When A. R. (Skippy) Plumley, who calls himself Plumley the Plumber, recently sent his workers into the boiler room of his Northwest Washington apartment house to start knocking the boiler to pieces, it seemed to make good business sense to him.
After all, his workmen were free that day and the last remaining seven tenants, who already had been served their eviction notices last July, would soon be out of the building at 1844 Columbia Rd. NW. Then, Plumley figured, he could replace the decaying, oil-fired steam boiler heating system with a new natural gas furnace as soon as he decided whether he would transform the building into a hotel, condominiums, offices or his own residence.
That's when the tenants and the city government stepped in.
To them, Plumley's torching of the iron boiler was nothing short of a brazen attempt to force the tenants out of the building by leaving them without heat as chilly fall temperatures turn into a wintry freeze.
"He cannot use any kind of adverse means to get them out, which is what this looks like to me," said Bernard Jones, a supervisor of city housing inspectors.
So this week the city ordered Plumley to provide heat for the tenants left in the five-story walkup in the heart of the Adams-Morgan community.
Plumley said he responded by buying 10 electric portable heaters. Jones said the city won't know if that is sufficient until the weather gets cold to see if the units can provide enough heat or if there's adequate electricity in the 57-year-old building to run the appliances.Plumley himself says the building's wiring badly needs repair.
So that's where the dispute remains for the moment. But the fight illustrates once again just how contentious and traumatic the closing of an apartment building can be, especially in one where the top rent was $205 a month and at a time when the city's shortage of rental housing is becoming more acute.
The 48-year-old Plumley feels that he has been far more than accommodating to his tenants in trying to ease the pain of moving.
Plumley said he first notified the 25 tenants 18 months ago that he was going to renovate the building into something other than apartments. Then, on July 5, he sent letters to the tenants informing them that they had 90 days to vacate.
At various times, he has sent the tenants letters offering them transportation to look at apartments and houses they might want to rent as well as offering them a lump sum of three months of their current rent to help them get settled in their new quarters. Plumley said he has already paid between $4,000 and $5,000 to his tenants under the plan.
Plumley said the boiler needed to be replaced because it was unsafe and that his insurance company made him promise that he would not stoke it this fall. "It just never dawned on me these people wouldn't be out of here" by now, Plumley said. But he added that he has no intention of putting in a new heating system until he decides what to do with the building.
"Nobody's going to freeze," he said, "but there's no reason for anyone to be here either."
Virgilio Hidalgo, president of the building's fledgling tenants' group and one of several Latin Americans living in the building, said he has no intention of moving out until a court says he has to. He said he has tried unsuccessfully for four months to find suitable housing for his family of four. u
"I say I pay my rent every month," says Hidalgo, a custodian for the D.C. government. "I do not want to leave here."