Sunday, March 9, 2008

The problem: Unsafe living conditions

The Washington Post has documented dozens of cases of tenants being forced out as their homes were cleared to make way for high-end condos (The Profit in Decay, 3-9-08)

Bed Bugs

DC government housing inspectors, Div. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), issued housing code violations for building-wide bed bug infestations in 2006 and 2007. Children are bitten by bed bugs on a regular basis. Meanwhile, bed bugs continue to thrive.

We find bed bugs like these on a regular basis.
There is only one elevator in our seven-story building. Tenants are frequently trapped in the elevator, and each year the elevator breaks down for months at a time. Last July, during the hottest month of the summer, the elevator was out of service for 31 days.

The non-working elevator creates a hardship for tenants who are forced to carry groceries, strollers and bikes up the stairs. Seniors and people with chronic health conditions are most affected because they have even more difficulty taking the stairs. One senior who lives on the 5th floor has to carry his oxygen tank up the stairs, while another on the 6th floor has asthma attacks when he is forced to take the stairs. A tenant from the 7th floor on crutches was also forced to live without the elevator for a month. As a result of the elevator problems, many tenants are trapped in their apartments when the elevator is not working.

Management blames the elevator problems on old age, however, there are other 75 year-old elevators in DC that work properly because they receive regular maintenance.

Excessive hazardous amounts of mold exist throughout the building. Entire walls and rooms are covered in mold. Pictures taken on March 8, 2007.

The DC Department of the Environment conducted an investigation in March of 2007 and found excessive amounts of mold which causes respiratory health problems for seniors and children.

Residents who live in apartments with excessive levels mold such as children and seniors, have reported respiratory problems including persistent coughs, runny noses, and allergies.

During the past two years, three managment companies have managed the Norwood, Fleetwood Management, Dreyfuss Management and Cap City Management. These companies remove the mold by simply painting over it. The paint does not stay on the walls and simply peels away underneath the mold as seen in the pictures above.

One year later, March 2008, the mold has not been removed.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

About Us

We are the tenants of the 1417 N Street, NW, the Norwood Apartments, a rent-controlled building just five blocks from the White House. The Norwood is our home. Some of us have lived here as long as thirty years and raised our families here. We watched as the Norwood was stripped of its Art Deco ornamentation in the 1980s. And we have seen the rest of our seven-story building deteriorate since while rents continue to increase each year.

In January 2007, the Tenacity Group met with us to present us with their condo pitch offer which included a possible buyout. They said they would follow the condo conversion laws and would pay us between $5,000 - $15,000 thousand dollars per apartment to vacate our homes. They intended to convert the Norwood into condominiums.

At first, many of us considered leaving. We have lived with cockroaches, bed bugs, mold, mice, and an antiquated, frequently broken elevator for years. The opportunity to leave seemed a welcome opportunity.

Shortly before the buyout offer, we had formed a tenants' association. Our association was a bit splintered at first. We came from a broad variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Our meetings were conducted in English and Spanish, with further simultaneous translation to facilitate communication. But together we sought redress from our landlord for the wretched condition into which the Norwood had fallen.

Membership in our tenants' association grew after we received a condo pitch offer from the Teancity Group. We spent weeks debating the offer. It seemed weak; $5,000-$15,000 was a pittance in comparison to the millions of dollars in profits our landlord would make from the condo conversion. And it seemed a nominal amount for the work and expense involved in relocating our homes. Most importantly, we felt that turning over the the building would be a reward to our landlord for years of intentional neglect. After much discussion, we decided to focus on fixing the problems in our building before any more conversations about condo conversion.

It seems foolish to hold on to housing in such poor condition as ours. But we have a larger vision:our goal is to preserve the Norwood as permanent affordable housing. After all, this is our community and our hope is to divorce ourselves from our slumlord; create for ourselves the decent living conditions we have been denied; and create a supportive community within our neighborhood.

We have three consolidated lawsuits against our landlord in the DC Office of Administrative Hearings in response to his negligence. We have a second suit against him in Superior Court because he threatened our organizers with eviction, in clear violation of the 2006 Right to Organize Act. Currently, we are hoping our landlord will honor his offer to sell us the building under Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).

Saving our homes: What we've done so far

The 1417 N St, NW (Norwood Tenant Association) was created in late 2005 when tenants decided to come together to discuss maintenance problems. As we began to organize, we learned that in order to reach our goals to improve living conditions we needed community support.

In order to reach our goals we:

  • Learned about bed bugs and how to exterminate them.
  • Started a bed bug collection fund among tenants so that we could purchase extermination chemicals to kill bed bugs.
  • Educated ourselves and tenants about how to detect and control bed bugs.
  • Filed three lawsuits (aka Tenant Petitions) against Fleetwood Management and our landlord in September of 2006. We filed two additional lawsuits in April 2007.
  • Wrote numerous letters to our landlord, management company, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, and DC city council members.
  • Reached out to the media to bring attention to the problems at the Norwood.
  • Learned about our rights as tenants by reaching out to the DC tenant advocacy organizations such as TENAC, the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA), the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC), and EmpowerDC.
We educated and empowered ourselves and came to the realization that we could also help other tenant associations throughout DC. We have shared our story by visiting other buildings that were being targeted for possible condo conversion. We met with various tenant associations and eventually we helped establish the District of Columbia Tenants Rights Alliance a coalition representing 20 buildings (and 1,000 families) throughout DC for protecting affordable housing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

DC Government Response: Seeking Enforcement

Like other tenants mentioned in the recent March 2008 Washington Post article series "The profit in Decay," and "A failure in enforcement," the Norwood Tenant Asociation has dedicated its efforts to fix numerous housing code violations by working with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) with little to no progress.

DCRA has conducted two building-wide housing inspections at the Norwood in September 2006 and June 2007. Over 300 housing code violations were cited but have not been enforced. The potential fines were assessed at over $200,000, however as of today, the DCRA has only collected $1,000 for the elevator being out of service in July 2007.

Inspectors have repeatedly cited the Norwood for mold, building-wide bed bug, roach and mice infestations, crumbling walls, exposed electrical wires in common areas of the building, fire code violations, malfunctioning heaters, no working air conditioners and the malfunctioning elevator with little or no enfocement.

In March 2007, the DC Department of the Environment conducted a mold inspection. The report concluded that there were dangerous levels of mold that affect the respiratory health of children, seniors and people with compromised health conditions. Unfortunately, the inspector who completed the mold report report did not deliver a copy to the management company or the landlord.

The tenants of the Norwood have worked with the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs (OLA), and the Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA) to call for inspections and to seek support. Unfortunately many of our biggest problems are still unresolved.

We have been successful at organizing our community and educating our neighbors about our rights and ways to address our problems. The DC government is well aware of the problems at the Norwood, yet many problems persist.

We ask ourselves if the city will not compel landlords to maintain their rental buildings, what other recourse to we tenants have? We hope that community and city support will bring further attention to the problems, and address the problem of unresponsive landlords and management companies throughout the District. We have the right to safe and decent housing.

Norwood in the News...

March 16, 2011 - WAMU Radio 88.5 fm (NPR)
Tenants Tackle Bedbugs, Mold and 'Condozilla'

January 20, 2011 -
Norwood Tenants Association working on a play about bedbugs

January 30, 2009 - Washington City Paper
Good Nite, Sleep Tight (cover story): The District is just now waking up to a bunch of little problems under the sheets.

March 9, 2008 - The Washington Post
Forced Out: The profit in decay-Landlords who empty buildings of tenants reap extra benefit under law

March 9, 2008 - The Washington Post
The wrong side of renewal (Slides 8 & 14): Tenants say they have been pushed out, sometimes by bad building conditions.

August 18, 2007 - The Afro American Newspaper
District residents resist condo conversion

July 19, 2007 - WAMU Radio 88.5 fm (NPR)

Norwood Tenants
Tenants at the Norwood Apartments in Northwest DC are trying to take their fight for better building conditions to the city council.

July 13, 2007 - WAMU Radio 88.5 fm (NPR)

Norwood Apartment living conditions
Tenants at the Norwood Apartments in Northwest DC are protesting hazardous living conditions in their building.

July 11, 2007 - WUSA 9 (CBS)

Broken Elevator Is Hardship For Tenants
Amid affordable housing crunch, D.C. tenants resist going condo

May 27, 2007 - Washington DC Associated Press
Amid affordable housing crunch, D.C. tenants resist going condo

Feb 27, 2007 - Washington DC Examiner
Tenants-rights group planning forum