The D.C. government lawyer who prosecutes negligent city landlords yesterday urged tenants to sue owners who fail to provide heat, hot water and decent maintenance, because the government's remedies in such cases are limited.
Nathaniel H. Speights, chief of the law enforcement section of the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office, acknowledged that although city housing officials recommended prosecution in 112 cases where landlords had failed to correct "egregious" housing-code violations, no landlord faced a trial here for those charges in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 1981.
Eighty-two cases were filed in court, and nearly half of those were still pending, according to statistics from Speights' office. Two landlords pleaded guilty and one paid a $700 fine, the largest imposed on a landlord in a case brought by government attorneys.
Speights told a City Council committee hearing that city lawyers try to negotiate with landlords rather than prosecute them because although a landlord found guilty of housing-code violations can be fined or jailed, the law contains no provision for requiring him to correct the violations at his property. In addition, Speights said, city judges rarely impose the maximum penalties allowed--$300 and/or 10 days in jail for each violation.
"I want them tenants to understand that our remedies are limited," Speights said. "They can often get a better result" through a civil lawsuit.
If a tenant hires his own lawyer and wins a civil suit, a landlord can be ordered to correct violations and can face stiffer fines or jail terms if the court orders are ignored, Speights said. He pointed to the case last week in which D.C. Superior Court Judge William S. Thompson fined a North Carolina man $5,000 a day and threatened to jail him for contempt because three buildings the man owns on Euclid Street NW have been without heat and hot water since October, the tenants testified. The landlord, Robert S. Farmer, did not appear in court.
The issue of how the city prosecutes negligent landlords arose yesterday as City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) questioned city lawyers and city housing officials on how they decided when to take a landlord to court.
After the hearing Clarke, whose ward contains some of the most rundown apartment buildings in the city, criticized the 112 cases as "a low number." He added, "In terms of law enforcement activity, this has not been given the attention it should be given. It appears to be an area where people ought to tighten up their ship."
Marcus Dasher, the official in charge of housing inspectors, said, "While that number may seem to be low, in our estimation it is a good number because it represents the most flagrant violators." He said in other instances the city government makes repairs and charges the costs to the landlord in the form of a tax lien. If the landlord has not paid the costs plus 6 percent interest within two years, the property can be put up for auction, officials said.