At the end of a row of abandoned homes in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, it’s 7:30 a.m., and Chamika McLaughlin climbs out of bed. She dreads this time of day. It’s when she has to make a choice between two terrible options.
Does she stay cold? Or does she put her life at risk?
McLaughlin pulls on a blue hat, wraps a black sweater around her slight frame and pads into the kitchen. Hands tucked in her armpits, she shivers in the early-morning chill. School is canceled today, and her 12-year-old son, sleeping in one of the apartment’s two bedrooms, will soon awake. She has to get the house warmer. So, as she’s done countless times over two heatless winters in this apartment, she reaches for the oven dial.
McLaughlin, 30, knows heating her home this way could start a fire — oven blazes kill people every year. But she feels she didn’t have a choice. She’s marooned with defective radiators in one of the worst blizzards to hit the District in years. McLaughlin turns the oven to 400 degrees, pulls down its door and watches the coils inside glow red.
“I just open it up and let it heat up the living room,” says McLaughlin, who’s bought space heaters for the bedrooms.
Interviews, records and official estimates suggest there are hundreds of people — if not many more — living without heat in the Washington region as a historic storm lashes the area. And like McLaughlin, a school-bus attendant, they’re enduring the gusting winds and dropping temperature by using ovens as heaters, setting up space heaters and staying in bed all day.
“Trapped,” said Tyrone Wise as he stood before his gaping oven door as it pumped heat into a chilly Southeast Washington apartment he shares with his four small children. Public transportation has stalled. He’s stuck in an apartment he calls heatless. “We trapped here,” he said.
In a city of parallel societies, where elite plot over power and the vulnerable struggle with basic needs, this portrait of living without heat in winter has become a more common reality for the region’s impoverished, experts say. As housing prices soar and the quality of housing that low-income residents can afford deteriorates, being poor often means being cold, particularly in the city.
“There are significant number of people who are affected by this,” said Sandra Mattavous-Frye, director of the District’s Office of People’s Counsel, which serves as an advocate for utilities consumers. “Particularly low income consumers. . . . As the economic situation for low income people gets worse, this problem gets worse, too.”
Living in poverty means constantly balancing competing necessities. Every month, rent is due. Then there are food cost and transportation expenses. The last item on that list is usually paying utilities bills, Mattavous-Frye said.
In the District, utility companies can’t turn off the heat if weather forecasts predict that the temperature will drop below 32 degrees in the following 24 hours. In Maryland and Virginia, there is no moratorium on cutting off power, but advocates say power companies are normally hesitant to cut off power in the winter. This often results in a backlog of unpaid utility bills come spring, Mattavous-Frye said. And unless those debts are at least partly paid, she said, the power won’t flicker back on when winter rolls around again.
Between 2010 and 2014, statistics show, the percentage of low-income Pepco customers whose power was cut off in the District rose from .07 percent to 2.4 percent. In 2010, only 135 electric customers lost their power. But in 2014, 323 did.
One of those people got in touch with the Office of People’s Counsel on Wednesday, agency spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said. A senior citizen, medical expenses had laid her low and without enough money to pay her electric bill. She’s now $1,300 behind and can’t get her heat turned on. Another elderly woman, McCoy said, owes nearly $7,500 in electric bills and is afraid to ask for government assistance because she thinks officials will take away her three grandchildren if they learn she doesn’t have heat in winter.
Other poor tenants wind up heatless in winter because they live in substandard housing. “Many low-income consumers live in apartments built more than 50 years ago, so not only are they old and not properly insulated, but they have malfunctioning [heating] units that are primarily the responsibility of the landlord,” Mattavous-Frye said.
Five housing lawyers familiar with affordable housing in the District and suburbs said that it is a chronic problem. “These aren’t isolated events,” said Bradford Voegeli, a lawyer with the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “It’s more of a systemic problem. There are many housing units across D.C. that aren’t being maintained properly and heating isn’t being properly maintained.”
Many low-income residents are behind on rent, so they are hesitant to bring concerns to their landlords out of fear of eviction. “People are willing to live through all types of terrible conditions for fear of losing their housing altogether,” said Rachel Rintelmann, a housing law lawyer with Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “Getting good data on this would be virtually impossible.”
The apartments of Cascade Park, plopped amid a warren of low-slung houses and boarded-up townhouses in Southeast Washington, has become the latest flash point in a long-running clash between low-income tenants who say they are not warm enough and landlords who say they are saddled with old heating units and failing boilers.
Here, more than a dozen residents, including McLaughlin, have complained in the past year that they don’t have sufficient heat — or so little they’re forced to use ovens. At least three tenants filed lawsuits during that time against Cascade or its parent company, Novo Development Corporation, alleging “inadequate heating.” One woman said the chilliness permeated “all rooms.”
The suits, which the tenants filed pro se, were dismissed because either the residents moved out of Cascade or for want of prosecution.
Brett Summers, Novo Properties founding partner, said managers have worked on the heating problems for months. “We’re aware we have some circulation issues,” he said. “These buildings were built back in the 1940s.” Ten apartment units in a complex with more than 130 units have “partial, no-heat,” he said, and they have been equipped with space heaters. He said McLaughlin didn’t get one because “there was a belief the issue had been resolved,” and he has now provided her with an electric space heater.
“A lot of times, it’s the definition of what is no heat,” he said. By city law, Cascade has to maintain the heat at at least 68 degrees during the day. “And residents, they want 80,” Summers said. “. . . Unless they have the exact details, I’m not aware of anyone who doesn’t have heat.”
Christina Osborne, 28, says she was one. She moved into a Cascade apartment last year with her two children after spending five months at the District’s homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital. “I was heatless and hopeless,” she said. “I was so stressed out and so depressed, I was referred to mental health [services] while I was living there.”
Osborne said she and her two children huddled together in coats beside the apartment’s lone space heater, which she said she bought. She ultimately chose to move back to the shelter at the end of summer — and back into homelessness — rather than live another winter in the apartment.
McLaughlin moved into Cascade around the same time as Osborne. Last winter, she couldn’t find a way to stay warm. On Jan. 13, she wrote in an e-mail to Novo Development: “I have been complaining about no heat for months. . . . The two bedrooms never had heat and it is extremely cold for my son and I.” Months later, in November, an inspector with the District Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs dropped by her place. There were 15 violations. Cracked ceilings. Water leaks. And defective radiators — in the two bedrooms, the bathroom and the living room.
The only thing that has changed since then, she said, is that the weather has become colder. She tried to look for another place, but could not find anything. “It’s hard to find an apartment that can go with my income,” said McLaughlin, who pays $950 in rent.
As the storm approached her home on Friday, she looked out the living-room window at the cloudy skies. There’s a long way to go before winter departs. More blizzards may come. The coldest weeks may lie ahead. So McLaughlin tucked her hands underneath her armpits and, as the oven continued to spew dry heat, shuffled into her room and climbed back into bed.