Slumlords Never Die: The Wily Ways of David Nuyen
It's been almost seven years since I first visited some of David Nuyen's slums and reported on Nuyen's foul, filthy, decrepit properties in the District (you can read the original column on the jump.) Embarrassed, the D.C. government sprang into action.
Well, sprang is a bit strong. After all, it has now been seven years, and Nuyen is still working the system, still maneuvering his way through various court cases, still--despite promises to the contrary--running substandard properties in the city.
The District's attorney general's office has accused Nuyen of still owning four apartment buildings in the city, despite a plea agreement five years ago in which the slumlord promised to sell off all his properties. And reporting by Brendan Smith of Legal Times, who has now won a journalism award from the National Low Income Housing Coalition for his work on Nuyen, shows that Nuyen has defied the courts in various ways.
Nuyen did spend some time in the slammer, and took the occasion to write a book defending his nasty way of making a buck. The book, "The Tao of Real Estate," is a primer on how to combine defiance, defensiveness and denial to subvert the law and con the system. The City Paper did a fine piece on Nuyen and his book.
Why have the combined efforts of the courts, the social service charity Bread for the City, the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, and the city's lawyers failed to put Nuyen out of business? Well, they have had some effect: Nuyen once owned 15 buildings in the city and he now seems to control but four. And he did do some time. And he is on the run, appearing in a series of court hearings with more jail and more fines potentially in the offing.
But going after slumlords just isn't a high priority in a real estate-crazed town. As Smith reported,
the D.C. Attorney General's Office has filed criminal cases against only four landlords for housing-code violations since 2001. Those cases resulted in fines, community service, or probation for the owners of three buildings in Northwest and one in Northeast. During the past five years the Attorney General's Office hasn't filed a single criminal case for housing violations in any of the poor neighborhoods in Southwest and Southeast.
[UPDATE (March 19, 2007): The D.C. corporation counsel's office, now renamed the D.C. Attorney General's office, tells me that the Legal Times story leaves in incomplete impression because it focuses on the number of criminal prosecutions the office has filed against slumlords. Traci Hughes of the office says that the overwhelming majority of landlord cases that the office takes on are settled out of court on terms advantageous to the taxpayer, and therefore criminal charges prove unnecessary in those cases. She says the number of such cases taken on by the office has increased steadily.]
[AND ANOTHER UPDATE, March 30, 2007: Legal Times editor and reporter Brendan Smith has responded to D.C. Attorney General spokesman Traci Hughes by noting that his original story indeed did reflect the city's argument that it has been aggressive on slumlord cases through means other than criminal prosecutions. Here are the relevant paragraphs from Smith's story:
D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti, who announced his resignation last week to join D.C. firm Schertler & Onorato as a partner, says housing-violation cases are a priority, even though his office has filed criminal cases against only four landlords since 2001.
"You need to look at it in total and not just the number of filings that have been done," Spagnoletti says.
Both Spagnoletti and Canavan say the threat of legal action often is enough to obtain compliance from recalcitrant landlords. The Attorney General's Office has sent nine abatement letters this year to property owners for housing violations, resulting in compliance from eight and a motion for contempt against the one holdout, says office spokeswoman Traci Hughes.
Housing-violation cases are "very complicated cases to prove," and prosecutors may not have the information they need for a conviction, depending upon the quality of the investigation, Spagnoletti says.
Smith says that Hughes only provided statistics showing how her office went after slumlords with abatement letters in 2006, not in the previous years. "She told you the number of cases keeps increasing," Smith writes, "but the AG's office only did nine cases last year - with more than 100,000 apartments in D.C. - so that still isn't very impressive."]
Nuyen cleverly works around the law by creating documents that seem to show he has transferred control of his properties to other entities. Lawyers who spend enough time on the matter can determine that these entities are phony or that Nuyen is simply hiding his ownership behind his son or his wife, but the shenanigans are wily enough that Nuyen buys time and keeps himself out of jail and in the money.
Meanwhile, the people who live in Nuyen's buildings still deal with rats, roaches and bedbugs, broken heat systems and radiators, busted faucets, peeling paint and on and on.
Nuyen told Smith that "The government still want to get me. I don't know why. I'm out completely [of the rental business]. It's too much of a headache."
But of course Nuyen's not out of anything, except perhaps any shred of decency.
[Fisher column, May 25, 2000]
Last stop on our House Tour of the Slumlords will be David Nuyen's pride and joy, a pink brick McMansion on Watts Mine Lane in stately Avenel: double mahogany doors, a two-story atrium, a striking all-glass dining room, lavish landscaping that spells curb appeal.
He'll need it. The Avenel place is empty now, on the market because, Nuyen says, he couldn't keep up with his debts.
No problem; maybe Nuyen--a former South Vietnamese Navy commander who left his job as an analyst with Lockheed Martin in 1987 to go into real estate full time--would like to move into one of his properties in Southeast Washington. Come see: Here's 1655 W St. SE, a three-story brick apartment building on a hill just a couple of blocks from Frederick Douglass's historic home.
Watch your step: The stairwell is filled with garbage. Never mind the stench; that's just hallway urine. It's a sweltering day, so you'll appreciate the fact that Nuyen's apartments feature no-pane windows. The parking lot is packed with discarded ovens and refrigerators, as well as abandoned cars. The mailboxes are gone, ripped from the wall. The glass in the front doorway is shattered, which is better than next door, at Nuyen's other W Street building, where there isn't a front door at all.
Yvonne Brown is kind enough to show us her apartment. The toilet doesn't work, the paper dispenser has been ripped out of the wall, the faucets leak, the fridge leaks, there are gaping holes in the bedroom door, the paint is hanging off the ceiling in cracking sheets, there are no smoke detectors, the roaches are as big as your thumb and the mice are everywhere. Brown, who lives here with her two children, ages 3 and 13, pays $ 375 a month for her one-bedroom unit. She hasn't seen Nuyen since 1996.
A sign in the front hall, a keepsake from the building's 1942 opening, says, "Parents! Please Keep Children Out of the Halls! No Eating in Halls."
"Nuyen never cared about the people or even about his own property," says housing inspector Philip Miller, who is riding Nuyen hard now, part of the city's aggressive Hot Properties enforcement campaign. Last week, Nuyen had to turn himself in to D.C. police after the city filed criminal charges against him for failing to correct thousands of housing violations.
Perhaps Nuyen would prefer his place at 1814 Q St. SE, a 13-unit building whose 1950s charm is reflected in the "Fallout Shelter" sign still nailed to the front bricks. One unit is thoroughly burned out. The front door is locked, but a passing gentleman offers to open it with "my special key"--his shoulder bones.
The door to an apartment on the second floor is ajar. Maybe it's an open house. The kitchen features two sinks, one upside down and smashed on the floor, the other right side up, connected and leaking. The bedroom appears to be in use. Hope we're not intruding. Whoever's staying here uses the rear window as an entrance. On second glance, there is no rear window.
Traci Darmon and her husband have been living in a third-floor, one-bedroom apartment for just a week. She's 24 and pregnant, and this is her first place of her own. She pays $ 400 a month, but the landlord has installed Plexiglas sheets where real windows should be. The stove is broken, the coils in the fridge are iced over, and the tub is so worn out and corroded that Darmon wears shoes into the shower.
"My son stays with my mom, but he visits here, and he wouldn't even use the bathroom," Darmon says of her 5-year-old. "He said, 'No, it's nasty.' "
The man who handles problems at Nuyen's three buildings in Southeast lives here. Sam Seymour has worked for Nuyen on and off for more than a decade. Well, "worked for" may not be quite right. Nuyen doesn't pay Seymour a salary. He lets him live at Q Street in exchange for maintenance work. Sometimes, for extra work, Seymour gets a fee.
Seymour says he could fix a lot of the problems here if he had materials. But he says Nuyen won't buy what he needs. When the building's front door vanished one day, the owner "wouldn't get me a door, so I went out and bought one myself," Seymour says.
The other day, a new manager appeared at Q Street, a woman Nuyen has asked to make the building profitable. She's renting out each room separately--one family in a bedroom, another in the living room. She is running a rooming house, which Arla Scott, director of the District's Neighborhood Stabilization Program, says is illegal.
More troublesome, Nuyen's new tenants--who pay $ 150 a week for one room in a one-bedroom unit--must sign a document that says, "The day that I do not pay my rent I promise to move out of the room that I was renting. I waive my right to 3, 5, 7, or 30 day notice if my rent is not paid."
"Totally illegal," Scott says.
I don't imagine Nuyen wants to live here. But I want to find out for certain. He's not home in Avenel. He's not at his office in Hyattsville, where subpoenas and court papers pile up on the receptionist's desk. I find him at his old place, a midsize, two-story brick home in the Fairland section of eastern Montgomery County.
He welcomes the chance to defend himself. He sits on the plush golden couch in a living room decorated in tasteful Oriental furniture, and he is near tears.
"I don't know why they want to get me," he says of the city. "I have 250 units in Washington, and I have problems only in Southeast. They destroy my building. I try so hard, but the law in D.C. protects the tenant so much. They scapegoat me. It's very tough as an Oriental."
It's all the tenants' fault, Nuyen says. "They break the window and blame it on me. We put up the front door three times and the drug people break it. It's hopeless. They make holes in the walls for the drugs and money. I can't afford it anymore. Can't take it anymore. I have to close the buildings."
He bought the buildings in Southeast in 1987. They were a steal--half the price of similar apartments in Maryland. "I thought the area would turn around. It could be a beautiful place. But I was wrong. I don't like to admit it, but I failed." He says he owes the water authority $ 300,000.
Nuyen sits erect, his hands and face clenched as he recites his tenants' misdeeds. "I manage with a good heart," he says. "But they steal from you left and right. The problem is that the tenants are so dirty. The black people, so dirty. Every bedroom has dog [feces], and they don't care. They just walk over it. This is not human. This is animal."
His only hope now is the woman who is converting units into a rooming house. "If that doesn't work, I must close," he says. But isn't it illegal to rent by the room without a license? "Not illegal, no big deal," he says. "The tenants don't like that, it's so crowded. But she has a good approach--rent by the room, and if they don't pay, kick them right out."
Of course Nuyen sees himself as a good guy. How else could he live with himself? I asked whether he would live in one of his buildings in Southeast. He looked at me like I was nuts. "You can't live with these people," he sputters.
In these flush times, a lot of people like to pretend that the only inequity we need worry about in this country is the digital divide. The people who live in David Nuyen's houses are on the wrong side of a refrigerator divide. They don't fret much about having the latest version of Windows; they're more concerned about getting windows.
By Marc Fisher |
March 15, 2007; 6:36 AM ET
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