The inability or unwillingness of many city landlords to buy fuel oil and to make emergency repairs at their apartment buildings has forced the District Housing Department to spend nearly all of its $900,000 fund to keep tenants warm and safe when landlords do not.
The city's emergency fund is almost empty after a record rate of spending this year. This run on city coffers is just one indication that some landlords apparently are facing a growing problem paying their bills in the wake of escalating fuel oil costs, inflation and higher utility bills, according to landlord representatives and city officials. All this is made worse, landlords said, by the city's rent-control law.
However, Shirley Hines, president of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union, dismissed landlord charges that rent control was to blame for landlords' unpaid bills. She said her 19-unit building at 1354 Euclid St. NW went without hot water for four days last week, and that city officials said it was because the building was without heating oil. The city bought some for the building, Hines said.
Her landlord had raised the rent, Hines said, but maintenance in the building still had declined even though tenants often replace light bulbs in the hallways, plaster and paint their own apartments and generally maintain the building themselves. "I feel landlords want to get rich and not put anything into the buildings," Hines said.
Nonetheless, more landlords are behind in their bills this year. Under a new law, the city's gas and electric companies have gone to court to arrange for receivers to take over the collection of rents from owners at properties with large unpaid bills. Washington Gas Light Co. ahs filed against 30 properties containing 679 apartments with unpaid bills totaling $235,000 while Potomac Electric Power Co. has sought court assistance against the owners of 12 buildings containing more than 500 units with $143,000 in unpaid bills. Seven have been approved.
"The question of maintenance for many small buildings is an increasing problem," said D.C. City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), housing committee chairman. Naming a receiver to ensure that utility bills are paid simply aggravates the problems of tenants, she added, because the utility companies have first claim on all rent money and maintenance costs are paid ouf of any remaining amount.
John T. O'Neill, executive director of the Apartment and Office Building Association, blamed the landlords' problems on the city's rent-control legislation. While rents ahve been allowed to increase 49 percent since rent control's inception in 1971, costs have risen 25 percent more than those increase, he said. Just last Friday, landlords raised rents for tenants in 47,000 city apartments another 10 percent under the city's rent-control law. But even that raise does not keep rents up with inflation.
"The landlords told us the cost of the oil was the number one problem and they were not able from the rent collections to receive money to pay it," said Thomas Butler, chief of the city's housing inspectors. His office has spent $840,000 this fiscal year to buy thousands of gallons of oil and to repair roofs, bathrooms, sinks and electrical systems in occupied apartments and to clean up trash and board up empty buildings.
Last year his office spent $700,000 paying bills for landlords while this year he has spent $840,000 of its $900,000 fund only halfway through the budget year. The city government has filed liens against the owners for repayment.
At least one apartment project is in debt to the city and both utility companies. The owners of 68 apartments in the 2800 block of Jasper Road SE owed a $37,400 electric bill, a $23,493 oil bill and a $36,927 gas bill.
Those in trouble are the owners of small buildings located primarily in the areas around 14th Street NW and across the Anacostia River in Southeast. The tenants in these buildings are usually poorer families who stay because the rent is cheaper and other inexpensive apartments are scarce as many are converted to condominiums.
Both Jarvis and O'Neill said they believe the complicated and expensive process of getting the approval of the city's rent-control office for rental increases exceeding 10 percent discouraged many landlords from seeking increases.
"You have to go down there with cartons of stuff," O'Neill said, referring to the requirements that landlords must prove their need for a "hardship" increase by substantiating all their costs for the past 12 months with canceled checks or receipts.
"The process is a difficult one for small landlords because you have to have a lawyer and accountant to rerepresent your interests so it is very costly," Jarvis said.
Rent administrator Dorothy Kennison said the requirements "are something many people hate to do, but it is my job to see that it is equitable and that tenants have some kind of proff" that the landlords actually need the increase to improve maintenance.