That day, as he was coming up from the basement to the front foyer, Carr spotted a young man who had been a fixture at the building for months. Last summer, when a longtime tenant died, the woman’s son stayed in the unit without paying rent. Soon a flock of teenagers and young adults began showing up in the building, including the young man Carr now encountered. They came in and out at all hours, blasted music and frightened other tenants, according to Carr.
But there was little he could do because of the eviction moratorium put in place by D.C. leaders a year ago. The policy has kept thousands in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. It also has largely frozen landlords out of the eviction court. Carr felt he was losing control of his building, and his only recourse was to remind strangers they weren’t supposed to hang around the property — which is what he did when he saw the man Thursday in the foyer.
“They were always around the building, and this had been going on for so long I got used to it,” Carr said recently. “I wasn’t on alert as much as [I] probably should have been.”
Arms flew at Carr. The force sent him down the stairs toward the basement. Then the young man was on top of him, the landlord said, swinging and kicking. Carr broke free and sprinted through the back entrance to his car. According to video footage from the building’s camera, his alleged attacker came out the front door, returned with friends, smashed the front glass door and chased after Carr.
“It seems like they were running back to finish me off,” he said.
Attempts to reach the son of the former tenant were not successful.
Police have made one arrest — a juvenile — in the attack, according to Carr. But the single flash of violence has also dumped further fuel onto the ongoing debate over the D.C. eviction moratorium.
For months landlords have mounted public protests and legal challenges against the District’s policy, a pattern mirrored in federal courts across the country as property owners challenge the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own moratorium.
In the hours after Carr’s attack, the Small Multifamily Owners Association, an advocacy group of D.C. landlords, sent an email to all the members of the D.C. Council blaming Carr’s situation on the moratorium’s strictures: “You are responsible for his injuries," the email began before asking for an exception to the District’s eviction moratorium for tenants who pose a threat to the health and safety of their neighbors.
For Carr — still buzzing with the shock of the violence — the incident is inseparable from the District’s covid-19 response, pinning landlords between the city’s policy and the realities of their business.
Without the ability to evict tenants, "I don’t have any authority,” he said. “I would say it’s getting more and more out of control as tenants realize there are no consequences now.”
When the pandemic hit a year ago, the economic consequences left an estimated 30 to 40 million American renters teetering on the edge of eviction, according to an August report by the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. Eviction moratoriums — on both the state and federal level — were seen as necessary to keep tenants in their homes. According to a study released in January by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the moratoriums are estimated to have reduced coronavirus infections by 3.8 percent and related deaths by 11 percent.
But landlords and property owners have been loudly protesting the measures, arguing that their own financial responsibilities — mortgage payments, taxes, upkeep costs — had not gone away.
Legal challenges have been filed against the protections on behalf of landlords, including at least six cases in federal court. Federal judges in some cases have declared the CDC order unconstitutional; others have upheld it, pitching the situation into legal confusion. The federal government has indicated it will appeal decisions against the order. The protections remain in place, and the Biden administration is considering extending the order through July.
The reality, however, is that evictions have continued — according to researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, 278,376 evictions have been filed in 27 cities that the organization tracks — due to loopholes in CDC order and state protections. Orders tend to protect tenants from removal over failure to pay rent but not for other reasons, such as lease violations, safety concerns or nonrenewal of leases.
But one place where evictions have not continued is Washington. Unlike the CDC order, the District’s moratorium is a total ban on the removal of tenants. There are no exceptions for health or safety violations.
Housing advocates in D.C. are leery of carving out any exceptions. While sympathizing with Carr’s situation, they say that doing so would only clear a path for abuse.
“We’re opposed to any exception, but if there is going to be an exception, it should be narrowly enforced,” said Beth Mellen, head of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia’s housing law unit. “We’ve seen a lot of cases that are filed where landlords are saying there are health and safety risk issues that are actually more complicated.”
Carr now himself feels unsteady about his future as a D.C. landlord, especially because he said he has tried to play by the city’s rules and do what was best for his tenants.
He bought the Longfellow buildings in 2013 through the city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Assistance program, which aims to help longtime tenants in gentrifying areas remain in affordable housing. During the pandemic, Carr said he has let any tenant who can’t pay the rent stay.
“Even this tenant, the guy who is living in his mom’s apartment, if he was just not doing anything, I would probably let him stay there until the pandemic is over,” he said. “It’s just that he’s bringing this dangerous element into the place for everyone else.”
But the turmoil in the building is not just a problem for the owner. A longtime tenant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears for her safety, said other residents are suffering due to the squatters’ behavior.
“I have to tiptoe around my house. I’m afraid for my life,” she said. “I told Keith he is a very nice landlord, but I don’t want to stay here anymore. I want to move.”
Even Carr said he’s having trouble even thinking about returning to the property.
“At this point right now,” he said, “I just think I might sell all three.”