D.C. fire marshals yesterday closed a small, dilapidated Northwest Washington apartment building because of city fire code violations, forcing its 15 to 20 tenants to find other housing.
"Their lives were in jeopardy," said Capt. Joseph Quander of the fire marshal's office. "We don't like to close down buildings because people are displaced. But if you let them stay, it is like an accident waiting to happen."
"Where am I going?" asked Doc Whitaker, 35, an unemployed construction worker, who said he had lived in the building -- in the 5600 block of Colorado Avenue NW --for seven years. "I have a houseful of furniture."
Several tenants said city officials had known about the conditions at the building for a long time and were acting because of increased pressure from City Council member Charlene D. Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who represents the ward where the building is located, and owners of surrounding well-kept single-family homes.
"It's unnecessary to close the building because we have been keeping the building up," said Samuel Dunkins, 23. "It's not unsafe. I have two children and they live here." He added that "they should have given us some warning."
But by mid-afternoon Whitaker, Dunkins and other tenants, many of whom are unemployed laborers and mothers receiving public assistance, were carrying bed frames, boxes of food, records, clothes, stereo equipment and other belongings out of the building to waiting cars and vans.
Workers from the city's Department of Human Services were on hand to take the names of tenants who needed shelter, telling them to wait for further information. As of late yesterday, a DHS officials said the department still had no idea how many tenants would need relocation assistance.
Michael Ruffin, 31, who said he was unemployed, said he had no place to go if the city was unable to find shelter for him.
The building was unsafe for tenants because it had numerous fire code violations including no fire alarm system, no exit lights, and large accumulations of trash, Quander said.
The building is owned by Patricia Speleous, who works at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Sgt. Freddie Brown, of the fire marshal's office, who directed the closing yesterday, said Speleous had been sent repeated notices of the numerous violations against the building but that no action had been taken.
According to records in Brown's possession, when fire officials inspected the building on April 22, they found no fire extinguishers, no fire doors, and obstructions on the fire stairs. An inspection on Oct. 15 found the same violations, he said.
"We didn't close the building earlier because it was not as bad as it is now," said Brown, adding that several fires were reported recently in the building.
Speleous said the tenants were living in the building without her permission. She said she had asked an earlier group of tenants to move out so she could convert the building to condominiums. After the building was empty, she said those currently living there moved in and then refused to leave.
However, Shirley Furbush, who identified herself as a rent-paying tenant, said Speleous asked her to move into the building and take care of it.
Speleous denied the claim.
One resident said she was happy to move out. "There is no heat and no hot water," said Eleanor Jones, 24, the mother of four, who said she paid $160 a month rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
Ruffin said he had no heat or electricity in his apartment and had used an extension cord running from his apartment to Furbush's to operate an electric space heater.