The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Every winter, D.C. apartment tenants live with insufficient heat. Spotty enforcement leaves residents to fend for themselves.

Kandice James, 38, and her daughters, Zariah, 2, and Zaiyd, 10, have been without heat in their apartment in Southeast Washington since November 2021, despite multiple reports to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The cold has aggravated the girls’ asthma and kept James up many nights. The family has turned to space heaters to keep the girls’ room warm enough for them to sleep. (Marissa J. Lang/TWP)
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Before the sun’s rays crept over the horizon Thursday, Kandice James opened her eyes, steeled herself and then kicked off the two comforters she has slept under all winter. She was ready to do what she has done nearly every morning since November: Shuffle space heaters from one room to the next, trying to warm enough of her two-bedroom apartment so her kids can get ready for school.

The apartment where James lives in Southeast Washington has been without functioning heat for more than four months. She’s spent all winter trying to get relief — calls to the Banneker Place Apartments’ management company, complaints to the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA); she even filed a civil suit in D.C. Superior Court.

But as February dragged on, she said, the only hope she had left was this: Spring is coming.

“It feels so good in here today,” she said Thursday, just after 5 a.m.

A neon-orange extension cord beneath her feet ran power to the space heater in the bedroom where her sleeping daughters, 10 and 2, snuggled together under a blanket.

The temperature outside was 49 degrees.

“I’m just so used to the cold, I guess,” she said. “This seems warm to me.”

James, 38, is one of countless Washingtonians who have weathered a frigid winter without working or adequate heat in their homes — a persistent issue that advocates and D.C. officials say is difficult to quantify or address despite the dangers it presents.

D.C. residents who have struggled to keep their homes warm this winter said seeking help through official channels often feels fruitless and frustrating. Several said they have resorted to sealing off windows with plastic, running space heaters day and night or holing up with children and pets in one bedroom. Still, others have turned to boiling pots of water or leaving stoves burning. One resident said she resorted to taking “bird baths” using water boiled in a stock pot to clean and warm her body.

News that a January apartment fire in New York City that killed 17 people, including eight children, was likely sparked by a faulty electrical heater rattled D.C. residents who recognized their own struggles in the circumstances of the Bronx apartment dwellers who had suffered in the blaze.

“I bought some fire insurance after I heard about that because I know there are people in this building just like that — running two space heaters and their stove to keep their apartments warm,” said Cornelia Hill, 59, the tenant association president at Woodberry Village in Southeast D.C., where residents say inconsistent and inadequate heat, among other problems, has plagued them for months.

DCRA, the agency charged with enforcing the District’s regulations for temperature in dwellings, said it was not immediately able to provide a count of how many heat-related complaints the District receives annually.

D.C. fire department officials said they do not track how many fires are sparked by portable heating devices during the cold-weather season. While Fire Marshal and Deputy Fire Chief Mitchell Kannry said heat-related fires are “not the majority,” he warned space heaters and ovens can be hazards.

“Whenever the weather gets colder, we see a rise in the number of structure fires,” Kannry said. “Supplemental heating devices and heating systems can be a source for a fire. Space heaters that are too close to combustibles, like a bed or a couch — you want three feet between those and the devices — or space heaters plugged into a power strip or an extension cord. That’s where we see a lot of problems. Sometimes residents use their ovens to heat their houses, and that’s something we’re really concerned about because carbon monoxide poisoning can be deadly.”

D.C. law states that between Oct. 1 and May 1, indoor temperatures in homes are required to be no less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit and property owners must provide a central “non-portable” heat source to tenants.

“Space heaters are generally not permitted as a primary heating source,” a DCRA spokesman wrote in an email. When responding to a building without heat, the agency will allow supplemental heat sources to be used to heat residences on a temporary basis “depending on weather conditions” if the main heat source is out, the spokesman said.

DCRA treats heat complaints as emergency maintenance issues, officials said, and contacts the property owner “immediately” to advise them of the issue and schedule an inspection. If “a proper heat source” is not found, the spokesman said, the property will be deemed uninhabitable and tenants may be relocated through the Office of the Tenant Advocate.

DCRA declined to comment on specific cases, but tenant advocates and residents in apartment buildings throughout the District that primarily house low-income residents of color said the agency has been slow to respond to heat-related complaints and that fines levied against property owners did little to fix the problem.

James, a single mother who juggles two jobs while caring for her two kids, said trying to get someone to help restore her apartment’s heat has felt like another job. She has meticulously documented the indoor temperature with a point-and-shoot thermometer and her phone camera — capturing temperatures in the 50s throughout the apartment. Last month, she walked a DCRA investigator through her unit. The agency ordered that the heating system be replaced within seven days. The deadline came and went.

When she called building maintenance for help as the temperature plummeted during a snowstorm, James said, she was told to leave her oven on and boil pots of water.

The cloud of steam got trapped in the kitchen. Her daughters’ room still felt like an ice box.

“There’s no sense of urgency, none,” said James, who works as an information technology contractor and supermarket manager. “[The maintenance] guys all go home to a warm house every night, but they are literally telling me to run cords to my bedroom so the sockets don’t get extra hot or they’ll melt just so I can have heat for my kids.”

Lesley T. Kowalski, the director of corporate services for CIH Properties, Inc., which manages Banneker Place Apartments, wrote in an email Thursday that “it is inaccurate to state that heat” to James’s building “has been insufficient or inadequate throughout the winter.” The building, she added, has two boilers, one of which “recently” malfunctioned. Kowalski said a plumber was sent to the building Thursday morning to repair the malfunctioning boiler.

At Woodberry Village, after years of inconsistent heat, residents had been assured that the temperature control systems would be updated in 2021 during a large-scale renovation that cost millions of dollars. But those who moved back into revamped units said familiar problems emerged, including no heat.

Nancy Smith, 50, said the heat in her renovated unit has gone out twice since December for several days at a time during cold snaps. Management gave her two space heaters, Smith said, but running them tripped the breaker, shutting down half the electricity in her apartment. She ended up keeping her oven on for days.

“Right now I’m just hoping the heat holds up until the weather gets warm again,” she said.

A spokesperson for Capital Realty Group, which manages the Woodberry rehabilitation project, declined to comment Friday evening.

Several Woodberry Village residents said they filed complaints with DCRA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees voucher programs for a number of residents on fixed incomes.

Tenant advocates said inconsistent heat is a challenge for code enforcement officers, who may arrive to inspect a building after the heat has been restored and not find any problems.

Last month, the D.C. attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit against the owner of Hawaii-Webster Apartments in Northeast Washington for allegedly using harassment and poor conditions to push longtime residents out in order to redevelop the property and charge market-rate rents.

Among the problems, some residents said, is they spent weeks without heat.

Cynthia Williams, 77, said she ran a space heater into her bedroom and then barely left its side for most of November and December.

Williams, who suffers from arthritis and sciatica, said her body pains worsened as the temperature in her unit dropped.

“It was miserable,” said Williams, who noted her heat returned in January. “When I cooked it got warm for a little while, but I was not going to keep my stove on — no, no, no,” she said, noting the risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

In its lawsuit, D.C. wrote that 17 units across nine buildings in the complex lacked heat from mid-November through mid-December. Tenants who rely on space heaters to stay warm have also dealt with increased electrical bills not covered by the property owner, the lawsuit states.

The owner of the Hawaii-Webster Apartments, Mark Mlakar of M Squared Real Estate LLC, has twice been cited by DCRA for failing to provide adequate heat to tenants, according to court documents. Mlakar has not responded to a request for comment.

The D.C. attorney general’s office is seeking a receiver in the Hawaii-Webster Apartments case — a third-party appointed by and answerable to the court who oversees repairs needed to bring the building back up to code.

Another lawsuit alleging neglect and hazardous living conditions underway at Marbury Plaza has documented a lack of air conditioning in the summer, but it was filed before inspectors could see what happens there in the winter. Residents of the Southeast Washington complex said they spent about a week without heat and several without hot water in their units during the coldest months of the year.

Managers for Marbury Plaza declined to comment.

As spring approaches, organizers caution, cold-weather problems will fall further down the priority list.

For James, though, springlike weather also means allowing her daughters to eat oatmeal together in a room that earlier this week was too cold to sit in rather than grab-and-go food in the car.

“I’ll take it,” she said, then turned to fold up a fleece blanket draped over her desk chair.

This story has been updated.