For the past two months, Lillie A. Brown, 53, a disabled diabetic, has been without hot water or the use of the gas stove in her one-bedroom $184-a-month Northeast Washington apartment.
She prepares meals for herself and her five-year-old granddaughter Erica on a one-burner electric hot plate on her carpeted living room floor because the electrical outlets in her kitchen do not work.
Gaping holes in her apartment's ceilings and some walls -- the result of management's attempts to rewire the building's electrical system last summer -- let in cold late autumn breezes. Brown and other tenants of the Capitol Terrace Apartments at 4069-4089 Minnesota Ave. NE say the holes are unsightly reminders of the difficulty they have had in getting the landlord, Solomon Kendrick, to make much-needed repairs for several years.
"I've told him many times, so he knows I'm a diabetic and that I have to eat on a schedule," said Brown, who has undergone surgery three times to prepare for dialysis treatments. "It would take all day to cook on that slow burner. And sometimes, it gets so cold in here I have to bathe and sleep at my daughter's house."
According to Washington Gas Light Co. records, gas service was interrupted at the 83-unit complex from Sept. 11 to Oct. 10. when a gas leak was reported. It was not the first time, tenants say, that they have been inconvenienced seriously, but was the latest incident in a continuing struggle to get the basic services they are entitled to.
Brown's stove was disconnected one month longer than anyone else's: she claims she's being punished because she is president of the complex's tenants association and was a founding member.
Kendrick says he had no intention of inconveniencing Brown or anyone else, and that her stove was not reconnected only because he could not gain access to her apartment when a plumber was at the complex to make repairs.
Tenants' complaints and Kendrick's responses to the building's maintenance problems have stirred a brewing controversy with charges that both sides have not acted in good faith. Tenants say that for the past two winters, they have suffered periods of no heat because of a defective furnace and lack of fuel oil.
At least 13 tenants have taken their grievances to court. In one case, eight tenants were granted partial rent refunds ranging from $235 to $735 for lack of heat and hot water during periods over the past two years, according to Alva Swann of the Neighborhood Legal Services. Another five tenants complaining of needed repairs and no heat settled out of court.
Although she feels harassed, Brown, who lives with her granddaughter on a $352 monthly fixed income, said she cannot afford to pack up and leave as many others have done.
"The landlord is trying to wear me down to run me out of here, but I'm just as patient as he is," Brown says. "I've suffered too much and too long to back down now."
Meanwhile, Kendrick said he is not trying to force Brown to move, but that "I certainly would not be sorry to see her go. She is a professional tenant who attempts to use the law and various agencies to get around paying rent."
Kendrick said the most recent problems resulted from complications during renovation of the building's electrical system. The complex was being rewired to facilitate electrical baseboard heaters for each apartment to provide better heating service, Kendrick said.
The electrical wiring work was almost completed when Kendrick said city officials told him that a change in the building code required him to install heavier wiring than the 60 amp system being installed. Kendrick said work stopped in early Septmember until new wire could be ordered and arrangements made with Pepco to install the heavier cables underground rather than overhead, as had been planned.
Meanwhile, Kendrick said, on Sept. 19, workers accidentally drilled into a gas line and he had to shut off the complex's central gas valve. He said the repairs could have been made quickly if Brown hadn't called the gas company. Kendrick contends that her phone call resulted in an investigation that caused a three-week interruption and cost him an additional $10,000 for repairs.
Brown said she called Washington Gas Light Co. to find out why her stove had shut off suddenly. She said that a gas company investigator -- not Kendrick -- discovered the damage from the accident. A spokesman for Washington Gas Light Co. said that the investigator found several other leaks in the gas line as well.
"The gas company said that the only reason people weren't out here blowing up was because it was still warm and they had their windows open," Brown said.
The delays in getting the complex's electrical and gas systems in full working order have angered several tenants. They have filed complaints with the city's Rental Accommodations Office, the agency that helps mediate landlord-tenant disputes and, in some cases, works with utility companies to restore services when a landlord will not or cannot do the job.
Now that some of the Capitol Terrace apartment tenants have hot water and can use their stoves again, they are still bothered by the gaping holes, some of them nearly a foot in diameter.
"You can see clean through these holes to the outdoors," says Norman Alexander, 48, pointing to an opening in his living room wall in the 4071 unit. "It's getting cold now, and some of the radiators are working, but my heat goes right out these holes while the wind comes right in."
"When it rains, I know it because it comes right in through the hole in my dining room," said Maverine Vaughn, a two-year tenant in the 4085 building. "I have to stuff paper into the holes and set out buckets to catch the rain."
Kendrick said the holes leading to the outside would be filled within a week, but the electrical work will be delayed for at least four months until Pepco gives a definite date they can run the new service. He said the furnace is about 40 years old and is often a problem, but he tries to get any needed repairs done "in a timely fashion."
"I've heard all of those same promises before, but the holes are still here and we still don't have heat in some of the apartments," said Joe Dickerson, a resident in the 4077 building. "I've lived here 13 years and this is the worst I've seen this place yet."