Boarding Games Is a Columbia Heights hostel a house of ill repute—or the last of a dying breed?

Bawdy Politic: Mayor-elect Fenty got involved in debates about alleged prostitution haven.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Zella Worsley owns one of the last places in D.C. where you can get a cheap room. Her C&K Tourist Home is a spread of three blue houses in Columbia Heights that seem to be falling apart. The people who spend $14 a night to stay here are usually black and poor, and Worsley knows that they often have a hard time finding beds. And she says that as upper 14th Street gets whiter and costlier, her sort of place isn’t wanted.

“The roomin’ houses, they want them out of the city. They just pushin’ and pushin’,” Worsley says.

But it isn’t rooming houses that neighbors are complaining about—it’s prostitution. C&K’s management has a nearly 20-year-old record of prostitution-related arrests, and there’s plenty to indicate that the house still rents to hookers. An officer who patrols the neighborhood says that prostitutes continue to go inside, and that hourly rates were posted as recently as last year.

And plenty of neighbors see the evidence. Says Franklin Morgan, 63, as he sits on his nearby porch: “I don’t know when the hell they go home and go to bed. They be out there all day and all of the night.”

On another afternoon, neighbor Verdie Hawkins explains that C&K seems immune to all efforts to remove it. “We complained about it [as] a menace to society, but it been on this block so long, like I say, I wish them luck tryin’ to get it off,” Hawkins says.

Elizabeth Penn remembers finding condoms on the sidewalk by C&K and hearing a racket at night. “It brings unsafe traffic into the area,” she says. “I see things that shouldn’t be going on.”

C&K has outlasted generations of NIMBYs, but it’s not likely to outlast this one. This summer, as Ward 4 councilmember, Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty called two meetings about the property’s fate. In the end, Worsley told the neighbors and the city that she’d sell to a condo developer.

But in the meantime, business at C&K continues. Signs are taped to the attendant’s bullet-resistant booth: Couple have to leave together. No refund once signed the ticket. Couples only. No prostitutes.

Rooming and boarding houses (food is served at boarding houses) have a long history in the District. According to an 1862 city directory, D.C. and Georgetown (then separate) had 137 boarding houses. For decades, the number stayed high as the city grew, especially as World War II presented a surge of soldiers and officials in need of homes. According to Martin A. Olmem’s 1943 Rooming and Boarding House Manual, the head of the police department had to see that a house manager was “morally qualified,” men and women could not share rooms, and sugar had to be served in a screw-top container.

In 1962, the Washington Post published a spread on the people who paid as little as $15 per week to sleep in a particular house—young whites with short hair, cigarettes, guitars, and typewriters. “The rooming house complex is first stop on the way from the bus station for thousands of young men and women seeking jobs, spouses, fame and fortune in the big city,” said the Post article, noting farther down, “None are Negroes, the District’s anti-discrimination laws not covering boarding houses.”

When these white houses went up for sale, black landowners often bought them. This was how Worsley acquired her first property, in the ’60s. “Must have been 30 or 40 [houses]. Loads of ’em,” she says. “Most of those houses on Rhode Island [Avenue NE] was rooming houses.”

Several stayed open through the ’70s and the ’80s. Mary Ann Luby, who moved to the District in 1983 and now works for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, remembers that those with slim wallets had plentiful options. “A lot of those places have gone by the by,” Luby says. “It used to be you could get a room for up to $250, $350 a month. That was before everything exploded.” In her work, she hears people pine for the cheap rooms that have been bulldozed, remodeled, or boarded over.

Of course, cheap rooms have a use other than housing the indigent. And it’s a use that C&K’s management has become familiar with. In 1987, police found that hookers, not roomers, were crucial to C&K’s business. Undercover officers visited in male-female couples and were charged $15 to take a room for an hour, plus $2 for a Trojan-brand condom. Zella’s son James Worsley Jr. took the rap for operating a disorderly house. Police said he and a tenant kept the prostitutes coming and saw to their needs.

When cops asked Zella Worsley why she had let her son rent to prostitutes, according to court documents, she answered, “I don’t want to break the law. I am trying to do the right thing so I can pay my bills. I don’t want to discriminate against no one.”

Years later, the Worsleys were implicated in another vice sting, this time at the Rhode Island Inn, a red-brick house they built in Northeast. On May 21, 2003, a woman entered the Inn three times, each with a different man. According to prosecutors, the desk clerk, Luz Escobar, smiled at her and laughed as if to show she understood. But she didn’t: The prostitute, like her johns, was an undercover cop.

Escobar was found guilty of the same offense that had caught James Jr.: operating a disorderly house. Though the Rhode Island Inn was a Worsley property at the time of the offense (it was later sold), and though Escobar was a Worsley employee, no one in the family was charged.

The cops still watch C&K. A police camera sits at the corner of 14th and Quincy Streets NW, just north of C&K; 4th District cops walk beats past the houses; and a squad car or a police van is often nearby. But Zella Worsley defends her family business. “That’s one thing we have tried hard to do, is keep down prostitution,” she says. “We fight hard to not let prostitutes in there.”

She denies facts from the court record: James Jr. never pleaded guilty over the C&K case, she says, and Escobar never saw an undercover officer bring in a string of men at the Rhode Island property. She claimed that the police, the lawyers, the neighbors, and the press have distorted her words to scrub one more rooming house off the District map. That wouldn’t leave many. A recent city phone book lists only two rooming houses: the Allen Lee Hotel in Foggy Bottom and the Eight Hundred E Street house in Stanton Park.

“We’re doing well enough to stay in business,” said David Jones, who manages the Allen Lee. “There’ll always be a need [for rooming houses], but the way things work, I mean, it’s not the best use of the facilities.”

Callers to the E Street house hear this message: “We currently have no vacancies. When another room becomes available, we will put our sign in the front yard as usual. At that time, please call.”

As far as some are concerned, C&K is already history. A newsletter from Fenty’s council office refers to it as “the former site of the notorious C&K motel.” Zella Worsley says the sale to condo developer ZH Investments is moving ahead, though the deal isn’t final. Neighbor Penn says fellow residents have already started talking about whether new construction would block the views from their yards.

Worsley says it’s about time.

“I don’t want nothin’ no more in D.C. or nowhere, because it’s not black time no more,” she says. “You be surprised that these undercover folks lie more than you can shake a stick at.…You work hard all your life, and then you get twisted around. We came out of the fields. We were sharecroppers. We didn’t have nothin’.”

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