More than one-quarter of the District's public housing units are in such advanced states of decay that it will cost as much as $60 million to repair them, according to the city's housing director.
Many of the 3,086 apartments, which compromise the 10 worst housing projects in the city, lack hot water and heat in the winter, as well as working stoves, refrigerators, toilets and bathtubs, according to a confidential city report submitted to Mayor Marion Barry three months ago.
Roofs leak, flies and dust enter unscreened windows and doors, and the electricity fails frequently because of old wiring, the report found.
"These are now places of death, destruction and drugs," said city housing director Robert L. Moore, who submitted the report to Barry.
Largely responsible for the wretched condition of the projects is the city's record over the last five years of bureaucratic mismanagement and delays which, among other things, resulted, in March, in a four-year backlog of 17,000 tenant requests for repairs, according to city officials and the report.
That same management record has cost the city badly needed increases in federal public housing subsidies which could help defray some of the repair costs. Because the city violated federal regulations, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has refused for three years to increase its $16 million annual subsidy of the city's public housing, Moore said.
In the one case where the city was able to win $7 million to upgrade the James Creek complex, the second worst in the city, it has taken city housing officials almost a year to submit the necessary paperwork so that HUD could release the funds, said Jerome Walker, head of the city's public housing division.
As it stands now, the city has only $6 million it can spend on upgrading the ten worst public housing projects, according to Moore.
The City's 52 public housing projects house 45,000-50,000 of the city's poorest residents in less than 11,300 units. Ten thousand tenants, most of them welfare mothers, each with several small children, live in the ten worst.
Seven of the ten are east of the Anacostia River within a few blocks of East Capitol Street between Minnesota and Eastern aveues. They are Lincoln Heights, the worst, according to the report, Deanwood, Richardson, East Capitol, Stoddert Terrace, Benning Terrace and Fort Dupont.
James Creek, the second worst, and its neighbor, Greenleaf Gardens, are just off M Street SW. The tenth property, Valley Green, is in the lower Anacostia.
The report and city officials place the blame for the deterioriation on tenants who fail to maintain their apartments or willfully destroy the buildings, and also on poor administration under the previous city government headed by former Mayor Walter E. Washington.
Moore said that all operating expenses for the projects come from rent payments, which amount to $9 million annually, and the $16 million federal subsidy.
He said that when Barry's administration took over, they found that the city had failed to collect $1.5 million in overdue tenant rent. His department, over the last eight months, has reduced that to about $850,000 he said.
In addition, Moore said, the Washington administration overspent its operating budget-- thereby violating HUD rules-- by 12.5 million, while failing to spend $4.5 million allocated for modernization and upkeep of the public housing units.
A lot of things didn't get done," Moore said. "Heating plants didn't get done. They would put in a new boiler but no new lines, or new lines and no new boiler."
Moore said that officials in the previojs administration apparently started delaying needed maintenance in 1974, the first year they overspent their operating budget and began running afoul of federal regulations. The city, Moore said, is currently negotiating with federal officials to pay off the deficit and win increases in the federal operating subsidy.
Former housing director Lorenzo Jacobs and former public housing director Monteria Ivey confirmed that their departments had left a deficit. But Ivey said he though the deficit was closer to $3 million. Jacobs said he could not remember the amount.
In the meantime, Moore said, the city has cut the backlog of requests for repairs from 17,000 to 9,000 and has begun making some of the other needed repairs. Moore said that workmen have almost completed installation of a new heating system at Lincoln Heights while other crews have begun putting in a new heating system at East Capitol.
In addition, maintenance crews are painting over graffiti-defaced hallways and youths hired in the Mayor's summer jobs program are repairing some screen doors and windows.
But because the city has only $6 million to spend on such repairs, Moore said that funds will soon be exhausted.
For tenants, who pay one-quarter of their monthly income to live in public housing, the situation is intolerable.
"If they would care about this place then I could care," said one young James Creek resident who said she has asked repeatedly for replacement of a broken front window, screens for her children's room and new locks.
"If they got people to come around and fix up you would keep it up, but now I don't care and I just let it go down . . . It looks right nasty doesn't it?" she said surveying the unpainted walls. "I used to have this place looking right nice then I just gave up."
At Benning Terrace, Jean Colbert, 47, said her hall closet door has been off the hinges for a year, despite her longstanding repair request.
A mile away at Lincoln Heights, Mattie White, 65, has been walking four blocks to the grocery store every morning since June to buy milk for her two grandchildren because her refrigerator has been broken for two months.
"I wouldn't take the one they fixed for me," she said. "It was rusty and the [repair] man told me it wouldn't get as cold as this [broken] one does."
One resident of the James Creek project said that three weeks ago, workmen replaced a window pane in her bathroom. She had requested the repair two years ago when it was broken by a snowball thrown by children in the project.