Serious maintenance problems in the District's public housing projects are the result of years of neglect, lack of funds, shortages in staff, and what the city's housing director has cited as reports that some maintenance workers use drugs and alcohol on the job and lavish attention on tenants with whom they are "personally involved."
All 61 of the city's housing projects, which provide shelter to about 60,000 city residents, are in need of maintenance work, officials of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development acknowledge.
Tenants say the city often takes weeks or months to respond to reports of squalid or hazardous conditions, and sometimes does not respond at all.
In November, Madeline M. Petty, director of the housing department, said during a closed-door staff meeting that the agency could not fully account for $1 million worth of refrigerators and ranges purchased for public housing. Petty has called in the D.C. inspector general to conduct an audit.
"I want to know that someone is not getting rich from fencing the merchandise," Petty said at the meeting.
Petty also told her employes that she had received troubling reports that some maintenance workers used drugs and alcohol while on the job and had "fraternized" with tenants.
"We have a very serious problem with some of our property staff with alcohol and substance abuse histories," Petty said in prepared remarks, which have been obtained by The Washington Post.
"It is widely reported that on some properties, many of the maintenance staff drink or get high on the job . . . . There are instances of maintenance staff being personally involved with residents and showering those residents with extra maintenance services while other residents go lacking. And, some of these maintenance staff are spending work time in these women's units when they should be working."
In an interview last week, Petty declined to comment on her November address to employes, saying her remarks were made in a private setting.
Last year, 30 maintenance workers were disciplined or fired for offenses that included incompetence, falsification of documents, intoxication, inefficiency and misuse of government property, according to housing officials. Officials could not say whether any workers had been referred to alcohol or drug counseling programs.
Jo Fisher-Hall, acting administrator for the housing department's property management administration, said she does not believe that drug and alcohol abuse is a major problem among workers. She dismissed allegations that some workers provide better maintenance service to tenants with whom they have personal relationships as little more than "a perception of some tenants."
However, she and other housing officials acknowledged widespread maintenance problems in public housing. Fisher-Hall said the major problem stems from inadequate funding. "Our problems are going to need several hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them up to standard," she said. "We are going to have to prioritize."
Petty, who became housing director in 1984, inherited many of the current problems. In 1970 and again in 1980, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued audits warning of maintenance problems in D.C. public housing. In 1984, HUD called the public housing maintenance operation "inefficient, ineffective and uneconomical."
HUD noted that an analysis of the activities of 35 D.C. maintenance workers over a two-week period showed that 59.9 percent of the workers' total work hours were unaccounted for.
Housing officials note that tenants are responsible for some of the problems. Properties are vandalized, graffiti reappears on freshly painted walls, and trash is thrown in hallways, they say.
Residents are not required to make any repairs on their apartments, and some clearly expect and wait for the housing department to deal with their problems, no matter how small -- from fixing a broken door to furnishing screws and changing light bulbs. Each week, the housing department receives about 1,300 maintenance requests from tenants.
Whatever the reasons, the problems plaguing the city's public housing projects are deep-seated and widespread. Visits to a number of apartment complexes and houses throughout the city in recent weeks reveal what many residents describe as intolerable living conditions.
At a single-family house in Northwest that six months ago was cited by housing inspectors for 153 code violations, the tenants still must cover the kitchen floor with plywood to avoid falling through rotted boards when opening the refrigerator. More than 30 apartments at the Arthur Capper senior citizens complex in Southeast were without heat last month. All of the city's 3,178 units for the elderly need painting because the department never complied with its policy to paint them. Tenants at the Greenleaf complex in Southwest used steel wool to plug unplastered holes -- some left by plumbers -- to keep out rats.
Last month, Mamie Staton, a former tenant of the Montana Avenue public housing apartment building in Northeast, won a $500,000 verdict in a negligence suit she brought against the city. She slipped and fell on greasy trash in an unlighted hallway in 1983. The fall injured Staton's arms, wrists and a knee, and she required surgery. Staton's attorney said she had asked housing officials on numerous occasions to remove trash from the stairway.
"Even with the trial ongoing, not only were the lights out, but fixtures were missing," said Mark J. Brice, the attorney. "The jury was saying, 'Baloney, you can't make people live like that and not do something about it.' The verdict is a message to the City Council to clean it up."
City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, which oversees public housing, said that the maintenance division is understaffed and that the District should create a separate department solely responsible for public housing -- an idea that Petty and Mayor Marion Barry have under consideration.
Jarvis said that longstanding neglect has created a tremendous problem. However, she said she does not intend to recommend any major increase in the city's fiscal 1987 budget for public housing maintenance.
"Neglect makes maintenance more expensive, and dollars don't stretch as far," she said. "There are places that probably should be closed at this point."
The single-family, publicly assisted Northwest house where Delores E. Williams lives with her six children and two grandchildren illustrates the extent of the deterioration of some units.
For several years, a board has held up the sink in an upstairs bathroom. Water from leaky bathroom pipes rotted the floor in a corner of the dining room and left a gaping hole through which Williams can see the basement ceiling.
But Williams' main source of frustration has been what began as a leaky roof in 1979. Despite her calls for repairs, the roof was still leaking in 1981 when the rain-soaked kitchen and dining room ceilings began to fall.
"The city took pictures of all of this at least five times, it seemed like once a year, but said they couldn't fix the walls and ceilings until they fixed the roof," said Williams.
The roof was fixed in October 1984. But for 16 months, holes have remained in the kitchen and dining room ceilings, and the Williams family covers them with heavy plastic. For a while, Williams stopped complaining about the lack of repairs because the city said she owed several thousand dollars in back rent because one of her sons had been employed.
"I've been in this neighborhood for years and had no place to go, so I wouldn't complain as long as some of the rooms were in living condition," said Williams. "Then I got angry, got a lawyer and stopped paying rent in May."
The housing department has a grievance procedure by which tenants can seek rent abatements because of housing code violations, but some tenants say the program is not effective.
For the second time in three years, Eva George, who lives in a two-bedroom single-family house in Southeast, has requested hearings over maintenance problems. In 1983, a grievance hearing officer concluded that George was entitled to having half of her rent abated for 21 months because of 13 housing code violations that were hazardous to George's "life, health and safety." Today a number of those violations remain.
For instance, George, who must take medication, fills empty soda bottles with water and stacks them in her pantry because she never knows when her faucet will dispense only hot water or no water at all. The faulty refrigerator seal that she complained about three years ago still allows roaches to enter the refrigerator. Upstairs in the bathroom, there is a space where a radiator once stood.
"They took the radiator out on a Friday in 1980 and were going to bring a new one on [the following] Monday," said George. "Before I first went to court, the roof in my bedroom leaked for seven years. I showed a plasterer all the cracks in the unit, and he told me not to worry about it until they start leaking."
Marian Rice, a resident of the Greenleaf Gardens complex in Southwest, said it took the city 2 1/2 years to repair the hole in her bathroom ceiling and that her apartment has been plagued with rats. She recalled her panic when a rat jumped into the crib with her son.
"I was afraid if I hit the rat it would jump on my baby," said Rice. "I grabbed the baby. I told the office about it, and the manager told me to get a vicious cat because the city is full of rats."
Mary E. Baker, a 64-year-old amputee who lives in the Sibley Plaza public housing complex in Northwest Washington, spent some of the coldest days of the winter in bed because her apartment had no heat. Despite her repeated reports of problems, her yellowed apartment ceiling has not been painted in about 12 years, she frequently has no hot water, and she worries about the next time the kitchen sink will overflow.
"One night I heard water just a running," said Baker, who can see the headquarters of the housing department from her living room window on North Capitol Street. "I jumped up, got in my wheelchair and cut the light on to find water all over the floor. That was a Saturday night, and it took me until Sunday morning to mop it up . . . . All I can say is hands up when it comes to maintenance. They [housing officials] look like they get mad when you call and tell them about it."
At a recent City Council budget hearing, Petty acknowledged that funding and staffing problems have contributed to the conditions at some properties.
"We have had difficulty attracting quality professional and technical staff to work in public housing," Petty testified.
The department's budget this year includes a total of $21 million in local and federal funds for maintenance. The department has a total authorized strength of 786 workers, but 290 positions remained vacant for some time before they were filled last year.
Petty said that in some cases the department could not fill positions because of inadequate funding and in other cases the agency had trouble finding qualified plumbers, electricians and plasterers.
Petty said that she places greatest emphasis on production, management improvements and staff development. She instituted a program by which tenants are hired as maintenance workers where they live, and she requested $448,000 in additional District funds to expand the program.
*She also has created a hot line for residents to report illegal activities.
Some residents said the only way to get some results is to gain the attention of a city official.
Barry made an unannounced visit to the Greenleaf project recently, and shortly thereafter, tenants say, pests were exterminated, rat traps were placed in some apartments, and a new trash receptacle was put in place. However, tenants say that the problems are still tremendous and that many are heating their apartments with their kitchen stoves.
At the Valley Green housing complex in Southeast, Doris Murdock lives directly below Barbara McCrae's apartment, where the kitchen sink has leaked for two months and water creeps out around the bathroom tub and commode. As a result, the shelves in one of Murdock's kitchen cabinets collapsed, and she fears the ceiling in her recently renovated bathroom will fall. Both women said they reported the problems.
"When I call about the bathroom, they said they [housing officials] don't have any corking in stock or [we must] wait until the contractor can come back," said McCrae. "Every time I call on the kitchen sink, they never have anything in stock.
"I just put pots under there, and sometimes they overflow -- and she gets it downstairs.