Elizabeth Lewis, 65, ventures out of her third-floor apartment on Chapin Street NW two or three times a week on trips to the market or drugstore. Because she walks with a cane, Lewis would rather ride her building's elevator than navigate its narrow stairway.
But the elevator has not worked in a year, and only sporadically in the past five, according to Lewis and other tenants of the five-story building at 1424 Chapin St. NW.
"It makes me sick and tired of walking," Lewis told City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) last week as he toured three Chapin Street buildings with idle elevators.
Ray has drafted legislation that would require owners of apartment buildings of five stories or more to maintain elevators in good working order. He said the measure could be voted on as early as next month.
"The current housing code doesn't require landlords or owners to keep the elevators working," Ray said during his tour. "The elderly tenants in these old buildings deserve to have elevators that work at all times."
Many landlords oppose Ray's legislation, saying the cost of repairing outmoded machinery is prohibitively high.
"I sympathize with the elderly tenants, but in these buildings that are 50, 60 or 70 years old, it's often unsafe to have the elevators running at all," said Byron L. Christenson, the District vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, a group of rental property owners in the Washington area.
Replacement parts for old elevators must be specially tooled, and even basic wiring work can cost more than $8,000, Christenson said.
"It would probably take $20,000 to $30,000 to get this thing running again," Ray said as he stood beside an elevator at 1415 Chapin St. NW that was bolted shut and, according to tenants, has been out of service for seven years.
"We've asked the owner to fix it, but got no answer," said Molly Branch, 27, who lives with her two children in a $151-a-month apartment.
The apartment building's owner, J.A. Stuart, could not be reached for comment. Hartford E. Bealer, owner of the two other buildings Ray toured, also was unavailable for comment.
At 1412 Chapin St., Estella Wallace said the elevator in her building also has not worked for the past seven years.
"I get up and down the stairs the best I can," said Wallace, a board member of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union, which has endorsed Ray's legislation.
Once, after Wallace was hospitalized for arthritis in her right leg, family members had to carry her to her fifth-floor apartment, she said. "It makes it hard when you have to carry groceries or laundry," she said.
The nonfunctioning elevators pose a fire and safety threat to the neighborhood, several Chapin Street residents said.
"They fill up with trash and just bring more rats in," said Branch, who added that one of her daughters had been bitten by a rat in November.
But for many residents, some of whom say they live in unheated and vandalized apartments, elevators that do not work are the least of their problems, they said.
When Ray arrived last week to tour Chapin Street, he was booed by about 20 residents and tenant organizers for his opposition to legislation that would give tenants limited rights to repair their apartments and deduct the cost from their rents.
Ray said he opposes the "repair and deduct" bill because it would not assist poor tenants. "It's a great tool for middle- and upper-income people, the folks who have extra money to spend on improving their apartments," he said.
Ray added, however, that he will not bottle up the legislation, which is now in the new committee he heads on consumer and regulatory affairs.
Keary Kincannon, a founder of the tenants union, said the run-down Chapin Street housing dramatized several tenant problems.
"The elevator bill and 'repair and deduct' would both have an immediate impact on this area," Kincannon said. "We want both to pass, but we will take what we can get."