Muriel Cardenas, 39, lives in a high-rise ghost town in mid-city Washington. She climbs 80 steps four or five times a night, lugging water-filled plastic jugs to her fifth-floor efficiency apartment, which is without running water or heat. A flashlight is her only guide as she moves through the cavernous hallways, past the sleeping vagrants, up to her apartment.
She baths at the homes of friends and keeps her furniture, clothes, jewelry and mementos with them in case of burglaries or fires. For her protection, she keeps heavy pipes and fire extinguishers nearby.
Muriel Cardenas believes she is an urban hero of sorts -- the last tenant at 2440 16th St. NW, a dilapidated five-story, 129-unit building from which the landlords have systematically removed all tenants except her in order to convert the apartments into condominiums. Most of the tenants were booting out in late February and early March, some of them escorted to the door by U.S. marshals after a jury gave the landlords the right to enter the apartments of the tenants who remained.
Because of a legal technicality, landlords Jonathan and Ian Woodner cannot evict Cardenas, although the D.C. Superior Court also has ruled that they do not have to provide her with any services, either.
"It is my home," says Cardenas, a dental lab technician. "I haven't done anything wrong, and for me to move would be to admit defeat. The more difficult I can make it for him [the landlord] the better, because he's made it difficult for me. I don't want to be just displaced and forgotten. I'm going to put him through as much discomfort as I possibly can."
So Cardenas is the last survivor in a bitter 2 1/2-year war between the building's low-income tenants and its landlords. Tenants battled against becoming new casualties in the conversion or more than 10,000 city apartments to condominiums; the landlords fought what they called unreasonable tenants who remained in the building despite offers to give them at least $10,000 in cash, moving expenses, a year of subsidized rent at a new address and help finding other housing -- if they would just get out.
After the drug junkies moved into the hallways, after the fires, after the handgun killing in the lobby, after what city housing director Robert L. Moore said was a landlord campaign to remove the tenants, most finally left.
The smashed walls, the large pieces of concrete and plaster that litter other apartment, the jackhammers that begin early every morning, the upcoming renovation show that the Woodners have gained the upper hand in this fight.
A paragraph in all tenants' leases except Cardenas' said the landlords must have access to all apartments. When other tenants refused to supply the landlords with keys, the Woodners took them to court for breaking their leases -- and won. Only Cardens had the law on her side.
So she stayed, carrying on the battle and watching as the final nine tenants were evicted in the last two months. She still pays her $132-a-month rent to avoid eviction, because she believes she has been forced to live in inhuman conditions by landlords who want to "illegally" rid the building of poor people.
"I hate to come home," says the 5-foot-4, 120-pound woman, as she looks around her apartment furnished with one lamp, two tables, three chairs and a portable radio. "I have to psych myself up to come home because I dread it . . . The conditions are deplorable. I'm not used to living this way."
A variety of reasons compel her to stay -- she says she can't find another apartment for $132 a month. Cardenas was among those who, despite offers of money and help in moving, refused to budge -- and eventually she ws the only tenant with a legal right to carry on the fight.
Very simply, Muriel Cardenas dug in her heels.
"We feel it would be in her best interest," says James Christian, the Woodners' attorney, "to move to a more livable and habitable building."
Last Friday, the Woodners finally filed a court suit to evict Cardenas, says Arthur McKey, another Woodner attorney. It has yet to be heard.
When Cardenas and a handful of remaining tenants went to court last month seeking an order requiring the landlord to repair the building, D.C. Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon ruled that since the cost of repairs approached $1 million and only a handful of tenants remained in the building, she would not order that repairs be made. Bacon ruled instead that Cardenas and other tenants could sue to recover damages, according to Roy Pearson, the tenants' attorney.
The city's condominium conversion office says the Woodners have no valid permit to convert the apartments to condominiums and cannot do so without the approval of a majority of the legal tenants living in the building.
Christian admitted that Cardenas is a legal tenant and that the law does require tenants' consent. "But," says Christian, "there are a number of ways of occupying a building."
He refused to elaborate.