Howard Horowitz, assistant chief of the housing department's law enforcement division, said.
Burks and Braswell failed to appear in court. Braswell said Burks told him it was not necessary for him to attend. Burks could not be reached for an explanation. A new summons for a Sept. 27, appearance will be sent to them via their buidlings' resident manager, Horowitz said.
The two buildings had been without gas since July 16. The gas was turned back on last week after the District government arranged to pay the $8,800 bill.
As a result of a recent visit to the buildings prompted by tenant complaints, Mayor Marion Barry has directed his staff to perform further repair work to correct the worst of the buildings' conditions.
"We plan to give them (the owners) 30 days to make repairs," housing official Boyden said. "If they do not, then the city will probably solicit bids from private contractors and put a lien against the property for the amount the city has to spend.
A D.C. firm, Home and Commercial Investments Trust, is buying all three buildings, according to its spokesman, Owen Meddles. "We've already purchased the buildings from Dr. Hsu," Meddles said recently. Asked why he dealt with Hsu instead of the owners of record, he replied simply, "Nobody knows how he (Hsu) fits into it."
But, he added, "Hsu will have absolutely nothing to do with" financing the deal.
"The buildings are basically sound (structurally). They have suffered from neglect and vandalism. We cleaned up the vacant apartments, and we're already collection rent," he said.
The tenants say they have been asked to pay rent, but they refuse to budge until they see their living conditions improve.