The D.C. housing department says that starting Jan. 1 it will stop paying $13,000 a month in rent subsidies to the Richmond owners of a dilapidated Southeast Washington apartment complex.
For more than a year, the city, using federal funds, has been subsidizing the rent of 63 poor families who live at the Ambassador Square apartments, a huge garden-apartment complex strung atop the hillsides between Douglas and Stanton roads.
"I have suspended payments until we have some agreement with the landlords and tenants and until there is substantial progress on correcting the housing code violations," housing director Robert L. Moore said late Thursday.
He said the payments will be withheld until all violations in the 63 subsidized apartments have been corrected and 60 to 70 percent of the more than 2,000 violations found throughout the entire complex of 525 apartments are repaired. The housing department stopped paying the rent on nine of the 63 units last week because of continuing violations, Moore said.
Deputy housing director James Clay said the withheld rent would not be given to the owners, Richmond lawyers Robert Cantor and Eddie Cantor, even after the repairs are made.
Earlier this week, officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told city officials to stop paying the rent if the repairs were not started by Jan. 1.
The federal subsidies are supposed to pay for safe, decent and sanitary housing, but some of the families receiving federal aid at Ambassador Square are living in buildings without hallway lights, or that have basement hallways filled with stagnant water when it rains, and only intermittent heat and hot water.
But Larry C. Williams Sr., the attorney for the Cantors, indicated that the city's action is not as tough as it sounds.
"He Moore is not going to cut it off unless we don't get an agreement to get the repairs done," Williams said. "We don't have any notification from him" that the payments will be stopped.
Moore said he hopes next week to work out an agreement between the landlords, tenants and his department that will specify both the owners' and the tenants' responsibilities for repairing the buildings with city assistance.
Moore said he wants evidence that the Cantors have set aside $250,000 to make repairs at the sprawling complex, whose erosion-scarred slopes command a panoramic view of most of Washington.
City housing inspectors found 2,080 housing code violations during an October inspection of about half the units. Moore attributed 50 percent of the damage in the barracks-like, three- and four-story brick buildings to the tenants. More than 2,000 people, mostly poor single mothers with three and four children, live in the complex.
Moore said a substantial number of the violations have been corrected, but city housing inspectors are now visiting and checking all the occupied apartments and finding additional defects.
In the future, inspectors will take pictures of all apartments before and after repairs are made to help determine what damage has been caused by landlord negligence and what can be attributable to tenant abuse, Moore said.
Followup inspections will be conducted every two months.
The Ambassador Square tenants association started a rent strike last month and asked the city to withhold its money because the government dollars were a major and guaranteed source of income for the Cantors.
"At last the city is taking a great interest in us," said Margaret Stringer, president of the tenants group.