A D.C. Superior Court judge this week fined a North Carolina man who owns three Columbia Heights apartment buildings $5,000 a day and threatened to send him to jail because his tenants have had no heat or hot water since October.
As winter has gripped the city, residents of the buildings have been using their gas kitchen stoves 24 hours a day for heat, bathing in their kitchen sinks, and in some cases sleeping on living room couches because bedrooms are too cold to use.
On Monday Judge William S. Thompson fined Robert S. Farmer, a Greensboro, N.C., airport operator, and threatened him with a six-month jail term on contempt charges for ignoring two earlier court orders to correct the wintery conditions inside the 52 apartments at 1014, 1030 and 1034 Euclid St. NW. The fines will accumulate each day until heat and hot water are restored.
Thompson said his action is one of the stiffest penalties ever imposed on a city landlord.
Farmer, who said he bought the buildings 10 years ago, blamed the conditions at the apartments on rent control. "We can't get enough money to run them," he said. But he contended that the tenants, who pay monthly rents ranging from $129 to $189, "are not suffering because they all have gas stoves in their kitchens." He said an employe is working to correct the heat and water problems.
Yesterday the tenants, many of whom are Latin American immigrants and women with small children, were still without heat and hot water.
"It's so frustrating when you drag these cases through the courts and nothing happens," said Eric Rome, an Antioch law school student who is representing the tenants. The current case has been in the court for a year but tenants have filed suits for the last three years complaining about their living conditions, Rome said.
Pipes broke at 1034 Euclid on Sunday night, leaving tenants there with no water at all. When the water was turned on again yesterday afternoon it also poured through the ceilings into a vacant apartment on the first floor and there was a smell of escaping gas.
"There has been no evidence that Mr. Farmer has engaged and provided resources to any local representative to manage and maintain his property," Judge Thompson wrote in his court order. The judge also stated that Farmer had willfully attempted to frustrate the court proceedings by failing to appear in person and failing to get a lawyer to represent him.
Farmer's three two-story brick buildings lie in the heart of Columbia Heights, a rundown neighborhood that was undergoing restoration until high interest rates practically cut off the return of middle-class blacks and whites to the inner city neighborhood.
Black mildew has grown on two walls and windows of an apartment occupied by three Salvadorean brothers. At night men sit in the darkened front hallways of two of the buildings smoking marijuana, according to some tenants.
There are nearly 20 vacant units dotted throughout the buildings, and these empty apartments have become dumping grounds for trash, debris and feces.
Some residents, such as Diane Brown, 25, her roommate Debroah Graves, 27, and their two children, ages 5 and 6, have been sleeping in their living room since temperatures dipped to the zero mark at the beginning of this month.
The sparsely furnished living room in Brown's apartment, as in others, is adjacent to the kitchen. There the gas stove runs 24 hours a day providing heat and boiling water for washing dishes and taking baths.
They bathe themselves and their children in the kitchen sink because the bathroom is too cold, the women said. Half the kitchen ceiling fell this summer and has gone unrepaired.
"Paying rent you want to use all of your apartment not half of it,"said Brown, looking at the closed door to the bedroom and bath. The women pay $135 a month for the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of one of the two-story brick buildings.
"I feel very disgusted because I'm living like this. You can't even wash your hair or take a bath. You can't be comfortable because you have to keep on so many clothes," said Brown, who works as a clerk in a fashionable upper Northwest condominium.
Renee Blount, 21, lives in the adjacent building where water was cut off for four days because of broken pipes. Every evening she carries a large black plastic bucket next door to a friend's apartment. There she fills it, then returns home to wash the dishes, flush the bathroom toilet and bathe the children.
She and her two small sons, ages 21 months and five years, heat the front of the apartment with their kitchen stove and the bedroom is warmed by a small electric heater.
"The windows have ice on the inside in the morning," said Blount, who receives public assistance.
Adelaide Alexander moved into one of the buildings 30 years ago with her husband and daughter, when the front marble steps and the tile outside her apartmment gleamed, when boxwood trees flourished on the balcony that spans the three buildings and when repairs were made promptly.
"The owners treated us courteously then," she recalled seated near her living room couch where she sleeps now that her bedroom is too cold. "Everybody was nice. Now, we are treated like horses and cows."
She said her husband, who died five years ago, was the janitor for the buildings and kept them spotless. She carries on a portion of his tradition by sweeping the hallways of her building and its front daily before leaving for her job as a maid.
She and other long time tenants said the buildings started to decline about five years ago. "The buildings have gone down because he (Farmer) is not doing anything for them. There are no repairs, nothing like that," Alexander said. After she testified about the conditions in court last year she said Farmer told her "I don't care of the building burns down. Good bye and good luck."
Farmer denies that incident occurred.
Said Dorothy Griffin, 52, a hotel housekeeper who has lived in one of the apartments for 15 years, "We're not out to hurt him (Farmer) or take his property but to see that he gives us heat and hot water and that it is a decent place for us to live here."