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A $494,994 BILL

Graham, WASA ask court to seize apartments over unpaid water bills

(Published November 1, 1999)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

City officials are taking the unusual step of seeking court seizure of a Columbia Heights apartment building to protect hundreds of tenants who would otherwise face eviction due to an impending water cutoff at the building.

Current and past owners of the 61-unit building at 1458 Columbia Road NW have accumulated a debt of $494,994 for water bills that have gone unpaid for approximately 12 years, according to officials at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA).

Water service to the building was scheduled to be discontinued Nov. 1 until Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham intervened at the request of WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson.

Graham said he has been "assured by WASA that they will not turn off the water" to the building.

City lawyers have asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to place the building in receivership, which would allow WASA to begin collecting fees for current water service. However, a receivership would not address payment of the delinquent account.

"How could this go on for so long? How can you accumulate half a million dollars in unpaid water bills?" Graham said, expressing indignation over the city’s failure to act sooner to collect the debt from a landlord who continues to collect what the councilman estimated to be about $30,000 per month in rents from his tenants.

"Turning off the water would only be punitive for the tenants," he said. "I’m glad we were able to target the real culprit in this case."

Graham said he recently visited about 10 apartments in the building, located in his ward, and found many to be lacking hot water. An aide to Graham, who has been working with the tenants and helping them locate legal and other assistance, said the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs recently sent inspectors to the building. She said they documented 600 housing code violations in the first 38 apartments they inspected on Oct. 20 and 21.

Graham said he is investigating whether criminal charges can be lodged against the landlord.

WASA spokeswoman Libby Lawson said ownership of the building has changed hands three times during the period when the delinquent water bills accumulated. Lawson said the landlord of record who owes most of the outstanding debt is Andrew J. Serafin of McLean, Va. The building’s current owner is Washington Fernwood Apart-ments Inc., of which Lawson said Serafin is vice president.

A woman who answered the phone at Serafin’s Virginia office said he was out-of-town. He did not return the call for comment.

Although WASA normally uses the threat of cutting off water service to leverage overdue bill payments, Lawson said the agency took the unusual step of seeking a receivership in this case due to the unlikelihood that the building’s tenants could make such a large payment to prevent the water cutoff.

WASA cut off service to one smaller apartment building at 3415 Croffut Place SE last month when that landlord failed to pay the delinquent $66,222 water bill.

WASA was created as an independent government agency in 1996 to resolve problems within the old Water and Sewer Utility Administration, which was part of the D.C. Department of Public Works. The new agency’s officials pledged to create a strong, enforceable collections policy to address the water administration’s out-of-control delinquent bill problem.

Lawson noted that the current threatened cutoffs are part of the collections process that began this summer with publication of 121 delinquent accounts.

"Over half have come in and paid or made payment arrangements," she said. WASA has collected more than $800,000 so far in this phase of the process, she added.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator