Kenneth A. Brown is a troublemaker and proud of it.
The 61-year-old retiree has been agitating for months for city officials to do something about the "current slum-like state" of Regency House, the senior citizen building in Northwest Washington where he lives.
Brown has been writing letters, staging protests and recruiting other tenants to join his crusade. His efforts finally appear to be getting the city's attention.
R. Benjamin Johnson, acting director of the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing, said he plans to meet next week with Brown and other residents of Regency House, which is in the 5900 block of Connecticut Avenue NW.
This will be the latest in a series of meetings that Brown has had with city housing officials about conditions in the building, which was recently plastered and painted.
Brown said the building still needs work. "We have an infestation of roaches, leaky windows, hazardous wiring," he said.
Johnson said yesterday that his department plans to replace the windows and address other problems at Regency House. But these plans can't be carried out immediately, he said, because he has limited funds for maintenance.
What's more, Johnson said, Regency House is in "pretty good shape" compared with other city buildings. Counters Brown: "I hate to think what they must be like."
Residents at the 160-unit Regency House are divided over Brown and his approach to the problems.
"He acts like a fanatic, ringing doorbells and wanting petitions signed," said Margaret Champion, 68, president of the Resident Council, the building's official governing body. "Regency House has never had such contrariness."
Champion said Brown should be working with her group to bring about improvements in the building, rather than leading a separate fight.
According to Brown, Champion's group has been unwilling to press for the changes that are needed, leaving him no choice but to form the Seniors Action Group and confront city officials himself.
Brown says he learned from his mother that it is possible to challenge authority and win.
In the early 1950s, when he was an aspiring young jazz musician, Brown said, he was offered an opportunity to join the U.S. Army Band.
"I signed up for the Army," Brown said. "This was a chance for me to stay here rather than go to Korea. But as soon as I got into the Army, they forgot about my being in the band and they sent me to infantry training."
Brown's mother went into action.
"She lived in the Pentagon until she got them to honor their commitment," he said. "She called everybody she knew and everybody she could find out about."
As a result of her efforts, Brown said, his orders were changed. He played clarinet in the Army band based here.
Born in Memphis in 1929, Brown was the fifth of nine children. His father was a railroad worker; his mother did social work.
After finishing high school in Memphis, Brown moved to Washington. "At that time, it was understood that nobody would stay in Memphis, because there were no jobs. My sister was here in Washington, and everybody in my family eventually came here and stayed with her a few months before moving to another city. I happened to stay in Washington."
After finishing his Army hitch, Brown enrolled at Howard University on the G.I. Bill. To support himself, he worked in restaurants as a dishwasher and in liquor stores as a deliveryman.
Brown received his bachelor's degree in 1963. He had taken a variety of courses at Howard so that he would be prepared to open a tutoring business. He worked with high school and college students, tutoring them in math, science and other subjects.
At one time, Brown organized a network of tutoring centers that employed professionals like himself to work with young people. "But I am not a businessman," Brown said, and the enterprise failed.
In 1971, Brown retired on disability resulting from high blood pressure. He moved into Regency House in 1982. He said he has never married, but he does have a close relationship with his brothers and sisters. And he said he loves to travel.
"I save my money and travel on the cheap . . . with a pack on my back," Brown said.
His most recent no-frills trip took him to Eastern Europe. "I was there just before the breakthrough," Brown said. "I talked to people who thought they would never see a change in their lifetime."
When friends from Czechoslovakia wrote to say they planned to visit him in Washington, Brown began to worry about conditions at Regency House.
"I wrote in a letter to the director of the housing department that I had friends coming who had lived under communism for 50 years, and I hated to have them see I lived in a place worse than where they had lived," Brown said.
Brown said he intends to keep on writing letters until "walking into Regency House is like walking into any other building on Connecticut Avenue, because that is the way it is supposed to be."