Kathryn Harris looked like a solid renter. That’s what landlord Grace Newman thought, so she knocked $300 off her original asking price of $1,600 for the monthly rent and even gave Harris a break on the security deposit.
Harris, who listed her job as a substitute teacher with an income of $45,000, promptly moved in to 407 Missouri Ave. NW, a renovated row house with a small front porch. It was October 2001. She would later say about the house, “It wasn’t very spectacular. It was just a plain house…with a raised lawn.” Harris trucked in her antique Chippendale-style sofa, her claw-footed mahogany dining table, and her handmade Oriental rug. She put up her original artwork by Elizabeth Catlett, the famous D.C. sculptor and printmaker, and called the place home.
Then the problems started, beginning with the shower. Drip. Drip. Drip. “Some pipe in the shower was leaking, and she couldn’t turn off the water,” Newman says. “We’d meet there, and she would not let us in.”
Harris filed complaints with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The house didn’t have smoke detectors, Harris claimed, although Newman says they were installed on both floors. Nails in a wooden ledge at the entrance to the bathroom posed “a health and safety violation,” Harris typed in a document. In addition, excess paint on the first- and second-floor French doors had not been adequately removed.
In December 2001, Harris took out a restraining order against Newman, citing “bizarre behavior” on the part of her landlord. She withheld rent. After issuing a payment of $2,200—the first month’s rent and the deposit—she never paid it again.
In an attempt to collect, Newman filed a nonpayment of rent case against Harris. Harris wouldn’t pay. Newman then filed to evict her tenant. According to court documents, Harris came down Missouri Avenue on June 21, 2002, about seven months after she moved in. In a court hearing, this is how Harris described the experience: “[A]s I got closer and closer to my house, I saw something that looked like it could have been my file cabinet….But I said, ‘No, it couldn’t be my file cabinet.’ And then…I realized that it was my file cabinet….And I was perplexed. I know that they didn’t do this because we had an agreement.”
Harris claimed she had not received the eviction notice and, as a result, she came home to find her possessions—the rug, the table, the antique sofa, a gold-trimmed lamp—damaged and open to looters. She sued Newman, Newman’s brother (who didn’t own any part of the house but filed the eviction orders for his sister, who has cancer), and Newman’s daughter, whose involvement with the house entailed putting the eviction notice on the front door. (The daughter’s name was later dropped from the lawsuit.)
A judge found in favor of Harris. Six years later, Harris’ lawyers are still trying to recoup more than $100,000 from Newman, who sold the house, is unemployed, does not own any other property, and is living with her daughter in Laurel.
Newman’s attorney, Mark Chalpin, says Harris preyed on his client and worked the loopholes in the system. “They won’t take the fact that she doesn’t have any money as an answer,” Chalpin says. “She sold the house…she paid off debts. But the money’s gone.”
According to the D.C. Superior Court database, four District landlords have brought cases against Harris. The D.C. Government Credit Union is currently suing her for $4,385.22.
Harris, when contacted, declined to comment.
D.C.’s housing code is designed to protect residents. It takes up about 70 pages and covers everything from heating and lighting requirements to weatherproofing to repair and maintenance protocol. Of course, city employees aren’t the only ones in town who know the code in and out. Certain tenants have become experts as well.
Here’s our survey of some of the District’s “live-in housing inspectors”— tenants who have an uncanny knack for finding those malfunctioning windows, those rusty sinks, and that peeling paint.
Douglas Lanford originally rented his single-family house in Georgetown to James Linen for $1,575 per month back in 1994. In 2002, the landlord, who had moved to a long-term care facility in Alabama because of deteriorating health, tried to raise the rent. Linen protested the increase and called the housing inspector.
According to court documents, the inspector generated several housing violation notices and directed them to Lanford in Alabama. Three items on the punchlist were for a refrigerator problem, a smoke detector problem, and a problem with standing water in the basement. According to one of Lanford’s attorneys, Linen also complained of accumulating leaves that blocked a roof gutter and a broken toilet handle that caused a flood.
“[Linen] calls the inspector to come to the house on a moment’s notice,” says Stephen Hessler, Lanford’s lawyer. “The inspectors are so mad…they don’t come out anymore.”
When a contractor working for Lanford tried to schedule repairs, Linen informed the contractor that he was boarding an airplane that afternoon and would not be back to the house for more than three weeks. No repairs could be made in his absence; Linen had installed a security system and did not want to give a repairman access to the code.
Hessler says the case is still tied up in court because Linen has filed tenant petition after petition with DCRA’s Rental Accommodations and Conversion Division (RACD)—the authority that decides if rent increases are justifiable. He has not paid Lanford any rent directly in years—it all goes into the court registry and is not subject to any increases while RACD is looking into Linen’s petitions.
“It’s probably not appropriate for me to talk about it,” Linen says of the matter. “There’s no need for me to publicize the case.”
Ravenell Keller was renting an apartment to Gail Stone at 5912 9th St. NW when he increased her monthly rent from $550 to $650. Stone ignored the increase and continued paying $550. Two months after the increase, Keller filed for eviction and sued Stone for back rent.
Stone demanded a jury trial and maintained she didn’t owe Keller anything because housing-code violations rendered her lease void. A housing inspector arrived at the scene and reported that her apartment had rusted sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, and the refrigerator had a rusted motor. Also, the inspector found peeling paint in the kitchen under the sink. He noted that the front door wasn’t weatherproofed, and windows in the apartment didn’t “open and close with ease.”
Keller was cleared of the violations, but he never did get his rental increase. Stone maintains violations persist, including a sticking door, cracks in the walls, and a broken mailbox. She also says, “I don’t have a light on the back porch, but everybody else does.”
Pending a decision by the RACD, Stone pays rent into the court registry, and Keller can’t raise the rent. He says that all the other tenants get yearly increases, and since Stone’s been paying in the court registry for almost a decade, “she’s way behind.”
In spring 2002, the Consulate, a residential building on Van Ness Street, filed to evict a tenant from her apartment after she failed to pay full rent for February and March. When a water heater burst shortly after the complaint was filed, the tenant, an attorney representing herself, counterfiled a complaint, accusing her landlord of housing-code violations—“chronically malfunctioning appliances, utilities, plumbing and attachments.”
“I do not believe that I am delinquent in my rental payments, and if I were deemed to be so, I believe that I have a valid argument for set-off in counterclaim for an amount which far exceeds any rental obligation they maintain is delinquent,” she wrote in a statement to the court. She went on to charge that the broken boiler had flooded and caused more than $2,000 worth of damage to a silk and cashmere Oriental rug, furniture, books, and papers that she had had to discard. She also wrote that a “foul-smelling water” soaked the rug, and she got a nearby rug dealer to back up her claim. The dealer signed a certificate, which put the value of the rug at $1,850. “In our judgment, the rug has no resale value in its current condition,” the appraiser stated.
The tenant claimed she was due “compensatory damages for emotional disturbance, distress and upset, and punitive damages for the reckless or intentional disregard of the health and well-being of the tenant in an amount of not less than one million dollars.”
Later, she moved into a well-appointed eight-unit building right below the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue. The owner, Greg Grinder, charged her $2,450 per month for the newly renovated apartment. She moved in in April 2004 and paid on time through June. But in July, Grinder says he didn’t get a check. When the rent for August didn’t come in, he says he started to get the hint. Grinder filed a motion to evict her, and the U.S. Marshal service finally kicked her and her things to the curb in March 2005.
Grinder is now suing his former tenant in civil court for the $25,000 she failed to pay in rent from July 2004 through March 2005, including late fees. He says he doesn’t know if anything will come of it, but feels compelled to pursue her in court on “principle,” a word he hates to use but admits fits the sentiment.
“The irony of it is,” he says, “all she had to do at the very beginning is say, ‘Can you work with me?’ I would have done it in a heartbeat. Does she have the money that I’m going after? I don’t know….But I can’t let this thing go. I just can’t.”
The latest listed phone number for the tenant has been disconnected. She could not be located for comment.
The Puny, Noisy Refrigerator
Andrew Zimmer says his tenant was doing more than residing in an upstairs apartment on A Street NE. He had, according to Zimmer, a half-dozen bulky computer-processing units stored inside the apartment for the computer-repair operation he was running there. Broken electronic equipment accumulated in the shared yard. The tenant didn’t put down sound-absorbent carpeting and was always working late at night, dropping heavy objects. The city agreed and filed a violation against him for conducting a business in a residence.
The tenant claimed violations, too. According to court documents, the tenant complained about both his refrigerator and his stove. He said his refrigerator was too small and too noisy, so Zimmer had it replaced. But when the installation guy came with the new stove, the tenant refused to allow him in because he wanted the stove installed only by a “licensed and bonded contractor.” Zimmer produced a contractor, but because that contractor was licensed in Maryland, the tenant refused to let him in. When Zimmer contacted yet another contractor, this time a D.C. licensed and bonded one, Zimmer took the liberty of telling him about his tenant. Zimmer warned the contractor of the tenant’s bizarre habits—how no one else had a key to the unit, and how the guy was always home but often failed to return phone calls and usually stood the repairmen up. The contractor turned down the job.
The Renovated “Dump”
In 2001, Gladys Swann began fixing up her mother’s vacant house. Her mother was ill but intended to move back into the house. Then Swann received an inquiry from a member of the church her sister attended.
“She asked my sister if the house was for rent.” Swann says she told the woman the house at 3801 10th St. NW wasn’t available because her mother would be back in six or eight months. But according to Swann, the eager renter said the timeframe would work for her. “She just wanted a house while she was looking for another place and said six months was sufficient,” Swann says. Swann asked her sister if the woman was trustworthy, and the sister vouched for her fellow churchgoer. Swann says she gave her new tenant a handwritten note saying she could live in the house paying $1,295 a month—the price of the mortgage—for six months. The woman and her family ended up staying for six years.
“Before the six months were up,” Swann says, “I said, ‘Listen, my mother’s getting better, I need the place,’ but she had no intention of leaving. Then she stopped paying.” When Swann filed a motion to get her house back, Swann says the tenant turned around and countersued, saying the house had a list of problems.
“She called it a dump,” Swann says. “She called [a housing] inspector, said there were mice and spiders. She said the windows didn’t work, and she couldn’t open them, and it wasn’t safe.”
Gladys Swann’s husband, Michael, helped her pay attorney and court costs. “It’s horrible, you’ve got to pay for your mortgage then another mortgage, then you’ve got to pay lawyers, which are not cheap,” he says. “You’re looking at $5,000 every time you look at a lawyer for landlord and tenant.”
Swann’s mother died during the six-year battle to get the house back.
According to Swann, she settled with the tenant and her family to get them to move. Meanwhile, says Swann, the tenant claims her grandson got lead poisoning from the paint and is suing for $5 million.
“My wife’s mother was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic,” Michael Swann says. “She scrubbed toilets to get that house….It shouldn’t be like that.”
Enter the Rat
Jeffrey Brier, of the local Martin and Jeff real-estate team, rented out one apartment in a two-unit row house near 9th and S Streets NW to David Schaefer in the spring of last year.
Brier says that Schaefer’s rent is consistently late, and some months, he has to call and harass him to even get the rent. And aside from being late, Brier says Schaefer is quite demanding. He’s always requesting that Brier send someone over to make trifling repairs. “It’s very hard to get people to come in and do little stuff—and everything he asks about is little stuff,” Brier says.
There was, both landlord and tenant acknowledge, a rat problem. Schaefer called Brier to tell him a rat had come in through a hole in the wall. When Brier went over to take a look, he saw bags of garbage accumulating in Schaefer’s kitchen. “The rats had nothing to do with the hole,” Brier says.
This spring, Brier says payments stopped coming. “In March, he promised to get me the rent by a certain date—that day came and went,” Brier says. “Then I get a notice that his February rent check had bounced. I got really furious and made a call that I shouldn’t have made.” Brier says he told Schaefer he was going to change the locks on the apartment and bar him from coming back, but claims it was only in the heat of the moment that he said it. Brier called Schaefer back to apologize, and afterward he stopped receiving rental payments altogether.
Schaefer says there’s more to the story. According to him, there was the rat, then there was an issue with his garage doors, and a key mix-up—he says he only recently got the four keys needed to open all the doors in the building. Also, the electric and gas lines weren’t separated from the other unit in the building, and he’s had to pay more than he owes in utilities.
“There’s been a [repair] list since the day I moved in, and, unfortunately, Jeff Brier doesn’t like to do anything; he just likes to collect the rent,” Schaefer says. “There was a rat that came right through my wall, [Brier’s] response was, ‘Well, there are rats all over the city.’ ”
Although Schaefer admits to paying his rent late, in his defense he says he was never more than 10 days late with it. For now, he’s paying it into the court registry. In all, he says his complaints are more than justified due to the $2,350 per month price tag on the apartment. “I’m paying a lot of money to live here, and I feel like I should have certain things,” Schaefer says.