More than 100 residents of a Columbia Heights apartment building were evicted early yesterday morning by District officials who called the building "an unsafe and dangerous environment."
Some tenants, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, have lost access to savings they had deposited with a financial investment firm that closed its doors last week.
"It feels like we're being abused," said Jose Alachan, who lived in the building with his mother. Alachan said his mother has $3,000 deposited with the closed firm, Latin Investment Corp. "Someone is taking advantage of our money."
Officials decided to close the 25-unit building at 1419 Columbia Rd. NW after fire inspectors found no working fire alarms or smoke detectors Thursday. Several residents were found to be using kerosene heaters or electric space heaters connected to defective outlets.
Those violations were among 640 found at the building in October, including an inoperable boiler and sewage backups. A reinspection by housing officials in November found that none of the violations had been corrected.
One tenant who did not want to give his name said "nothing has been repaired. The bathtub doesn't work. The plumbing doesn't work."
The man, speaking through an interpreter, said his family bathed in a basin and poured the water out a window because the drains were backed up.
"The building is just not a safe place to live," said Janet McCormick, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "What we are trying to do is protect the tenants."
City housing officials, after ousting the residents without notice about 5:30 a.m., moved them to the Phillis Wheatley Recreation Center at 1200 Morse St. NE, where they told the tenants they could stay through the weekend. On Monday, city officials said, the tenants will start being moved to permanent housing. The city will help with moving expenses, officials said.
The Columbia Heights property has a long history of problems. As far back as 1981, officials said, the city provided heating oil to the apartments because the owner failed to correct a housing code violation.
After inspections this fall, officials said, 14 individuals or corporations listed in city records as owners were served notices of housing code violations, but many of those served disavowed ownership of the property.
Some activists complained that the city had taken too long to force owners to make improvements at the building, but officials said those efforts were hampered by confusion regarding ownership. The property has been in bankruptcy since 1983. "There is some confusion about exactly who the owners are," McCormick said.
As residents and city contract employees moved belongings into moving vans or personal vehicles, many tenants complained about the condition of the four-story building.
Several said they had been paying rent for as long as 18 months to Jesus Sanchez Canete, who told them he was collecting the money to help the tenants buy the building.
Canete could not be reached for comment yesterday. He has said he is collecting money at apartment buildings at 1419, 1460 and 1464 Columbia Rd. NW and 3121 Mount Pleasant St. NW in an effort to organize Hispanic tenants.
Canete has described his collections as a rent strike, with tenants paying monthly rents of up to $500 to him instead of a court-appointed trustee for the four properties, all of which are in bankruptcy.
But in July, The Washington Post reported that some of the money collected had been spent on political contributions, a scholarship fund and the salaries of at least seven people.
A sign on the front of the building at 1419 Columbia Rd. NW said the apartments were to be converted to condominiums and listed the name and telephone number of Habitat Real Estate. A broker there said the company has not dealt with the property since it went into bankruptcy almost seven years ago.
Some tenants complained about the timing of the evictions, both in the predawn ousting and in the upheaval coming before Christmas.
A Consumer and Regulatory Affairs official said part of the reason for the early start and no specific prior notice was that officials feared Canete would urge tenants to barricade themselves in the building.