The city says Patrick and Kenneth Welch are among its most notorious slumlords, but their Blagden Alley neighbors love them.
For years, residents of Blagden Alley have been nagging D.C. officials to do something about nuisance properties that have plagued their neighborhood since the 1968 riots. So you'd think they would be ecstatic to hear that Patrick and Kenneth Welch were arrested last month, branded by city officials as some of the District's worst slumlords. After all, the father-and-son team owns more than a dozen blighted properties in the community.
But, surprisingly, none of the neighborhood activists were cheering much last week after hearing that the Welches had been charged with more than 200 criminal violations of the D.C. housing code for failing to fix broken plumbing, peeling paint, dangerous electrical wiring, faulty smoke detectors, and rat infestation in a building at 1418 W St. NW in the U Street-Cardozo neighborhood. Instead, residents have stepped up to defend the Welches as stand-up guys.
"People knew the Welches had some slum properties, but they also considered them good neighbors," says Ed Horvath, president of the Blagden Alley Association. "I had several of our neighbors stop me and ask me if there was anything they could do to help them."
Privately, some Blagden Alley residents admit that some of the Welches' buildings in their neighborhood are dangerous rat traps--and they look particularly bad now that many of the other bad buildings have gotten fixed up. "I don't agree with the way they've let some of their properties deteriorate," says one neighbor who wished to remain anonymous. "But I don't have a major problem with them as neighbors. I like the Welches."
If neighbors really want to help, says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who lobbied city officials to take action against the Welches, they can come put a new roof on the Welches' W Street building, fix the bad plumbing. And get rid of the rats, too. Graham says he doesn't care how nice the Welches are. "They are slumlords on W Street. What they're doing elsewhere is immaterial," says Graham. "The building has been the subject of gross neglect. I don't think the neighbors understand the severity of the situation."
Residents in the neighborhood less than a mile south, though, seem to prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. In a part of town that has seen years of neglect by the city and other negligent property owners in far away Potomac or Pennsylvania, residents have embraced the Welches for at least being around to listen to their complaints--even if they ultimately didn't do much about them. "They're not absentee slumlords, at least," Horvath says.
Indeed, Patrick Welch--the 35-year-old who, with his co-owner father Kenneth, was marched into the police's 1st District station house two weeks ago after failing to pay $44,000 in fines and address 668 housing code violations at 1418 W St.--lives on 10th St. NW, right next door to Leslie Miles, one of the area's most outspoken neighborhood activists. Miles, for one, likes the guy. "I hear [Patrick Welch's] alarm go off every morning at a quarter to 6, and he goes out and works his ass off," says Miles.
A former Air Force pilot, Patrick Welch is known as a good ol' boy who is always happy to lend a hand--or the service of his big red pickup truck--to a neighbor in need. Neighbors say he attends all the community meetings, meets with police, and gets rid of problem tenants when asked. "They're not here to speculate," says Miles. "They've been here 35 years."
Of course, neighbors might not be so forgiving if the Welch family hadn't joined most of them in support of the controversial new convention center under construction nearby--which, incidentally, will go a long way toward boosting the value of the Welches' portfolio of blighted real estate. (In fact, the Welches have already started to cash in. The Washington Convention Center Authority currently pays the Welches $1,700 a month to rent 50 parking spaces at their lot on 9th and M Streets, according to convention center spokesperson Tony Robinson.)
Because of their involvement in the neighborhood, Miles says, "People here don't perceive them as the worst of the slumlords."
"Slumlord" does seem to be a relative term. For instance, Kingsley Anyanwutaku, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 1995, used to rent properties off upper Georgia Avenue that had no running water, no electricity, and no gas. One of his 75 buildings earned the moniker "Fecal Manor" after residents resorted to using plastic buckets for chamber pots and emptying them in the back yard. His properties were so dangerous that tenants suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, and a child was once seriously injured by falling ceiling plaster.
By comparison, the Welches look less like slumlords and more like old fashioned cheapskates. Their dozen or so small buildings have running water but they look as if they were maintained by Mr. Roper--a guy who shows up to make repairs with a bucket of Spackle, a roll of duct tape, and an arm full of Time-Life do-it-yourself books rather than shell out for a professional contractor.
At 936 N St., the stairwell leans and sags. Brown paint peels from walls blotchy with bad patch jobs. Windowpanes are patched with cardboard. Flies buzz the dark hallways, and the smell of poverty hangs in the air. Even so, tenant Antionette Nicholson says she has been happy there. She, her husband, and her 12-year-old son live in a one-bedroom apartment for which they pay $420 a month. "I ain't got no complaints with my apartment," she says. "I couldn't beat the rent here."
On Sunday, though, after giving Nicholson notice the night before, Kenneth Welch was personally moving her to another one of his properties, at 57 O St. NW. (He drove off when asked for an interview.) Nicholson and her neighbors were frantically stuffing things into plastic bags and hauling furniture out to the curb to be fetched in the Welches' red pickup. After seeing the Welches handcuffed on TV, Nicholson says she figured the N Street building was about to be condemned.
Despite the short notice, Nicholson was pleased with the relocation. Her rent will go up by $55 a month, but the new apartment is nicer. "Bigger, too," she says. "He's doing a fine job putting everybody somewhere else." Nicholson says she has lived in several of the Welches' properties, and opines that they're not all bad: "I've known the man since I was a teenager. My daddy worked with him. [Kenneth Welch is] a pretty nice guy. They have always been good to me." CP