It was bad enough when the toilets wouldn't flush because of low water pressure. Then came the moments of added aggravation when the hot water taps spouted only air. But when the air conditioning conked out more than a month ago, residents of the federally subsidized Sursum Corda housing complex in Northwest Washington decided they'd had enough.
This week, after suffering through a record-setting heat wave in apartments where temperatures hovered around 90 degrees, Sursum Corda tenants voted to go on strike and withhold their rent checks from the landlord.
"I went out and bought a fan I couldn't really afford. But that's the only way I could survive in here," said 63-year-old Catherine Dublin, a retired nurse who complains the heat is aggravating her chronic heart condition and forcing her out of her apartment to keep cool.
"I have to stay outside till 1:30 at night. And when I go back inside, my thermostat would be registering 90 degrees," she said.
Tenant leaders said that since Monday, when the rent strike was approved by tenants, about 30 of the complex's renters have signed on and that more of the estimated 1,000 residents there are expected to join the rent action as long as the air conditioning remains shut down.
"They're suffering," said tenant association President Alberta Munlyn. "It's never been off this long."
The sprawling complex, near First and M streets NW, made up of 199 town houses, was hailed as a sorely needed addition to the urban renewal area there when it was built in the late 1960s under sponsorship of a consortium of Catholic organizations.
The name of the complex -- Sursum Corda -- is a Latin phrase meaning "lift up your hearts."
But in recent years, Munlyn said, tenants have been plagued by maintenance problems that continue to go unresolved despite repeated pleas to management and to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes rents there under the federal Section 8 program.
Tenants complain that a succession of different companies designated to manage the property have failed to bring it up to par.
"It's about time that this whole problem is taken care of," said Harold Valentine of the Housing Counseling Service, a nonprofit organization, which has been advising Sursum Corda tenants on their maintenance woes. "I've had enough trying to work with management to make a little bit of difference here."
Valentine said rents would be placed in an escrow account until the strike is settled.
Owners of the property, a private partnership in Los Angeles, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the most recent company to take over management of the complex yesterday conceded that the air-conditioning plant has suffered major mechanical failures, and that problems with low water pressure continue to go unresolved.
"We are having difficulty at that property," said Carl Russ, Housing Resources Management regional manager, who estimated that air-conditioning repairs would take at least another week. "Right now we're at the mercy of contractors" performing the work, he said.
Russ said the company and city workers have been unable to determine why the water pressure at Sursum Corda is so low, or who is responsible for fixing it.
Margaret White, manager of the federal housing department's D.C. field office, said yesterday that problems at the complex have worsened over the years as more and more low-income tenants have moved in, cutting the profit margin for the California-based owners.
But she said HUD, which guarantees the mortgage on the property as well as rent subsidies, has not been pleased with management of the property, and forced the most recent change in April, when Housing Resources took over.
"The concerns of tenants are understandable and justifiable," said White, who nonetheless urged residents to reconsider the rent action. "When any property is allowed to get into the condition this one was, it doesn't get fixed overnight."
Tenants, though, were in no mood to hear about more delays. "Every year it's the same thing: 'We're going to fix it . . . . ' " said tenant Joann Fletcher.