Though garbage reached the four-foot mark in one room, and heat was provided by an old gas stove that needed five kicks before it sparked, the building at 137 Forrester St. SW was considered suitable housing for a mother and her six children, officials from the city's Child and Family Services said.
The 14-unit building was condemned yesterday after firefighters, responding to a false alarm, found three families living in squalor, said Deputy Mayor Carolyn N. Graham.
The city will investigate the owners of the building, the nonprofit agency whose caseworker put a family there and the work done through Child and Family Services. By week's end, the now homeless families will be placed in permanent housing, Graham said.
The heating system hadn't worked since June, and feces and urine soaked piles of garbage in the 11 abandoned units, said a senior District housing inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I've been at a lot of bad buildings, but this was terrible. It was worse than Third World conditions," the inspector said. "I wouldn't place a cat in there."
Valerie Thomas, 33, who lived there with her six children, moved into the apartment in August, after another complex she was living in was condemned, she said.
Thomas said Maria Dyson, a caseworker whose employer is under contract to Child and Family Services, placed her in the apartment on Forrester Street and collected a $400 rent check from her each month.
"I needed a place to stay or they were going to take my children from me," Thomas said.
She said Dyson brought her to the apartment in August and grimaced at the wretched conditions.
"She was as surprised as I was when she came," Thomas said. "But she said it was temporary until I got my Section 8 [housing] certificate and they found a new place for me. . . . Even living like animals is better than being in the street."
That block of Forrester Street was a teeming open-air drug market through most of the 1990s. Most of the buildings have been condemned, boarded up and spray-painted.
Graham said Dyson's relationship with the real estate agent is under investigation. Dyson could not be reached yesterday for comment.
"That housing should not have been on the housing stock," Graham said.
What happened at 137 Forrester St. is a multilayered management problem, Graham said.
Dyson works for a nonprofit agency that specializes in helping women and children in housing peril. Graham refused to name the agency because of the investigation.
As a contract worker, Dyson does not have the authority to place anyone in housing, but it was proper for her to suggest a location and approve it for the family, said Karen Kushner, spokeswoman for Child and Family Services.
"Our role is to advise and assist them to get suitable housing," Kushner said. "Maria's role as a social worker is not to place them."
Kushner said Dyson noted the conditions surrounding the new home for Thomas's family but decided that because the bad conditions were elsewhere in the building, not near Thomas's apartment, the housing was acceptable.
She also said it was not unusual for Dyson to deliver the rent checks to the managing agency, A-1 Realty in Silver Spring.
"The situation reflects the shortage of low-income housing in D.C.," Kushner said.
Calls to the realty company were not returned yesterday. Land records show that the building is owned by Urban Investments Inc. and that no public housing funds go to the property, said officials from the D.C. Housing Authority.
The three families were all given temporary housing in a motel, and city workers began cleaning out the building yesterday morning, occasionally leaning out a broken window for gasps of fresh air.
The workers placed mattresses, dressers and garbage bags of possessions on the curb.
"Now it feels like we're being evicted," said one of the tenants, who wanted to be identified only as Wayne. He hobbled on crutches, his leg in a cast, to collect his television, which was handed to him in a garbage bag. "Nobody should be living like this."
CAPTION: Reporters interview Valerie Thomas, shown with son Gary, 2, in front of the trash-filled apartment building they were forced to leave. A social worker placed them there.