Tenants at the Imperial Apartments in Adams-Morgan have battled rats, roaches, winos, and their landlord for more than two years to secure their homes.
The announcement last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that the city government would receive a $2.6 million loan to buy and rehabilitate the 36-unit building should be cause for rejoicing. But the l6 tenants remaining in the imposing dark brick building at 1763 Columbia Rd. NW aren't popping any champagne corks.
"There's nothing to celebrate yet," said Charles Phifer, a tenant. "The time I'm thinking about partying is when they fix this place up and we move back into a decent place."
This week, the tenants are waiting to see whether an agreement can be reached between the city's Department of Housing and Community Development and their landlord, Realtor George Dravillas, to purchase the building and convert it to public housing. If an agreement cannot be reached, tenants may have to move.
About six months ago, the city intervened in the longstanding dispute between the residents and the landlord in an effort to prevent the displacement of low-income tenants there.
The tenants said that at a meeting last week, city housing director Robert Moore told them he was confident that the city could buy the building. The tenants said Moore promised that the city would assign a relocation worker to find them apartments in the area. Those tenants who qualify for public housing were promised rent subsidies to make up the difference between the rent at the Imperial and the rent on new apartments. Tenants who do not qualify for public housing were promised $4,000 in relocation assistance, they said.
However, Dravillas said he will not sell the building to the city if he has to pay the relocation money. He said he met with Moore Thursday, but they did not reach an agreement. Moore could not be reached for comment.
"If I get back the money, I might sell to the city," Dravillas said in a telephone interview. Dravillas said that if the city doesn't buy the building, he plans to remodel it and turn the ground-floor apartments into commercial space.
Earlier this summer the tenants signed an agreement with Dravillas stating that they would move by Nov. 1 if the city was not able to buy the building by Sept. 1. In turn, Dravillas agreed to pay each tenant who moved before Nov. 1 $10,000. HUD did not approve the loan until after the deadline had passed, however, and some tenants had begun to make plans to move.
Tenants said their lawyers advised them not to move because Dravillas had not deposited all of the relocation money into an escrow account as he had pledged to do in the court agreement. Their lawyers advised them that staying in the building past the city's Sept. 1 deadline would be an important bargaining chip to make sure Dravillas lived up to his part of the agreement.
Last week, D.C. Superior Court Judge William Thompson ordered Dravillas to deposit $128,000, the amount promised to relocate the tenants, into an escrow account, and Dravillas signed a memorandum agreeing to do so. Dravillas had deposited $121,813, which he said was the amount left after subtracting unpaid back rent from tenants, into another account before the judge's order last week.
Tenant association president Casilda Luna said the tenants will stand firm and not touch the money. "I think everybody is interested in a place to live rather than the money," she said.
But other tenants said they are not so sure. Barbara Johnson, who lives in the building with her two teen-aged children, had made plans to rent a house before HUD announced the loan. "I was going to take the money and go. Now I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.
A second problem confronts the tenants because the city intends to turn the building into public housing. Although the majority apparently can qualify for public housing, a few make too much money to return to the building. Luna said the tenants intend to press for an exception to this rule to allow all l6 to move back in once the building has been purchased and renovated.
"We don't ever want to talk about qualifying. For what we've been through, everybody qualifies," said Phifer, referring to conditions in the building.
Luna said the building had heat only sporadically during the subfreezing temperatures of last winter. Many of the apartments have broken windows and plaster that has crumbled away to expose the laths. The tenants complained that the building is infested with rats and cockroaches, and junkies and winos often break into the empty apartments.
"For three months we didn't have a toilet. We used the service station around the corner," Johnson said. She has not had hot water in her apartment for a year, she said.
"When you call Dravillas, he either hangs up on you or tells you to move," Johnson said.
Dravillas agreed that the building had many housing code violations. He said he had corrected some, but not all. He added that the building was in receivership, and any rent money went to pay utilities.
"I never got a nickel from that building," he said. " [It] has been neglected since 1940. If you know the tenants will be out in 60 or 90 days, would you spend a lot of money on repairs? Besides, any repairs you do will be broken the next day."
The tenants said they had tried to buy the building themselves. They raised money for a down payment in 1980, when the previous owner, Mildred Bryan, said she wanted to sell it. Bryan gave the tenants only 60 days to raise the entire purchase price, however. They later learned that she sold the building to Dravillas and agreed to finance three-quarters of the cost. After Dravillas attempted to evict the tenants, they filed suit in D.C. Superior Court charging that Dravillas had violated city laws giving tenants the first right to buy the building. The suit was later dropped.
Luna said the tenants have spent more than $7,000 of their own money on repairs to the building, but if they can stay their struggles will have been worthwhile.
"When you think that we live on a street with four bus lines, with markets and a laundry and all kinds of ethnic restaurants, you know what we are fighting for," she said.