- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

When it comes to housing laws and policies that affect the quality of life for the disadvantaged, the D.C. Council and the Williams administration are doing something about it. City officials are actually cracking down on slum dwellings and the landlords who neglect them.

Armed with laws enacted by the council and bolstered by complaints from frustrated renters and homeowners, city officials drew up a "hot list" of 32 troubled properties, issued citations and warned landlords to abate the problems or else. In one instance, the apartment building at 1418 W Street N.W., the "or else" has already led to the arrest of the two landlords, who were hauled into court to face more than 200 civil infractions. They pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry heavy fines and sentences. For example, the landlords of 1418 W Street could be jailed for 48 years and fined $60,000.

Of course, it is hard for some folks to believe the city is taking such a definitive stand, even though both the council and the Williams administration have vowed to improve the lives of D.C. taxpayers by revitalizing poor neighborhoods. Skeptics cite the likelihood that tenants of 1418 W Street and the other 31 properties might be homeless in days to come if their landlords fail to abate the numerous violations and that certainly is a probability. But in some cases, the city had little choice.

Consider the case against the landlords of 1418 W Street, a four-story structure located near the Columbia Heights Metro stop and the bustling U Street corridor. It is home to scores of residents, including three families who share a three-bedroom, rat-infested, unheated, leaky-ceiling apartment for $625 a month. It has two-bedroom units that rent for $800 a month. It has rotted floors and walls, unsafe wiring and other safety and health hazards. All told, the city cited its landlords with 207 housing and building-code violations and characterized the dwelling as "unfit for human habitation."

Now those very words, "unfit for human habitation," ordinarily leave most folks condemning the true guilty party. But some folks in Columbia Heights, where most of the properties on the hot list are situated, are worried for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they are concerned D.C. and federal housing officials won't have much housing to offer if their apartments are indeed condemned. Officials have said the city will do what it can, but, as in life, there are no housing guarantees.

However, they are worried about gentrification, a racially tinged by-product of economic development for which Colombia Heights has been designated. Race becomes a factor because most of the tenants, if displaced, would be poor Hispanic immigrants. What they and other skeptics ought to be saying is, "Thanks, D.C. government. Now do away with rent control."

For sure, the crackdown is literally paving the way to progress in this city, which has long ignored the countless abandoned properties, nuisance properties and neglected properties. Pass by 1418 W Street now, a mere three weeks since the city threatened to condemn the building if the necessary repairs are not made by April 12, and witness the newly paved sidewalks outside and the construction workers who toil inside where rats used to roam as freely as tenants, children romped on rotted floors, fire exits were blocked and where perilous electrical wiring, jammed windows, blocked fire exits and broken smoke detectors were ignored while rents were collected. Witness three families sharing one three-bedroom apartment. Witness all that and then you decide.

A lot of people hurl criticism at the District for a lot of reasons. In many cases, such as troubled education programs, mismanagement and dumb laws, the criticisms are easily justifiable. In some others, though, the city is cast in an unfair light. The crackdown on slums is such a case, and the mayor and the council must continue their efforts to revitalize struggling neighborhoods and improve the lives of all residents.

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