The dilapidated building at 1320 Fairmont St. NW has no name, but a black and yellow sign on the front door identifies it as containing a "fallout shelter." To the 15 families who call this home, the symbol of radioactivity is appropriate enough: There is a turf war under way in this city, and even ghetto property is hot.
"The slumlord is trying to charge a woman $400 for leaving a trash bag in the hallway, but she only did that so rats wouldn't be so intense in her apartment," said Rosa Foster, the building's tenant group leader. "This is part of a systematic campaign of harassment to get us out so rich people can move in."
A few blocks away, Roscoe Jones, the landlord, paces the floor of his building maintenance office, an unlit cigar hanging from his lip. Tenants in the Fairmont Street building have been on a rent strike for more than a year, he notes, and what they call harassment is his counterattack to reclaim his building.
"I'm fighting against welfare hoodlums who came up from the South just to get a hand-me-down," said Jones. "They are fly-by-nights who don't need to stay here. All of these poor people are just tearing the city down."
When D.C. City Council hearings began last week on the rent control system, council member John Ray (D-At Large) cited the Fairmont Street building as an example of rent control's effect on the city. Landlords claim that restrictions on rent prevent them from making necessary repairs; tenants say housing code violations preceded rent control by years.
Regardless of who started this fight, both sides in many ways have already lost.
Like old generals in Vietnam, city landlords have been talking about pulling out of this turf war because of the formidable rent control law. But they stay, taking their chances, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel -- which some think they see in John Ray's decontrol bill.
For tenants, the housing situation has become so desperate that paying low rents, and in some cases no rent, makes it worth living without air conditioning or even sanitary conditions.
When Jones bought the Fairmont Street building in 1976, deterioration had already begun because the previous landlord paid little attention to the property.
Two years later, having had enough skirmishes with the tenants, Jones sold the building to Norris Ash Properties. Soon after the sale, the building ran out of heating oil. The city stepped in with an emergency supply, but someone siphoned it out of the tanks. Tenants blamed Ash, who denied he did it. But they began picketing his home and his rental office . A rent strike followed, and Ash was forced to forfeit the property.
Jones bought back the building, in worse shape than ever. And the battle for this partially boarded-up, 28-unit building wore on -- with nearly $20,000 accumulating in a rent strike escrow account and nothing coming in to pay the $1,500 monthly note Jones was carrying on the property, not to mention utilities.
As a 1960s tactic, rent strikes proved outdated in the face of mass evictions by landlords. But Jones' tenants have been able to hold their ground, even though they had to endure the Inauguration Day freeze without heat.
The 1974 rent control law had left some tenants in the catbird seat -- paying as little as $100 a month for one-bedroom apartments.
But landlords are on the move again, riding a wave of gentrification, condominium conversion and a Yuppie market force few had foreseen. Lashing their sails to the rent decontrol bill, they are plotting to make huge profits as low-income neighborhoods become new Capitol Hills.
Jones, who is 64, says he wants to stay in the rental business to provide reliable tenants with a home, but he needs rental income to bring his building up to code. His tenants say they are not paying a cent until he gets rid of the rats and roaches and provides reliable maintenance.
By the time this situation de-escalates, they could all be gone.