Elise Joyner and her two children stayed on in their apartment after the junkies and derelicts moved into the lobby.They stayed on after their neighbors and friends moved out, after the building became a virtual ghost town, after the fires, after the lack of heat, after the water was turned off. They stayed even after a man was shot and killed in the lobby.
But yesterday, Joyner could not resist the two U.S. marshals and the platoon of workmen hired by her landlord, Jonathan Woodner, to evict her from her apartment at 2440 16th St. NW. In about three hours, Elise Joyner had become an urban refugee, standing beside her belongings on the street, homeless.
She and her children, dozens of people show have already vacated the apartment building and the handful who remain are casualties in the latest battle in the continuing war of city landlord vs. city tenant. Many landlords are eager to convert unprofitable rental real estate to high-priced condominiums. Low-income tenants, who know the city's dwindling stock of cheap housing holds little change for them to find another home, are eager to stay.
The tensions have been heightened because in the last three years more than 10,000 city apartments have been converted to condominiums displacing thousands of long-time Washington residents.
"I'm the victim of this condo cancer, said Clarece Walker, 29, who expects to be evicted soon herself. "Landlords are running all the people out of the city."
Elise Joyner was the first of about eight women, most with small children, who soon will be forcibly evicted, after refusing to give the landlord keys to thier apartments. Symbolically, she was president of her building's tenant association, which had gone to court to fight Woodner's condominium conversion plan.
"It's been terror in that building," said city housing director Robert L. Moore, who said he tried repeatedly to negotiate an agreement between the tenants and landlord Woodner, who also owns the former Woodner Hotel on 16th Street.
It's just been war for 2 1/2 years," said Moore. "There is so much hostility on both sides." Moore said Woodner has "done everything in the world" to get his tenants out. Woodner let the building deteriorate to where it was unsafe, he did not make needed repairs and he let drug addicts adopt the building's public hallways as home, Moore said.
Joyner, a law clerk in the office of Mayor Marion Barry, said she is the victim of Woodner's retaliation and calculated attempt to run tenants out of the building.
Woodner says he's the victim of unreasonable tenants who have been costing him $20,000 a month in losses. They have hung on tenaciously in a decrepit building even after he offered them $10,000 each in moving expenses, a year of subsidized rent at a new address and help finding a new apartment, he said.
Joyner, 29, who was dressed in blue heans and a fur jacket yesterday, stood surrounded by her lamps, her clothes, her chairs and tables and explained that she moved to the building in 1978 because the rent, even at $335 a month, was affordable.
A month later, Woodner stopped renting apartments in the 129-unit, five-story building, which is adjacent to the Ghanaian Embassy and across from Meridan Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park. It is one block from the exclusive Beekman Place condominiums. In this neighborhood, dilapidated building is assessed at nearly $1 million.
Some tenants, sensing what was coming, simply moved out in 1978, after Woodner reduced the building's maintenance staff and failed to explain why he had stopped renting empty apartments. A year later, the building was more than half empty.
About 50 fires had erupted during that year damaging vacant and occupied apartments, but there were no injuries, Joyner said.
"Anything that went wrong they never fixed," Joyner recalled. "A drug ring started in the lobby. When we came in the building they would ask us if we wanted to buy drugs, marijuana. Anything. We were afraid for our children."
Then a man was shot to death in the lobby in December 1979.
Light bulbs disappeared from the hallways. The elevator stopped working so she had to walk up four flights of dark stairs to her apartment every night after work past vacant, boarded up apartments.
Woodner rented some of the vacant apartments to men Joyner described as "drunks, derelicts and undesirables," who frightened the women and made lewd remarks to them. The men also started gutting the building.
In May 1979, the tenants started a rent strike, because of the lack of maintenance. They paid their rent to the D.C. Superior Court, which holds rent in landlord-tenant disputes.
Woodner said he stopped renting apartments in the building because it needed a complete renovation.
He said he "started encouraging tenants to move" by offering to help them find new housing, to subsidize their rents and their moving expenses. He said he also offered to sell them their units back as newly converted condominiums for 20 percent below market prices, which would begin at $72,000 for a one-bedroom unit. Some tenants took the moving money and the subsidized rent.
A handful refused to move. Woodner ordered his workmen to start gutting the apartments that were vacant.
Woodner went to court and a jury gave him the right to enter the apartments of those tenants who remained. But Moore said Woodner still will not be allowed to convert unless he can get an exception to the law demanding that buildings be vacant since Jan. 1, 1980.
"We had no conception that it was going to be this much of a hassle," Woodner said. "I wouldn't want to live there. I don't understand their motivation to say on."