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Cheh to Propose New Weapon to Fight Apartment Blight

Tenants who live in D.C. apartment buildings with rodents, poor running water and no heat have choices, said Councilwoman Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), many of them bad: They can move. They can stop paying rent, get an eviction notice and pray that the Landlord and Tenant branch of D.C. Superior Court accepts housing violations as a excuse. Or they can file a civil lawsuit in Superior court that cost fees many residents can't afford.

At today's D.C. Council meeting, Cheh plans to give tenants a more powerful choice. Under her proposal, tenants could pursue legal action against landlords for unsanitary conditions in the Tenant and Landlord division without facing high administrative fees. "You will now be able to proactively go in and seek an order, and or some rule of the court that this building isn't being properly maintained and not wait to be evicted because you're not paying your rent," Cheh said.

The Apartment and Office Building Association of Greater Washington said the proposal was redundant, considering an effort by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to target slumlords and other owners by stepping up inspections.

Under a new program, the city's nearly 5,000 apartment buildings are to be inspected every four years. Buildings that fail inspections would be re-inspected in two years, and subject to possible fines and legal action. The increased inspection cycle was triggered by owners and landlords who allowed buildings to deteriorate in an effort to encourage tenants to move, often so that the buildings could be sold to developers at a high price.

"I don't think a statutory program is necessary when a program is already being launched," said Nicola Whiteman, the associations vice president of government affairs for D.C. "We don't fear any inspection program. We want to provide quality housing and the tenants want to live in safe housing. There are mechanisms in place to help tenants."

Cheh said those mechanisms aren't strong enough for tenants with a genuine complaint who suffer in substandard conditions while waiting for a long process to lead to action. The councilmember said she's not concerned that tenant complaints might overwhelm case workers in the Tenant and Landlord section of Superior court.

"If that's the type of volume out there, maybe we need a little bit of overburdening," Cheh said.

Darryl Fears

By Darryl Fears  |  January 27, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Affordable Housing  
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