Low-Income Renters Squeezed Between Too-High Rents And Subpar Housing Tenants often stop paying rent to force the repair of poor conditions in the only housing they can afford. But landlords say can't fix the problems until they get the rent. It's a vicious cycle.

Low-Income Renters Squeezed Between Too-High Rents And Subpar Housing

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Some low-income tenants don't pay their rent because they don't have enough money. Others have complaints about their apartments - rodents, no heat, broken sinks. But when tenants don't pay, landlords have less money to fix things up. It's a vicious cycle that can often land the parties in court. NPR's Pam Fessler has the third in our series on the shortage of affordable housing and its impact on tenants and landlords.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Terrell Walker lives in a one-bedroom apartment in southeast Washington, D.C. with her two daughters, ages 9 and 2. When Walker's at her job as a coach for disabled workers, her mother, Patsy Yates, watches the girls. It's on one of those days that Yates shows the conditions that led her daughter to stop paying the rent and to fight her landlord's eviction threat in court.

PATSY YATES: If you sit right here by this window, like, you're sitting watching TV the wind is coming in the window so bad that you can feel it. The bathroom is extra cold. That bedroom back there is extra cold. So I usually try to boil some water or something to try to keep it warm in here.

FESSLER: But she says that's dangerous with a little child running around.

YATES: You don't ever know when she's going to hit that stove.

FESSLER: And the apartment is crowded for three people. There's a bed with a bright pink comforter in the living room. This building is more than 50 years old. The baseboard heaters are falling away from the wall, although they're warm to the touch. Then Yates has me feel around the window frames.

YATES: See, you feel the wind. It doesn't stay warm in here.

FESSLER: I can feel it. This is - this is really, really cold.

YATES: Yeah, yeah.

FESSLER: In fact there's an actual breeze, at least where there's no newspaper stuffed into the cracks. Yates also says the appliances are old and don't work that well. And in the bathroom...

YATES: He never glazed the tub right. So the inspector asked him to re-glaze it. He ain't done that.

FESSLER: The tub's finish is all worn off and corroded around the drain. Yates says her daughter and grandchildren also had a bedbug infestation last year, which makes paying $727 a month in rent seem like an insult.

TERRELL WALKER: Hello, my name is Terrell Walker. I'm basically just here today to try to get justice.

FESSLER: That's Walker a week later outside the landlord-tenant branch of D.C.'s Superior Court. It's the second time she's been here since her landlord sued her for not paying the rent. Walker has asked for a trial so she can make her case that she shouldn't have to pay until the place is fixed up. Like other tenants, Walker carries what she hopes will be evidence - a manila envelope filled with papers, including lead inspection reports, photos and her handwritten list of everything she's found wrong with the apartment.

WALKER: I've complained about it. And I've gotten nothing done.

FESSLER: Still the legal process is time-consuming and frustrating. There was supposed to be a hearing today to decide how much money she should pay into escrow during the trial. The landlord's witness didn't show. So after three hours the parties agreed to postpone the hearing. But Walker had already taken off work to be here. Now she's out a whole day's pay.

WALKER: Something that I really can't afford for them to basically tell me that I have to come back again - you know, to take off. So it's like nothing really got solved today.

FESSLER: And that's how it often goes in the court. Few tenants have attorneys, which can put them at a disadvantage because almost every landlord has a lawyer. Aaron Sokolow represents Walker's landlord. He wouldn't talk about her specific case. But he did say low-income renters aren't as powerless as it might seem, especially in Washington, D.C. where tenant protections are strong.

AARON SOKOLOW: In my experience there's very little risk that a tenant will flat-out lose a case because they don't understand what's going on.

FESSLER: Sokolow says, instead, some tenants have become adept at claiming housing code violations to avoid paying rent. They could take their complaints to a separate housing conditions court. But he says they go to the landlord-tenant branch where they can drag the process out for months - time when the landlord isn't getting paid.

SOKOLOW: And that's a great frustration for a lot of my clients. They say, I'm not excused of my tax payment. I'm not excused of my mortgage payment. So the notion that I have to come out of pocket for 18 months of litigation, it can get very daunting very quickly.

ART NALLS: We have a gas range, gas stove, no disposal in this one. Some do. Some don't.

FESSLER: Art Nalls is a landlord who owns two apartment buildings in the city. He's showing me one of the units. Nalls thinks it's important that low-income residents have a decent place to live.

NALLS: We try to take care of people and we try to offer a good, decent affordable housing at a reasonable rate.

FESSLER: But he says if people don't pay their rent that's difficult to do.

NALLS: It means that I can't cover all that other stuff. So I have to call my refrigerator guy and says I'm going to have to pay you next month when I get rent. It's that tight. It's that tight. This is not - we're not making a bazillion dollars here.

FESSLER: Nalls thinks one answer is more government subsidies for low-income housing. Otherwise, he says landlords eventually get tired of the hassle and sell out, a problem when affordable housing is so hard to find. The Joint Center For Housing Studies at Harvard says the number of low-cost rental units grew only 10 percent over the past decade while the number of low-income renters grew 40 percent. And that squeezed more people into apartments they can't afford or that are not in the best shape.

PAMULA GLOVER: When I turned this on last Saturday, when I flipped this right here, electricity shot out.

FESSLER: Pamula Glover is showing me the thermostat in her apartment in southeast D.C. Glover was recently in landlord-tenant court with some neighbors who were being sued for not paying their rent. Glover says she has water leaks, mold and a constantly beeping fire alarm. She admits 815 a month for a two-bedroom apartment is a bargain. But still.

GLOVER: I could be paying a dollar. I still want to live comfortable - you know? I still want to be safe. We don't even have security around here no more. They shoot around here like it's a job.

FESSLER: She says the gunfire's so bad at night she sleeps at an angle in her first-floor bedroom to stay out of the line of fire. The company that runs her apartment, Oakmont Management, wouldn't comment. It's being sued by the city for unlivable conditions at another apartment. Glover says her place has been allowed to go downhill too. She grew up nearby and recalls looking at these apartments and thinking they were so nice. If she lived here, she'd be rich. Now she doesn't know where else to go. Neither doesn't Terrell Walker who doesn't make much more than minimum wage.

WALKER: I honestly think for me to get into a decent home with my income, it would be very hard. It would be very hard because I wouldn't be able to afford it. Not with the prices that they have these days. I wouldn't be able to afford that. I just - I wouldn't.

FESSLER: Walker says anything over $800 a month is out of her league. Anything under 800 is pretty much what she already has. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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