Stay Warm, Please Keep the Door Closed," cautions the neatly stenciled sign on the outside of the 27-unit apartment building at 1204 Talbert St. SE. Inside, the building is anything but warm. It has not been warm, tenants say, since last summer. The heating system is not working and has not worked for months, they say. As a result, some tenants use their gas burners and ovens--sometimes around the clock--to ward off the bone-chilling cold.
Using an oven for heat can be dangerous, tenant Sharon Johnson, 22, found out. Johnson's son, John (Boonie) Poteat, who will be 2 years old next week, has spent the last two months as a burn-unit patient at Children's Hospital. The child suffered second- and third-degree burns on his legs and buttocks when he fell backwards onto the open oven door, spilling a pan of water that was boiling on top of the stove. Johnson says her son was climbing on the kitchen sink to get a drink of water.
Johnson and her two children, who moved into the building in October, live in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor. Her older son, Eugene (Fred) Johnson, 7, is a first-grader at Savoy School in Anacostia.
Johnson's apartment, with thickly frosted windows on a frigid day, seemed almost as cold inside as the temperature outdoors. She and her son Fred wear their winter clothing indoors, just as they do outside. The sparsely furnished apartment has no floor coverings, a tiny black-and-white television in one corner of the living room, and a few toys for the children.
In the kitchen, cupboard shelves were almost bare.
On the day a reporter visited, Johnson's apartment was even colder than usual. Her gas had just been turned off because she had failed to pay her $71 bill. She and Fred tried to sleep in the apartment that night, Johnson said, but it was so cold--the temperature plunged to 21 degrees--that they went to a friend's house at 5 a.m.
Lack of heat is only one of the problems at the building, located across the street from the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum. Hallways and stairways appear uniformly dirty. Cold drafts blow through the hallways. Large holes in the walls mar the side of the building.
Several other tenants also complained that the building has been without heat for months, including recent weeks when temperatures dropped as low as 5 degrees below zero.
An official at the D.C. Housing Inspector's office said one of the owners of the building recently told him it has occasionally had heat.
"If it has," said Johnson, "he didn't tell anybody about it." Other tenants also deny that the building has had any heat this winter.
One other tenant said some efforts had been made to repair the boiler but "it keeps breaking down."
Last week, Johnson sought help with her gas bill from the D.C. Energy Office. Her application was approved and she was advised to file a complaint against her landlord with the D.C. Rental Accommodations Office (RAO). After she talked with Norman Smith, chief of client services at the RAO, the D.C. Housing Inspector's Office sent workers to repair the building's heating system.
Jackie Moore, spokeswoman for the Housing Inspector's Office, verified that the building's boiler was not working. She said the workers have now completed retubing of the boiler but have sent to Richmond for burner parts. The work is expected to be completed within this week, she said; a bill for the repairs will be sent to the owners.
The owner of the property is listed in the city Recorder of Deeds office as Rudy and Associates, a Capitol Heights real estate firm and a limited partnership of which Rudolph N. West Sr. and Charles D. Moultrie are the general partners. West refused to comment when contacted by a reporter. Moultrie could not be reached.
Smith said that according to his office records, the property at 1204 Talbert St. SE is not registered with the RAO in the partnership's name and a certificate of occupancy has not been issued to the partnership. Smith said his agency's compliance division will give the property's owner time to register and obtain a certificate of occupancy. If it does not, Smith said, the owner may be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 for each violation.
During her visit to the D.C. Energy Office, Johnson was given a heater and a blanket and was told that her gas bill would be paid by the energy program and that her gas eventually would be turned back on. Although the heater and blanket she received have helped, Johnson says, "It's still cold in here."
Johnson, whose seamstress mother died when she was about 9, was reared by two older sisters. She left home when she was 14, she says. A ninth-grade dropout, she has been on her own ever since. When she was 15 and 16, she attended Federal City College for about a year, working toward a high school diploma, she says. she was too young to qualify for the program.
Johnson, who says she longs for an education, wants to be a seamstress like her mother. She doesn't have a sewing machine but says, "I can sew better with my hands than most people can with a sewing machine."
Johnson receives $285 a month in public assistance and $132 in food stamps. Her rent is $199 a month.
A social worker for Children's Hospital said that Johnson's son Boonie will be hospitalized for another two weeks. Johnson hopes that by the time he is released, the heat in her building will be working. D.C. health officials have told her her son cannot come home until their apartment has heat.
She says that although she has not paid her rent for December and January because of building code violations, she has the rent money set aside