A small rent-stabilized apartment building sits just steps from the Columbia Heights Metro stop, which has brought unprecedented levels of investment to the neighborhood in the two decades since its opening. Across the street is the DC USA shopping center and the newly-rebuilt Columbia Heights Education Complex. The block is dotted with new restaurants, stores, and cafés.
As the neighborhood has transformed around them, residents at 1454 Irving St NW, most of whom are elderly immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean, have suffered from long-term neglect that threatens their health and safety. Their building is infested with rats and roaches, and tenants suspect that the dark patches on their walls are mold. The heat went out during the Arctic Front in February when temperatures dipped to 9 degrees. The electricity shorts out regularly, and tenants to worry about starting a fire whenever they plug in an appliance.
Eloiza Chamorro has been living in this building since she came to Washington from Nicaragua in 1976. For the last 41 years she’s had cracks in her walls and buckets lined against her apartment window to catch the water leaking in. After she took the landlord to court in 2007, he made some cosmetic repairs without fixing the leaks.
Longtime residents Eduardo Cumberbatch and Samuel and Beatrice Chavez, who have been living in their homes since 1977 and 1980 respectively, are living in similarly bad conditions. They live on the third floor of the building, in immediate danger: The integrity of the roof has been compromised for years and is in the process of caving in.
For the last six months, as tenant organizers with the Latino Economic Development Center, we’ve been working with tenants on the property to organize for decent conditions and to stay in their community. We want to examine their stories in detail not because they're unique, but because the abuses they’ve faced are so common. Their experience illustrates the tried-and-true business model of a slumlord, and the way that the DC government facilitates it through inaction.
Bad conditions are no accident
The tenants understand that the landlord’s neglect isn’t an accident. The owner, Domenico Panza, is trying to exploit gaps in DC’s tenant protections and use the bad conditions to push low-income residents out of their rent-stabilized apartments so he can sell a vacant building. That's because in DC’s topsy-turvy housing market, an empty building is frequently more valuable than a fully-occupied one.
DC law gives tenants some rights to control what happens if their landlord wants to sell or demolish their homes or convert to condominiums, so emptying a building up front is a common strategy for speeding up redevelopment. When there are no tenants in a building, there’s no one to enforce rent stabilization regulations.
Panza hasn't hidden the fact that he’s been trying to empty and sell the building for the last three years. He has repeatedly sent the tenants letters telling them they need to vacate so he can sell. (This is not true, of course. Occupied buildings are sold almost daily). He has offered tenants $15,000 to move out, a lower-than-average buyout that has become more and more appealing as conditions deteriorate.
When tenants pushed back, he responded by citing tenants for purported lease violations and threatening to move to evict them. This strategy of alternating neglect, threats, and buy-out offers has been largely successful: Of the 21 families that used to live in this building, only seven remain.
Bad conditions facilitate displacement, since people tend to have less will to fight to stay in an apartment that’s cold, moldy, and infested with rats. If landlords reliably suffered serious penalties for failing to comply with the code, it would be much more difficult to weaponize poor conditions. However, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the agency that enforces the housing code, often fails to uphold the law.
Panza has suffered no visible consequences from the many housing code violations in his property—and DCRA has actually performed better here than at most properties. When the heat went out in February, we alerted Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who pressured the agency to send out an inspector immediately. The heat was turned on shortly thereafter, but other issues were not addressed. As far we've surmised, no fines were issued for the outstanding problems.
Loopholes in rent control facilitate displacement
Not only has Panza taken advantage of gaps in code enforcement, he’s also looking at the loopholes in rent control that allow landlords to inflate rents by threatening to file a “substantial rehabilitation” petition. Here's how it works.
DC’s rent stabilization law includes several loopholes that allow landlords to raise rents by much more than than the Consumer Price Index+2% they are normally entitled to. These include petitions claiming financial hardship, or the need for a capital improvement or substantial rehabilitation. Panza says he plans to file the latter.
The law entitles landlords to file these petitions when they need fund a building renovation that will cost more than 50% of the assessed value of the property. In this case, Panza claims he needs a 125% increase to file such a petition. We aren’t lawyers, but we can see some issues with this claim. There’s no denying the need for a substantial rehabilitation, but the need has arisen in large part because of the owner’s failure to conduct routine maintenance over many years.
The main reason the building isn’t bringing in enough revenue isn’t the controlled rents, it’s because the owner has not filled any of the vacant apartments with tenants. Nonetheless, even in cases where landlords file petitions that cannot hold up in court, they have been able to use them as leverage to push tenants to reach settlements that sign away the long-term affordability of their homes.
We’re confident that the tenants at this building will fight as hard as they can to stop displacement and preserve affordable housing, but the DC government could be doing a lot more to help by fixing rent control laws.
Tenants are fighting back
Panza’s strategy—which we have seen play out in buildings across DC—depends on two assumptions: that the DC government won’t enforce laws that protect tenants, and that tenants themselves don’t know their rights.
Panza got one of his assumptions wrong though. Tenants at Irving Street know their rights, and they're fighting to stay Columbia Heights, a neighborhood that’s been their home since the 1970s. On March 1, five of seven remaining tenants started a rent strike to demand that their landlord repair and maintain their homes.
It’s clear that DC needs to overhaul our system of code enforcement so that slumlords who flout the law face real consequences. In the evening of Friday, April 5, these tenants will be leading a rally at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza to raise awareness of their struggle and similar fights playing out across the District. We’ll be calling on our elected officials to protect all tenants from abuses like those that have been perpetrated at 1454 Irving.