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Abusing the system?

City uses ‘bar orders’ to restrict poor, disabled, senior tenants in own homes

(Published September 10, 2001)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer



Leona Thomas shows off water damage to her living room at Regency House,
a publicly owned apartment building for seniors and disabled residents in
upper Northwest. Thomas said her floor has been repaired four times since
December 1999 because the leaks that cause the damage have not been fixed.

When Daisy Olarotimi spoke up about maintenance problems that had long been troubling residents at her city-owned apartment building, she thought she was being a good neighbor.

But the building’s manager, an agent for the D.C. Housing Authority, branded Olarotimi a troublemaker.

And in a recent, controversial use by DCHA of a legal measure usually used to stop non-resident drug dealers from trespassing on its property, Olarotimi soon found herself legally "barred" by DCHA from entering most areas of her own building: the lobby, the laundry room, the parking garage – every place, in fact, except her own apartment.

Olarotimi, 57, who suffers from a heart condition and debilitating arthritis in her knees and ankles, is a resident of Regency House apartments at 5201 Connecticut Ave. NW, an outwardly attractive nine-story building just south of Chevy Chase Circle. Regency House is a DCHA-operated residence for seniors and disabled persons.

In recent years, according to Olarotimi and other residents, Regency House has been plagued by a host of chronic problems: breakdowns of the heat and hot water systems, failures of the air conditioning system, and serious leaks, from both the air conditioning system and the roof, which have caused heavy damage to ceilings, walls and wood floors throughout the building.

"I had working air conditioning for maybe five days this summer," claimed Olarotimi during an August visit. The temperature in the apartment, according to the wall thermostat, was 86 degrees. "On really hot nights, I sleep at a friend’s house," she said.

Olarotimi said she was barred from Regency House in January, when Regency House residents had to endure several outages of heat and hot water during a week when temperatures outside were in the 20s.

"You couldn’t know when you got out of bed in the morning if you’d be able to take a hot shower," said Olarotimi.

Another resident said that the outages had sometimes lasted for three or four days at a time.

Olarotimi, who is a former Ward 8 ANC commissioner, D.C. government employee and housing activist, said it seemed natural to speak up about Regency House’s maintenance problems.

"I stay active trying to help out the residents," she said. "And residents know I’ll go to management for them, so they seek me out."

After a week of heat and hot water breakdowns, she said she wrote a DCHA contact number on a piece of paper, made several copies and put them under some of her neighbors’ doors. She said she urged the neighbors to call DCHA if the problems continued.

Several did — and five days later, on Jan. 26, Olarotimi got a letter from Jose Flora, property manager at Regency House.

The letter first acknowledged the recent breakdowns — but then went on to complain about calls from residents to DCHA. "[T]he DCHA Command Center…was called several times from angry residents about the lack of heat and hot water," the letter said.

The letter also made a further charge against Olarotimi: Flora said he had seen Olarotimi remove management announcement flyers from two residents’ doors, calling this an act of vandalism.

Olarotimi denied the latter charge. "That’s just ridiculous," she said.

She said the apartments’ residents were away — one out of the country and the other in a nursing home -- and both had asked her to collect notices and newspapers in their absence.

Flora’s letter then announced the actions DCHA was taking against Olarotimi: "Effective immediately," the letter said, "management is barring you from all areas of the building except your unit, until you have your day in court."

The letter also announced DCHA’s intention to evict Olarotimi. "We will do all we can in Landlord and Tenant Court to make sure that we receive possession of your unit," it said.

"The first thing I thought was, "Where am I going to do my laundry?" Olarotimi said in a recent interview. "And if I’m barred from the lobby, how do I pick up my mail?"

The letter also said Olarotimi was barred from visiting "Other Residents’ apartments."

"How could they stop me from visiting my neighbors?" Olarotimi asked incredulously. "You know, just because you live in public housing doesn’t mean you give up your constitutional rights."

Barring notices are typically used against non-residents engaged in trespassing or other illegal activities. (See sidebar, "Barring notices by the book")

Critics of DCHA’s use of barring notices like the one levied against Olarotimi, which restrict the movements and activities of residents inside their own buildings, say that this application raises a host of legal questions.

Barbara Rice, a private-practice lawyer who often represents residential landlords in legal matters, said Olarotimi’s barring notice seemed to violate a tenant’s right to full use of her residence.

"It’s ridiculous," said Rice. "As far as I know, that would be impermissible. If there’s a lease in existence, the landlord cannot prevent the tenant from making use of all of the building’s facilities."

Other observers challenged the DCHA practice on broader grounds.

"It seems to us that that would make a farce of an individual’s constitutional rights. It’s almost like a banning order in the old apartheid South Africa," commented James McGrath, president of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Organization.

And Carl Messineo, a consumer rights lawyer who has represented public housing tenants, said, "It’s clearly against public policy to restrict people’s activities in order to stop activism, or efforts to improve the environment in which they live."

DCHA spokesman Arthur Jones defended use of barring notices on residents in their own buildings. "If somebody intrudes, impedes or becomes a bother to others’ quality of life, we have a responsibility to protect our residents," he said.

He declined to comment directly on Olarotimi’s case.

In July, The Common Denominator reported on a case with some similarities to Olarotimi’s, involving alleged DCHA harassment of a medically disabled public housing resident and his live-in health aide.

Harry Winter, the resident council president at Horizon House, another city-run building for senior and disabled residents, and Evette Tippett, the aide, have acted together in recent years as critics of various DCHA policies. Earlier this year, Tippett gathered resident signatures for a campaign to replace DCHA with a resident-run corporation as managers of Horizon House. In June, both Winter and Tippett helped organize a public rally in support of a similar effort at two other DCHA properties.

In April, DCHA officials demanded that Winter sign a document barring Tippett from all areas of Horizon House outside of Winter’s apartment, and forbidding her to contact other residents. The order also required Winter to attest, in contradiction of an affidavit from his doctor on file with DCHA since 1999, that he had no need for Tippett’s help during the day. After the June protest rally, a DCHA official ordered Winter to fire Tippett, saying she had violated the terms of that order; when he refused, the official ordered that Winter, too, be evicted. The matter is pending.

"They make up their own laws as they go along," said Winter. "It’s a control thing. They just want people to shut their mouths."

Not all barring notices have been served on outspoken activists: Naomi O’Farrow, a resident of another DCHA-run building, Claridge Tower, last year received an order barring her from all of that building’s common areas after a series of run-ins with a security guard over alleged minor infractions. They included chatting with a friend for more than 30 minutes in the building’s lobby and "loitering" on the sidewalk outside the building while she waited for a friend to arrive.

And Donnessa Thomas, a neighbor and supporter of Olarotimi’s efforts at Regency House, said she received a barring notice in February, shortly after Olarotimi received hers. Thomas said her barring notice was ostensibly for playing loud music. But she argued that it actually had come from supporting Olarotimi’s efforts on behalf of residents.

"I had been going around the building knocking on doors, telling people not to be scared, that we could get something done if we all stuck together," she said.

She said she felt uncomfortable discussing her case with a reporter.

"Daisy was trying to speak up for us," she said. "A lot of people were intimidated — as I am now."

"I got a lawyer and got them to lift (the barring notice)," she said. "So now they’re leaving me alone. I want to keep it that way."

Olarotimi and other residents said that Regency House’s management often responds to maintenance complaints with hostility or threats.

On an afternoon last month, Olarotimi dropped in on resident Leona Thomas (no relation to Donnessa Thomas). Thomas couldn’t sit down in her living room because most of the wooden tiles from the living room floor had been pulled up that morning, and swaths of bright yellow police tape were strung across the room, blocking it off.

Thomas said that because of water damage from leaks, this was the fourth time since she moved in, in December 1999, that her floor needed to be redone.

She said that earlier that day, assistant manager Angela Conyer had come by to check on the repairs – and accused Thomas of causing the problems herself.

Thomas, who is mildly developmentally disabled and has a strong speech impediment, said Conyer snapped at her, "Don’t let that happen again."

"She said, ‘This didn’t happen overnight.’ She said it was my fault, and I need to report it to the office."

"She made me feel sad," Thomas said.

But, said Thomas, "I’ve told them and told them. I tell them every time it starts to leak."

Both Flora and Conyer declined to comment without clearance from DCHA superiors. DCHA spokesman Jones said that the agency would not allow them to comment for "legal" reasons. Asked to specify, he replied, "Look, [an interview] is not going to happen."

Resident Herbert Ford, who said his own apartment ceiling has water damage — "The other day my blinds fell down from the ceiling, because the wet plaster just gave way" — said he has been visiting Leona Thomas and other residents whose apartments have substantial water damage, urging them to complain about the problem to management.

He said that Conyer told him that he was breaking the law by talking to Thomas and others.

"She told me that I have no authority to go to other apartments with a petition — which I didn’t have," he said. "She said she was going to call the housing authority and write me up."

Later, after Ford left, Olarotimi said, "You know what that means. I bet they hit him with a bar notice."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator