The District's annual list of landlords it plans to crack down on because of alleged building code violations is down to nine names this year, and the decline -- from 26 last year -- has touched off a round of finger-pointing among tenant groups, housing inspectors and prosecutors over whether the program is working, and who's to blame if it isn't.
Under the Major Violator Program, started three years ago, landlords on the list face stiff legal actions by the city, including jail sentences, because their buildings are considered a threat to tenant safety.
This year's Major Violators list, drawn up Nov. 1 by city housing inspectors and prosecutors, is not only much smaller than last year's, but also all nine of the target landlords were on it last year.
In interviews last week, spokesmen for three city tenant groups charged that there are more than nine landlords who ought to be on it and said the corporation counsel, the city's chief legal officer, is not aggressive enough in pursuing Major Violator landlords. Thus, they say, the Major Violator Program is not working.
Officials in the corporation counsel's office, in turn, said they have not received many landlord cases from the city's housing inspection office this past year. Thus, they say, the program may or may not be working.
Housing inspection officials, in the meantime, respond that there are fewer landlords on the Major Violators list this year because there have been fewer tenant complaints. And, they say, many landlords who were designated as Major Violators have improved their buildings and have been removed from the list. Thus, they say, the program is working.
"Of the 26 last year, only nine are still a problem," said Arnold Young, housing inspector for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "That shows that the program is working, that landlords who had been problems are shaping up, and other landlords are getting the message that the city means business."
But directors of the tenant groups say the tenants, not the city, forced many of the former Major Violator landlords into fixing up their buildings. They also criticize the city for not being aggressive enough in tracking down negligent landlords whose tenants do not complain.
"The city only acts when the tenants continue to agitate for prosecution," said Roger Turpin, who until this week was director of Washington Innercity Self Help (WISH), a tenant organizing group in the Adams Morgan area. "There are still a lot of landlords who are getting away with keeping their buildings in inhumane conditions. But if the residents don't kick up a fuss, then the city drags its feet.
"Every landlord on that list has an active tenant group in his or her building," he said. "Even when their landlord is designated a Major Violator, the tenants still have to agitate the corporation counsel into keeping those court cases moving or they'll just drop it."
Inez Smith Reid, the corporation counsel, said her office considers the prosecution of landlords a priority. Violation of housing codes in an apartment building is considered a criminal misdemeanor punishable by fines and/or a term in jail.
"We are eager to prosecute landlords, but we depend upon the housing department to refer landlords to us for prosecution," she said. "If they do not give us names, then we do not prosecute."
Reid said the city housing department referred only 38 new cases for prosecution in the last fiscal year, which ended Oct. 1. She said her office received no referrals for Major Violators in the last quarter of the year.
"We are doing the best we can, but if there is lack of referrals, then there is nothing we can do," she said.
However, all three tenant groups defended the city housing inspections office, under the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which refers landlord cases to the corporation counsel for prosecution.
"The inspector's office has been aggressive and responsive," said Jim Tamialis, director of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants' Union. "The weak link is the corporation counsel. Once a bad landlord has been identified, then the city should go after that landlord with everything they've got and make him an example to other landlords."
According to court records, six of the 26 landlords on last year's Major Violators list were convicted of criminal misdemeanors and fined more than $100 each, and three of those six received suspended jail sentences. Cases against 11 others were dropped either because city prosecutors believed they did not have a strong enough case or because they could not find the landlords to bring them to court. The remaining nine, who still have cases pending, are:
RLS Investments, for 1034 Euclid St. NW and 1014 Euclid St. NW; Jon Pangman, for 1447 Chapin St. NW; William Harris, for 1421 12th St. NW; Evelyn Horne, for 615 Irving St. NW; Fred Hollinshed, for 1766 Harvard St. NW; H&S Associates, for 1319 Park St. NW; PM Associates, for 1421 12th St. NW; Robert Harley, for 407 Mellon St. SE; and Harvey Stewart, for 4226 7th St. NW.
According to Young, bench warrants have been issued for the arrest of five of these landlords, but the court has been unable to serve them because the landlords cannot be found. The warrant for the arrest of a sixth was issued only this week. Harris and Horne have court dates set for Nov. 30 and Dec. 5, respectively, and RLS has a status hearing scheduled for next week.
None of the nine could be reached for comment. However, a report on the Major Violators list of this past year shows that it represents a spectrum of landlords in the city -- from wealthy investors to low-income D.C. residents who have scraped together enough to buy a building in their neighborhood.
Young said his office may add to the list as the year goes on.
"When it gets cold, I imagine the list will grow," he said. "Our most frequent code violation is lack of heat, and when it gets cold, the phones start ringing."