D.C. housing inspector Larry Carr noted the light fixtures without covers, electrical sockets that didn't work and holes in the floor. Then he saw the peeling paint on the walls and ceilings.
He turned to the 5 1/2-year-old boy, Luiz Sanchez, sitting on a bed nearby, eating Doritos and watching cartoons.
"Do you ever put the paint in your mouth?" Carr asked, mouthing the words slowly so the boy would understand.
"No," Luiz said curtly, turning back to the television.
Soon, Carr was on the phone to his office, ordering an inspection of all the units in the apartment building at 2724 11th St. NW. In addition to the peeling paint -- lead-based and toxic in most older buildings -- Carr found holes in the floor that were signs of a rat infestation, and plenty of other problems.
The city has a lot of such substandard housing, where low-income couples such as Luiz's parents, Maria A. Sanchez and Juan P. Reyes, live. Housing advocates now have a new tool to address the problem: a partnership between the city's agency that oversees code enforcement and the Washington Interfaith Network, a group of activist congregations, to improve that housing.
For WIN, which finds problems and reports them to the agency, it's a way to bring some relief to parishioners of its four member churches in or near the heavily Latino neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. And the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs hopes the arrangement will help it extend its reach in a community packed with apartment buildings.
No one keeps an exact number, officials say, but low-income housing advocates contend that during a time of rising home prices and condominium development, thousands of residents in all parts of the city live in homes and apartments that are barely habitable.
"Tenants have rat and cockroach infestations, plaster that falls down, lead-based paint and asbestos," said Christy Hogan, director of housing and community action for the Central American Resource Center. "It's really poor living conditions."
Patrick Canavan, DCRA's director, acknowledges the problem and has put his employees on notice that the agency must do a better job of ensuring that people are not living in squalor. He said that the agency is hindered by language barriers and that lax inspectors have relied too heavily on tips from residents to ferret out problems. The WIN partnership gives him a structure to find problems without relying on anonymous tips.
Canavan has pledged to hire more bilingual inspectors, step up inspections, and fine and prosecute landlords who consistently disregard the law. A city repair fund, previously used only for emergencies, will be tapped when landlords refuse to comply. It will finance the repairs, for which DCRA will then bill the owners -- at prices up to three times the cost as a penalty. A lien could be placed on the property of those who don't pay.
About $9 million is in the fund, Canavan said. About 10 multi-family buildings will be targeted in the coming year for repair and renovation, officials said.
Residents of 3145 Mount Pleasant Rd. NW hope they are first on the list and have asked for an inspection. Residents there have come to expect that if something breaks, it is likely to stay that way. Plaster falls, paint peels, and toilets and tubs leak. The elevator has not worked in a year. Jose Tureio, studying to become a U.S. citizen, has been a tenant for 13 years. He is president of a tenant association that tried unsuccessfully to cobble together resources to buy the building.
Tureio and several of his neighbors, most of them Latino, have rejected offers of $10,000 to leave. "We're close to our work," said Tureio, 37, an immigrant from El Salvador who cooks at a restaurant in Georgetown. "We're close to the schools, and we have public transportation. We don't want to leave."
That's also Rachel Massey's attitude. She lives at 1352 Longfellow St. NW in Brightwood, where property values have risen swiftly.
Rats come and go, and nothing gets fixed, she said. She showed a letter that she and other tenants received from the property manager citing the high cost of maintenance, saying that no repairs are planned and that the best option was for residents to accept the owner's offer of $5,000 to leave.
"We cannot keep the hot water going and the heat for next winter will be non-existent," the letter said. "You cannot live there without hot water and next winter without heat. The building is falling apart and needs to be shut down and razed."
But for Massey, who pays $393 a month plus electricity, the prospect of looking for a new place in the current market is scary.
"If they would raise the rent, we would pay more," she said. "We want to stay."
Landlords who allow their property to deteriorate badly "are not doing a thing for the perception of responsible rental housing providers," said W. Shaun Pharr, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. "Our members maintain their properties." He said the group welcomed the latest DCRA effort.
Canavan said the goal is to show landlords that compliance is not voluntary. So he appointed Carr, a 30-year city employee, to head the city's 51 housing code inspectors. Most are going through retraining to do their jobs the way Carr wants them done -- "360 degrees, up and down," always starting at the ceiling.
The agreement with WIN has paid dividends for Marcos Villa, who organizes his neighbors at 2801 15th St. NW, where 365 violations were found during an inspection in March. "The elevator is working," he said, "and they have already painted the apartment."