Mary E. Williams lives in a one-bedroom apartment at 1477 Newton St. NW. There are leaks in the ceiling, the walls are cracked, the paint is peeling and there are plaster patches all over. The window on the door to her apartment is cracked. There's no lock on the front door of her building.
"Most times, there's no hot water here. In the wintertime, we don't have sufficient heat. That's bad for me, you know, because I suffer from arthritis," said Williams, 58, squinting her eyes as though she had just felt a sharp pain.
"I want to see my landlord prosecuted. I've been fighting him for 11 years, and I'm tired," Williams added.
Williams was one of about 50 disenchanted apartment dwellers who attended a meeting last week of Washington Inner-City Self Help (WISH), a nonprofit organization that helps tenants with their housing problems.
Like the others, Williams wanted to know what happened to Mayor Marion Barry's much-touted "war against slum landlords," announced a year ago this month.
Statistics on how many landlords the city has prosecuted since the mayor declared his "war" are contradictory and, at best, incomplete. Geoffrey Alprin, head of the corporation counsel office's criminal division, estimates that over the past year, the city prosecuted around 100 landlord cases and won convictions in 50 to 60 of them.
In those cases, landlords paid fines as low as $25 or as high as $13,700. In "almost all" cases, the landlords corrected the violation, he said.
WISH officials said that when they asked the corporation counsel's office for the number of prosecutions in the past year, they were told there were only 46. But whether it is 46 or 100, WISH contends, it is far lower than the number of buildings having serious and repeated housing-code violations.
WISHofficials add that the District's record of prosecutions is far lower than that of other major cities.According to the National Training and Information Center in Chicago, about 80,000 landlord-negligence cases were prosecuted in Chicago in 1978, the most recent year for which figures were available.
Williams' landlord is one whom the housing department recently recommended for prosecution by the corporation counsel. But "prosecution doesn't always remedy the problem," said Robert Moore, director of the city's department of housing and community development.
Moore said it is a slow process -- taking up to six months sometimes -- to get landlord cases to court, after which there's no guarantee the landlords will make the repairs.
He pointed to the case of Southwest landlord Al Black, who Moore said was fined $5,000 for housing-code violations in his building at Danbury and South Capitol streets SW. Before his case even came to court, Moore said, Black abandoned his building. Almost all the tenants had moved out before the city took over the building, he added.
Many of the people who attended the WISH meeting said they have complained repeatedly to housing inspectors and other housing department officials about faculty heating, lack of hot water, rats and roaches and other filthy conditions in their buildings -- to no avail.
This week, the housing department announced it had inspected six of 10 buildings whose landlords WISH recommended for prosecution and that repairs were underway or about to get underway in four of the buildings.
But tenants say wretched conditions persist in many Mount Plesant apartment buildings, including at least two of the buildings the city says it is looking into.
"There's rats running all over the building, there's mice, roaches. In the basement, there's electric wire hanging all over the place," said Eva Campbell, an elderly resident in a building at 1223 12th St. NW, one of the buildings whose landlord, the housing department says, is being asked to make repairs.
"When you call the [D.C. housing] office they put you on hold and give you the run-around. Sometimes they treat you so nasty. But we're out here living like dogs and cats," Campbell continued.
WISH staffer Don Leaming-Elmer says one of the reasons landlords can take so long to make repairs is that the housing department is too lenient with them. "Every time [housing] inspectors see landlords out there with a brush, the threat of prosecution is dropped," he said.
Leaming-Elmer says that although criminal prosecution is one of the only threats tenants can hold over unscrupulous landlords, the city might do better to handle these cases in civil, rather than criminal, court.
"In civil enforcement, the thrust would be on requiring the landlord to fix up the building. In criminal prosecutions, the thrust is on punishment."
But Alprin said that "we can accomplish the same thing in criminal court and, in addition, the landlord gets a criminal conviction on his record."
Williams said she had to wait six months for her landlord, Chancey Thomas, to fix the commode in her bathroom that was falling through the floor. Her bathroom walls and ceilings are full of plaster patches where, she said, handymen have tried to cut off the ever-present leaks.
"The only thing he seems to do is patch things up, then in another couple of weeks, they're down again," said Williams, who said she does not want to move because her building is near a supermarket and her doctor, whom she visits frequently for her arthritis.
Thomas could not be reached for comment this week.
Williams' one-bedroom apartment rents for $195. But under the Section 8 housing law, Williams said, she has been paying only $37 a month and the federal government pays the rest.
But her neighbor, Eldice Clarke, said she pays the full $254 rent for the same-sized apartment. There are holes and severe cracks in almost every wall. The refrigerator the landlord provided was so run-down, Clarke said, that she had to buy her own refrigerator. Clarke said she has given up trying to control the mice and roaches in the apartment because the whole building is infested.
"We're really suffering here in these places," said Jamaica-born Clarke. "But when you're poor, what can you do; where can you go?" CAPTION: Picture, Eldice Clark says she has quit trying to control the mice and roaches in her $245-a-month apartment. Photo by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post.