On an icy day recently, Gladys Simmons, nine months pregnant, huddled with her three children before the open door of her gas oven -- the only source of heat in her apartment at Fort Dupont Dwellings, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington.
"I can't bring a newborn baby in here," said a disgusted Simmons, who grew up at Fort Dupont and moved two years ago to the apartment at 3948 C St. SE. Behind her, two five-gallon buckets caught water dripping from a leaking ceiling pipe, and sheets of ice covered the window panes.
Simmons' is one of a few families left in the 45-year-old, two-story buildings of the original dwellings. The project's red brick buildings are scarred with graffiti, their windows are boarded over, and many of the parking lots are strewn with trash. Buildings along the streets of the project are virtually uninhabited.
In a rare move to demolish public housing, the District government began relocating Fort Dupont families six months ago. The city had applied more than two years ago for approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down 13 buildings of the complex, which contain 112 units.
The last public housing projects to be demolished were Parkside in Northeast and Knox Hill in Southeast about 10 years ago.
HUD's response to the demolition request is pending. Meanwhile, the remaining families have filed a lawsuit charging that they are victims of mismanagement and neglect by the city and federal governments.
The tenants' lawyer said yesterday that they have filed administrative complaints asking for a hearing before the city's Property Management Administration, contesting the eviction notices.
Most of Fort Dupont -- 286 units -- was built in 1940, and a section of 87 units was added in 1971. The complex is south of East Capitol Street, between Ridge Road and Burns Street.
The deteriorating units built in 1940 "were found to be structurally unsound," said Oliver Cromwell, a D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development spokesman. "HUD is doing a predemolition study, and we have not received the okay for the project." A HUD official said earlier this month he could not comment on the status of the city's demolition request.
Simmons and eight other tenants filed a class action suit earlier this month in U.S. District Court, alleging that "as a result of prolonged bureaucratic mismanagement and neglect," HUD and the District have "caused the Fort Dupont public housing project to become a hazard to the life, safety and health of its tenants."
The suit charges that the District has "failed to rent or repair the approximately 150 vacancies, some of which have been vacant as many as five years," at a time when at least 12,000 low-income city residents are waiting for public housing.
Among others, the suit names as defendants the acting director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, Madeline M. Petty, and HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr.
"We have heat off and on," said Simmons. "I've been moved twice . . . in three years, from one bad apartment in Fort Dupont to another. Now they are trying to throw us into anything to get us out of here."
Simmons said the city's Property Management Administration promised to move her and some other families because the building in which they live is scheduled for demolition. But Simmons and three other women who are heads of households refused to move into the apartments the city found for them, saying the new places are unfit. Soon afterward, the women received notices from the city's property management office ordering them to move by March 1.
HUD is cited in the suit for allegedly denying the District the funds necessary to modernize the project. "Now the District is seeking to cosmetically cover up a cancer that has been growing for years by ordering the tenants to precipitiously relocate to other substandard housing," the complaint stated.
Property management Administrator Oscar Draper contended, however, that his agency has "spent considerable time in finding units that people can move into."
"All of these units have been inspected by the city Department of Regulatory Affairs," Draper said. "Those families have received notices to move because numerous attempts to get them to voluntarily move have failed."
Cromwell of the Housing and Community Development Office said the buildings are being vacated because "some of the places are in such bad shape that it's a hazard for people to occupy them."
Cromwell said he believes that some Fort Dupont residents are upset because they are not being moved into the newly renovated East Capitol Dwellings nearby. "They are saying if they can't go to East Capitol, they don't want to move," he said.
Brenda Edwards, a Fort Dupont Dwellings resident and a plaintiff in the suit, said a city property management employe showed her an apartment at 203 N St. SW in the Greenleaf Gardens project. "You wouldn't send a dog in there," Edwards said. "There was feces dripping on my head from the ceiling. I cried and refused to move."
Edwards has no neighbors in the building at 3944 C St. SE where she and her two sons live; the other three units are boarded up. She said her sons can't sleep in their bedroom because mildew on the walls makes them ill.
"Moving every year ain't where it's at," said Simmons. "The place they showed me was on the third floor and had bad plumbing fixtures. It didn't look any better than what I have now."
Said another resident, Ileane Hedgespeth: "Why would you take us from one hell hole and put us in another one?"