Monday, November 11, 2013

Slumlord Hundredaire (Nightmare on Kenyon Street)

I knew we were doomed when we heard the deep voice of Tombe, the massive chunk of African muscle who rents the room next to us, thundering from our shared kitchen. He was yelling at the property manager about the tiny vampire problem he was having which would soon plague us all. It was the beginning of the end of life on Kenyon Street.

Two years ago I moved to Kenyon Street after I had returned to Washington from another stint in Beirut. I was looking for two things - cheap and location - a combination rare in the revitalized capital, among the most expensive cities to live (in civility) in the country. Two rooms had been available when I went to see the place; I chose the larger one and gave a security deposit that very day. There was a property manager who lived in one of the rooms and took care of the property related issues for the landlord, a man I had never met in the first year I lived there, and two other rooms, only one of which was rented at the time.

It was a dumpy place and I knew it, but the cheap was important because I thought I'd be flying to Denver every month to visit the Cosmonaut, only he joined a cult and I flew out there just one more time. By then, however, I had gotten to love the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, an area you wouldn't walk through at night less than a decade ago. Gentrification had given it new life. I was in the center of it all, not even a block from the main square, and had found friends and bartenders near me who made me feel part of the community. So I stayed. I had no real problems with the place for about a year. That first winter was mild, so I didn't notice the problem with the heat - or lack of it.

I met Chris in February 2012. He was this obnoxious loud guy who seemed to be at Lou's City Bar every time I was there. He listened to my complaints about the cult and my crazy boss and how I was sick of it not being baseball season. We became friends on the night of the Oscars, when the spectacle that is the NBA All-Star Game was on at the same time and we had to read the closed-captioning for the Oscars. I took a poll of the bar to see which program should get the sound. The basketball won, so I invited Chris to come watch the Oscars at my place. It still took over a month before I actually liked him. It took baseball season to start dating.

In July 2012, realizing that renting two places was a waste of money, we crammed his stuff into my room. I made use of PVC pipes that were laying around the house and some glorified milk crates to create another closet for the room. And there he's been, for a year and a quarter, living, receiving mail, cleaning up the property manager's messes in the kitchen, etc. He once helped the landlord put up walls in the apartment upstairs. He was with me when we asked the landlord if we could plant a garden in the backyard.

The landlord is a gaunt man of questionable intelligence and reason. His gray hair reaches his shoulders almost unwillingly, and a slight mustache gives some substance to an otherwise featureless face. His bony frame moves silently as he conducts his bizarre behavior. During the spring, he crawls around on hands and knees in the backyard and picks mulberries from the ground, blows on them, and eats them. At first, I thought it was a stray dog roaming around the yard until I actually saw him doing it. I never once saw him pick the berries off the trees. Every now and then he'll have a big bag of Budweiser cans in the back that he dumps, stomping on each can individually. He employs a Latino guy named Jose to do various tasks around the property. Watering and mowing are the normal activities - sawing things at random hours is not so normal, nor is carrying large items like mattresses and broken furniture to the curb on the wrong trash days. (We don't know where these large items come from, as they aren't coming from the mounds of junk in the basement, because that never goes away.)

I can't figure out how this strange man came to own $3 million worth of property, but we speculate. To be honest, he seems more like a guy who'd live in a shack in Appalachia with broken cars and chickens in the yard. Perhaps he inherited it. Or he came into money through a lawsuit of some sort. Very little can be found about him on the internet. If he hadn't been adamant about his opposition to chemicals of any kind (in the garden, building walls upstairs, and apparently getting rid of pests), I'd think he were involved in selling meth or something, because he doesn't seem to have a steady job since he appears on the property at random times during the week. He has a real estate license, from what I can tell, but he doesn't sell real estate. I suspect he got this license to avoid having to get a business license to operate his rentals, which I believe would require further regulations. He is a certified lead abatement specialist. He lives on Clifton Street, not too far from here. He once represented himself in a lawsuit with a tenant, in which he sought nearly $25,000 in back rent, property damages, and punitive damages. I couldn't find out anything more about the suit except that punitive damages were denied. $25,000 is a lot of money for a renter - either there was some sort of fire or, well, how do you cause that much in damages? That's the extent of his online identity. Having a business and no online presence is suspicious to me.

Even that weirdness was bearable, until the property manager stopped managing the property. He still lives here, he just stopped caring about anything. Things started to break without being repaired. The kitchen sink started to drip. He started paying the DirecTV and internet bills so late that they kept getting cut off. Certain undesirable pests made their presence known in the kitchen.

Then came the tiny vampires, otherwise known as bedbugs. Oh yes, they are terrible creatures. As it turns out, Columbia Heights is infested with them. On the day when I went to Target to get cleaning supplies and bug killers, I saw others buying the same products. They have nothing to do with cleanliness except that they will make you scrub every inch of everything you own once you get them. No one, not even the rich, is immune. I spent $150 that day on mattress covers (they make them for bedbugs), rubbing alcohol (to put in a spray bottle and kill them), Pinesol, scrubbing brushes, caulking for the baseboards, a caulking gun, a new mop bucket, sponges, an eco-friendly bug spray, and plastic storage containers to replace the boxes under the bed. Then I tore the room apart.

I thought I had been suffering from mosquito bites, that maybe a couple of mosquitoes had gotten into the room and were content to wait until dark to feast on my blood, but when Tombe was shouting in the kitchen about how he was getting eaten up by bedbugs, I knew the real culprit. I couldn't bring myself to look under the mattress that night. It wasn't until the next night, a Friday, when the hell began. Tombe had thrown his mattresses out on the curb - I think that displaced enough of them that they scurried under the wall of our structurally insufficient place of residence into our bedroom. I was itching mightily that night and switched on the lamp to inspect our slumber area. What I saw was horrifying.

Dozens of the bloodsuckers were climbing up the wall and on the mattresses. We lifted the mattress; the image of them crawling has been branded into my memory and my nightmares. When I did the cleaning, I found dozens in picture frames on the walls. But I'm not even going to get into the details of what I found when I lifted the box spring. They were building a civilization.

I texted the absent property manager to get an exterminator over there. I got no response. I did it again two days later. No response. Finally the landlord himself came over to talk to me about it. He claimed that he was waiting for something in the mail to deal with them. After A WEEK he brought over some homemade things to put under the legs of our beds that would hold diatomaceous earth, a natural compound that kills them. By then I'd gone through two large bottles of rubbing alcohol. We were supposed to do it ourselves but Tombe and I were the only ones who used it. The property manager, an idiot (and also an INS violator, which is relevant later), didn't bother cleaning anything and even dared tell me to get my stuff out of the hallway after a week when I still was cleaning every day.

By law, a landlord is supposed to take care of bug infestation problems. Dropping off some chemicals and telling tenants to do it themselves is a violation of the law. I'm still seeing a few of the bugs a week even after a month, but they've mostly been dealt with. But I spent a lot of money on the problem, and possessions were ruined by the bugs. I believe I'm entitled to compensation.

Despite all of this, the landlord complained to the property manager that Chris was there too much, and the property manager conveyed this message, AS IF CHRIS HADN'T LIVED THERE FOR MORE THAN A YEAR. Then the property manager had the nerve to text me - TEXT me - and tell me he didn't want to see Chris for the rest of the week.

Naturally I was furious. I thought of all the violations that I knew of at the place. Rather than respond to him, I thought I'd take some time to research the laws that I knew the landlord was violating. Here are some:

  • There is no heat in the winter. We use space heaters. Last year Chris dared mention that he would help bleed the radiators to get them functioning again, and the landlord said he would get a radiator key and then never did anything about it. Here is the law:
Whenever the heating facilities of any habitation or bathroom are not under control of an occupant of the habitation, it shall be the responsibility of the owner or licensee to supply sufficient heat to maintain the following minimum temperatures for every occupied habitation and bathroom:

(a)             A minimum temperature of sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit (68° F.) between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.; and

(b)             A minimum temperature of sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit (65° F.) between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
    I think that's pretty damn clear.
  • The landlord raised the rent by 12% last year. In DC, a landlord is only allowed to raise rent by the Consumer Price Index unless he is exempt. That would be 5.6% in 2012, but the Office of the Tenant Advocate checked the records and it shows our landlord is exempt from the law. However, I think he's violating the law and lying to get the exemption. The law states that small landlords can be exempt if they have four or fewer rental units. We have four people paying rent downstairs and I can't tell how many people upstairs. (They are undocumented tenants - people are going in and out of there all the time.)

  • The kitchen faucet has leaked since March. The landlord had been told several times but refuses to have it fixed. Meanwhile, the idiot property manager is paying the water bill and doesn't seem to understand that he's probably paid hundreds of dollars because he won't insist on getting the faucet fixed.

  • The basement is so stuffed full of junk there's no doubt it's a fire hazard. There are other unrented parts of the property, and my suspicions are that those, too, are full of hoarded junk like mattresses and broken lamps and boards and pipes. I have a hard time getting to the circuit breaker controls when we trip a circuit, and this is not rare since the electricity in the place sucks.

  • The trees are diseased. Many have blight. One has this pink oozy fungus on it. I haven't done any research yet, but I'd assume that tree management is a requirement of property owners, lest the diseases spread to the trees of neighbors.

  • Last year the landlord's fire insurance lapsed, or that's what he said. A fire inspector was coming to inspect the upstairs apartment, and he frantically tore out walls and rebuilt them over the course of a few days before the inspection. We know this because Chris helped him put up the walls. I don't know if he passed the inspection. If he did, the inspector was probably incompetent. He never bothered to check the ground floor or the basement.

  • One time we had fire shooting out of our ceiling because of faulty electrical wires. Or something like that. The electricity is bad. Some outlets don't work. Others blow a circuit if you use them. Once every outlet in my room blew and an electrician did come and replace them. But I have my suspicions that he was unlicensed.

  • Mice. Yeah, a nightmare. We were getting them in our bedroom on occasion and buying a bunch of sticky traps which does nothing to solve the problem. Ironically, the bedbugs forced us to caulk around the floor and we filled in holes we hadn't realized were there and we haven't had any mice since then. But recently I've heard them in the walls. So I will complain. Again.

  • Roaches in the kitchen. We live in a city. Sometimes it happens, even in nice places, and you call an exterminator and they go away. But this is recurring, and nothing is being done about it by anyone but me. I shouldn't have to buy the chemicals to kill them, and I shouldn't have to apply the chemicals. That's why there's an onsite property manager. But apparently Chris and I are the only ones who manage anything about the property.

I never documented the instances where I complained about things. I could probably get text messages from the phone company. (Can you do that?) God knows what else is wrong. I've only recently been paying close attention. The fact that the property manager had the nerve to tell me Chris couldn't be here prompted this research. He hasn't been working recently; we have our theories. Mine is that he had his visa revoked. An INS agent called me about him several months ago. I couldn't tell her much because I didn't know the answer to her questions. He hasn't been working so that's probably why he's noticed Chris is around during the day, since he doesn't start working until the afternoons. But it's like he completely forgot that Chris lives here. It's so weird.

I'm searching for a new job that will pay more so I can get the hell out of this dump. Hopefully we can stay in Columbia Heights, but with rent skyrocketing in this area and me not being one of the 50,000 lawyers in this city, I worry it will be difficult.

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