The nearly 200 people living in the Antoinette Gardens Apartments in Capitol Heights have been without water for more than two weeks while Prince George's County and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials have struggled to learn who should pay the building's $14,000 water bill.
By allowing the water to be turned off, the landlord violated county housing regulations, but Prince George's officials say they are having a hard time determining who owns the apartments and who should be held liable.
In the meantime, WSSC is not planning to restore full service and the county is afraid of bringing in outside water for fear of becoming liable incase of any illnesses.
Thursday, nearly two weeks after the water was first turned off, WSSC decided to give Antoinette Gardens tenants water for a couple of hours a day. But residents said that because everyone one has to use the water at the same time and because of leaky pipes, they aren't able to get get much water in each apartment.
James E. Burston, a Coral Hills real estate agent who tenants say collects the rents, is no longer taking calls from the water company, the tenants or the county, they said.
"We can't cook, we can't wash our clothes, we can't take baths, we can't even go to the bathroom and flush our toilets," said Wylene Nixon, a resident of the complex, where rents average $325 a month. "Our children have to take their bars of soap and walk all the way to the pool in the nearest park just to wash up properly. My grandson was born with one kidney and desperately needs water-- now he has an infection."
Since the water has been turned off, the tenants have used various containers to haul water, including pickle barrels from a nearby fast-food restaurant, empty milk jugs and large plastic trash cans.
During the recent hot and humid weather, tenants got permission from a dentist across the street to use his outside faucets after hours. They also got water from a nearby Gino's restaurant and from relatives and friends.
Frances Lewis, a resident of Antoinette Gardens, said she cannot afford to throw away any of the water she gets. She said she has been using liquid bleach to disinfect the water once she uses it and freezes as much of the clean water as possible. To sterilize water, she boils it in her coffee pot.
Deteriorated plumbing has increased water consumption to excessive levels, contributing to the dispute over the water bill.
The large number of past owners of the Antoinette Gardens compounds the problem. Since 1980, there have been five different owners of the 112-unit complex. According to Prince George's housing officials, the last known owner is Eric Cummings, an attorney in the District of Columbia who bought the apartments in a foreclosure auction this month. Neither Cummings nor Burston could be reached for comment yesterday.
County prosecutors said this week they will ask the Prince George's Circuit Court to order Burston, because he collects the rents, to pay the bill. But the process is a long one. If the landlord does not comply, the county merely declares the property uninhabitable and orders tenants to leave within 30 days, housing officials said. Tenants report that Burston already has served them with notices to vacate.
To be forced to search for housing would be an added insult following the lack of water, tenants said. "People in the projects live better than we do," said Nixon. "That's what really hurts."