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City-funded condo conversion leaves homes without sewers since 1981

(Published Dec. 4, 2000)



Staff Writers

Raw sewage floods the bathtub and entire bathroom of a basement condominium in the 100 block of Danbury Street SW. The sewers in the building, part of the Elmwood South complex that was refurbished in 1981 with the help of D.C. tax dollars, were never connected to the city’s sewer lines.

The walls in Robert Smith’s basement on Danbury Street SW show the damage caused by nearly 20 years of raw sewage flooding his condominium.


Robert Smith keeps his sump pump running 24 hours a day, pumping raw sewage out of his basement and into the alley behind his condo building on Danbury Street SW.

That’s because the sewer lines under the building, which was converted to condominiums with the help of D.C. tax dollars in 1981, were never hooked up to the city’s sewer lines.

So anytime someone flushes a toilet or takes a shower at the condo complex, the human waste is absorbed into the soil under and around the buildings – often creating visible pools of sewage in the 33 homeowners’ basements before getting there.

"This is probably the only place in the nation’s capital without sewers," said James L. Womack, executive director of the Greater Washington Mutual Housing Association, who has represented the condo owners’ association for the past three years.

The problem is not a new one.

And the owners of the Elmwood South Condominiums – saddled with sewer bills, mortgages and, as Womack describes it, "nowhere else to go" – can’t understand how city officials could have approved occupancy permits for their homes without proper sewer service or why the city has waited nearly 20 years to try to correct the problem.

Womack has armed the residents with abundant evidence of the problem – including laboratory tests that show the drinking water being delivered to the complex through sewage-soaked ground is contaminated. Residents attribute some of their health problems to the living conditions. And the homeowners’ association has already invested thousands of dollars in digging to repair broken sewer lines and to uncover the spot where the city-financed builder failed to connect the interior sewer pipes to the city’s main line.

City officials have been unable to identify the builder for Womack and also were unable to do so for The Common Denominator.

"This is intolerable," Womack said. "Somebody needs to do something, but it’s been falling on deaf ears....I’m getting almost as tired as the residents are of fighting city hall."

The city has been promising to fix the problem for years, so residents remain skeptical that the Williams administration will follow through on its recent pledge to provide $400,000 of assistance.

Smith said he’s heard it all before.

"I talked to everybody except the president of the United States," he said. "Everybody I talk to says it’s gonna be fixed since 1982 and here it is 2000."

Most of the basement units of the condo complex in the 100 block of Danbury Street SW have been damaged over the years by sewage backing up through toilets and bathtubs and seeping in from the ground. Smith keeps a teddy bear stuffed into the toilet in his basement to keep the sewage from coming up through there. His basement walls show damage from the wastewater as high as 18 inches. And he said his daughter has suffered from respiratory problems for years.

Some of the units have been rendered uninhabitable by the problem. On a recent tour of the complex, just off South Capitol Street near the Maryland border, the unit next to Smith’s had a bathtub full of raw sewage. The toilet had backed up and overflowed into the bathroom. The smell of fecal matter permeated the entire building.

By far the worst was the unit at the end of the building, the farthest down the hill. Damage on the walls climbs as high as four feet and the stench is so powerful that windows have to be kept open at all times to try to minimize the odor in adjoining, inhabited units.

Workers tracing the problem for the mutual housing association in 1998 dug up the basement floor of this unit and discovered that the building’s waste line is a full 12 inches lower than the pipe that leads to the city sewers. Construction workers simply left the line unattached rather than digging to reset the city line at the proper elevation.

The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is preparing to release $400,000 to the condo owners as early as the first week of December to lay new sewer and water lines and repair the units, a spokeswoman said.

But Womack said that amount the city has promised is not enough to cover the basic work – and the problem is worsening.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, raw sewage began filling the basement of a previously unaffected unit farther up the hill. According to Womack, all but three of the basements between 100 and 128 Danbury St. SW have been damaged by the untreated sewage that now saturates the ground around the buildings.

Womack said the lowest bid he has gotten for the repair work would still leave the condo owners paying nearly $10,000 above what the city plans to provide. If the city health department or the Environmental Protection Agency decides that contaminated soil has to be removed from the site, that could push the cost into millions of dollars, Womack estimates.

"The city’s got to come up with more money," he said. "It’s not fair to put this off on the people. They’re the innocent bystanders."

Womack said the health problems alone should have prompted city action long ago. He said the drinking water coming into the building has been tested and fecal contamination was found in the tap water. He said this is because the incoming water lines are so old they are cracked and broken in places, allowing the sewage in the soil to be carried into the water lines. The D.C. Department of Health has largely been unresponsive to the situation, Womack said.

"The health department never has come out and issued a report to these people," he said. "There’s been nothing from those (health department) people."

The ongoing sewer problems are only the latest chapter in the troubled history of the buildings. The Washington Post reported in 1980 that after changing owners several times, the apartment buildings were abandoned by their last owner, leaving tenants with unpaid utility bills, no electricity or water service, and unsafe living conditions due to unmade repairs.

After the city seized the apartment buildings from their owner, DHCD approved a $1.7 million grant to pay to convert the apartments into townhouses and some multifamily units. The condo conversion was claimed as a victory for tenants’ rights by city officials, and the high-profile case even prompted the city council to pass a measure prohibiting utility companies from shutting off service to apartment building tenants if landlords failed to pay their bills.

The director of DHCD at the time, Robert L. Moore, said he doesn’t remember who the contractor for the project was and said trying to find city records on the project would be nearly impossible. A current project manager at DHCD said he wouldn’t know where to locate any record that old. Those records would identify the architect, contractor and city inspectors on the project.

While the city works to release the $400,000 to the condo association, the costs of the project keep escalating, Womack said. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority recently told him that it would not waive any fees for connecting the water and sewer lines to meters, even though the residents have been paying for non-existent sewer service for the past 19 years. And with the damage creeping up the hill into other units, homeowners face the possibility of not being able to afford the repairs even with the city’s money.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator