The D.C. government is using about $13,000 a month in federal aid to house 63 poor families in a slovenly Southeast apartment complex that is filled with rats and roaches, has few fire alarms and extinguishers and was cited for 2,080 housing code violations in October.
Some of the families receiving the federal assistance live in buildings without hallway lights and that have basement hallways filled with foul-smelling, stagnant water for more than a month.
Some of the 455 tenants at the Ambassador Square apartments have to keep brooms beside their front doors so they can sweep paths through the water. Some have stuffed rags under their doors to keep the water from entering their living rooms.
"We sweep the water to the end of the hallways into a boiler room where there is a big hole in the floor," said Mae Williams, a 39-year-old mother of six who does not receive the federal housing aid. "I just hope the water doesn't get into the electric meters that are in that room," she added, as she stood in the offensive water that covered the soles of her black leather boots.
City housing director Robert L. Moore said yesterday he is seriously considering halting use of the federal payments, which are administered by the city government, and moving the 63 families to better housing because of conditions at the complex, located between Douglas and Stanton roads SE.
But Moore said "it's going to be tough" to move the 63 federally subsidized families because most of them are headed by single women with three or more children and need three- and four-bedroom apartments. There is a scarcity of such large apartments in the District. Moore did not say when the moves might be made.
Moreover, if the city stops its payments to the owners of the complex and moves the subsidized tenants, Moore said the complex will probably be closed, meaning the city will then have to help find housing for the 392 families who live at Ambassador Square but who receive no federal assistance. There are 70 vacant apartments in the 525-unit complex.
"We are the only thing holding up everything financially," Moore said. The subsidy program represents a guaranteed source of income to the owners of Ambassador Square, Richmond businessman Robert Cantor and his brother, Richmond lawyer Eddie Cantor. They could not be reached for comment.
Rayfield Mason, property manager for the two owners, said most of the 2,080 violations have been corrected. "We have 50 men working right now and we are completing them," he said.
Mason said the stagnant water was cleaned up yesterday afternoon.
The 63 families are among more than 2,000 tenants who live in a series of barracks-like, reddish brown buildings that lace the hillsides opposite Douglass Junior High School. The tenants can look up from their desolate, erosion-scarred slopes to a commanding view of the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the far-off Washington Cathedral.
Ambassador Square was once a luxury garden-apartment complex that catered to young professional blacks and boasted two large swimming pools. Now it is an address for the working poor and welfare recipients, a common transformation in the plethora of look-alike garden apartments that were strung along the hillside of Anacostia in the 1960s.
The middle class bought homes, mainly in Prince George's County, while the landlords stopped screening prospective tenants for the D.C. apartments. Lack of maintenance and tenant vandalism have left the buildings at Ambassador Square and many others throughout Southeast Washington in their current dilapidated state.
About half the women who live at Ambassador Square work in such jobs as cooks, government clerks, nurses aides and janitors and half receive public assistance.
City housing inspectors found the 2,080 housing code violations throughout the complex during the October inspection, Moore said.
In addition, Moore said that inspectors last spring found numerous violations in nine of the 63 units occupied by the subsidized families. Moore said the owners did not make the necessary repairs despite repeated letters from housing officials.
Because of the continuing violations, Moore said he stopped paying the rent on the nine apartments earlier this week. The rent is paid under the so-called Section 8 program of the 1974 Housing Act, which is supposed to help poor families find safe, decent and sanitary housing.
Mason disputed Moore's contentions, saying, "We don't have any violations on the subsidized units . They have all passed." He said he was unaware that the city had stopped some of its payments.
Some tenants, many of whom said they pay more than $300 a month in rent, complain that kitchen sinks and bathroom toilets frequently overflow, spewing debris and human waste on their floors. They say there is only intermittent heat and hot water and no security.
"It's ridiculous to pay $327 a month and live like this," Williams said as she pointed to the stinking hallway. "Paying the rent I pay I think my apartment should be in A-1 condition," she said.
Brenda Turner, 25, one of the recipients of the housing aid, said it was "stupid" for the government to pay for her apartment when she has no hot water and plastic covers the holes left from the removal of a nonfunctioning air-conditioner.
Mason complained that tenants and their children break many of the hallway lights soon after they are installed. He said some tenants stuff diapers and trash into the toilets and the garbage disposal units, triggering many of the sewage backups.
"We have spent tremendous amounts of money trying to keep the buildings up," Mason said.
Moore said that about 50 percent of the damage at the buildings has been caused by tenants.
The Rev. Howard W. Scott, 50, who has lived at Ambassador Square for 14 years, said he pities the children most.
"You look at these little kids playing in the glass and filth. That toughens a kid. This is what I feel most pathetic about, that they have to grow up in this. There is no pride in the place," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, The tenants can look up from their desolate, erosion-scarred slopes to a commanding view of the Capitol...; Picture 2, "We sweep the water to the end of the hallways into a boiler room where there is a big hole in the floor."; Picture 3, A child drowned in the stagnant water left in this unused swimming pool, symbol of better days at the Ambassador Square apartments.; Picture 4, "It's ridiculous to pay $327 a month and live like this...I think my apartment should be in A-1 condition," says Mae Williams, with daughter, 11.Photos by Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post