The drab red brick apartment complex stands on a rutted slope in Southwest Washington, framed by the leafless trees of winter. There is no sound, no movement.
Most of the windows are smashed or boarded. Mail boxes are ripped open and empty in the entrances. Unlighted hallways are strewn with trash and smell faintly of urine. Water oozing from a toilet in an abandoned apartment leaves the floors continuously flooded.
The buildings, called the Elmwood Apartments, are like many other abandoned and partly abandoned rental properties throughout the District of Columbia. Yet, within the complex on Danbury Street just off South Capitol Street in the far Southwest corner of the city, a hardy band of 26 tenants -- survivors of the original 200 who filled the place -- is trying to hang on.
Without heat, hot water, trash pickup or maintenance service for months, they are drawing their wagons into an ever smaller circle moving from widely scattered points in the rambling, 52-unit complex into a tighly concentrated cluster of 10 apartments in one building.
The city, through its Department of Housing and Community development, is pumping in massive amounts of money and taking other emergency steps to keep the place habitable. It has paid more than $100,000 in utility bills unpaid by the landlord, Washington are businessman Alfred L. Black. In addition, it has stopped a tax sale of the property for unpaid taxes, persuaded the utilities to continue gas and electric service at least temporarily and began stop-gap measures to restore heat and hot water.
In addition to the unpaid utilies, Black owes the city more than $28,000 in unpaid water and sewer bills and $12,000 in back taxes, according to housing records.
Housing officials described the situation as one of the worst examples of "walkway" or property abandonment by a landlord in the city.
"As far as we're concerned, Mr. Black has abandoned the buildings," said housing department director Robert L. Moore.
With utility and maintenance costs soaring and rent increases limited by law, "walkaways" are becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the city with more and more landlords simply abandoning marginally profitable properties.
The City Council, in an action Triggered in part by the plight of the Elmwood tenants, enacted emergency legislation last week prohibiting landlords from turning off utility services on their own initiative. Legislation barring utility companies from such cut-offs for nonpayments of bills already exists.
Black asked the Washington Gas Light Co. to terminate service as of Jan. 14. The City C ouncil's emergency measure preventing the cutoff was passed Jan. 8, but was not signed into law by Mayor Marion S. Barry by Jan. 14. As a stopgap measure, housing director Moore said he asked the gas company to keep the service on until the bill was signed. "They agreed," Moore said.
Barry signed the bill on Friday. As emergency legislation, it is effective for only 90 days, but its sponsors noted that it will protect tenants through the remainder of the winter and may be replace by permanent legislation later.
Under the measure, the owner of a master-metered apartment building who is deliquent in his utility payments may not ask the utility companies to cut off service. The tenants can then obtain a court order diverting all or a portion of their rent to pay the deliquent bills. Sponsors of the bill say this effectively protects innocent tenants from losing heat, light and at the same time discourages landlords from becoming delinquent in their bill paying.
Repeated attempts to get Black to sell the Elmwood complex to the city for rehabilitation have failed, Moore said. Black is 8 to 10 months behind on his mortgage payments on the property, Moore said, and the city is now attempting to negotiate with the trust holders to acquire the property. Black has been offered $200,000 for the property, Moore said.
Black, who operates a management consulting firm called Information Planning Associates in Gaithersburg, declined to comment on any aspect of his property dealings.
The 26 tenants still living in the Elmwood Apartments say they have endured a rapid deterioration of the buildings since late 1977, a few months after Black bought the property for $326,359 from Thomas L. Young.
The tenants have taken two actions of their own: they have sued Black for alleged breach of contract and are withholding their rent until the outcome of the litigation. Rents range from $150 to $190 per month for the units, tenants said.
Since Black bought the building, the tenants said maintainance has become spotty and unreliable. Requests for repairs, replacement of broken windows and the like went largely unanswered, they said.
In early 1978, according to tenants association president Bertha Graves, Black issued the first of a series of notices asking the tenants to vacate the property.
"People were already leaving on their own, and Black said he couldn't keep paying for maintenance and the utilities" because of the reduced income, Graves said.
On Nov. 21, 1978, the Potomac Electric Power Co. cut off power to the complex for several hours because, it said, Black owed $14,700 in electric bills.
Black was brought into D.C. Superior Court and subsequently convicted of housing code violations because of the cutoff and placed on a year's probation.
Meanwhile, tenants continued to leave the Elmwood Apartments until the number dwindled to the present 26 men, women and children occupying 10 of the 52 units.
Conditions deteriorated. A private contract trash pickup service was terminated (the city does not provide trash pickup for such apartment complexes), and tenants had to start carrying refuse to a dumpster across the street at an ajacent apartment complex.
The central furance broke down during much of last winter, tenants said, leaving them without heat for long periods.
Then last November, the huge boiler for the heating system "mysteriously disappeared" from the basement of the complex, said housing director Moore, and the tenants have been with no heat or hot water ever since.
As cold weather has set in, tenants are attempting to heat their apartments by leaving their kitchen stoves and ovens turned on, sometimes round the clock. For bathing, they heat pans of water in their kitchens, then carry the water in several trips to their bathroom tubs.
"Sometimes, we visit a friend across town so we can take a shower," Graves said.
"I'm always worried about leaving the stove on 24 hours a day," said Brenda Curtis, a welfare recipient with a year-old child and another on the way, "but it's the only way I can keep the place warm."
A broken window in her sparsely furnished bedroom has been patched with a piece of mirror, a blanket, a scatter rug and shreds of plastic.
"This whole situation has kind of teed us off," said another tenant, Barbara Burns. "Black has no consideration for us at all."
Housing director Moore said his long range goal is for the city to acquire the Elmwood Property, rehabilitate it through the D.C. Development Corporation and sell it back to the tenants as a "low-yield, nonprofit cooperative."
Moore estimated it will cost $12,000 per unit to rehabilitate the apartments with low interest loans. "We then ought to be able to sell them for $16,000 to $17,000 per unit," he said. Note payments by the tenants would be only $150 to $200 a month, he said.
"There'll be no problems filling the place," Moore said. "There are people right there in the neighborhood who have told us they want to live there . . . We'd sell it out in a week."