Dorchester House tenants' fight highlights issues with D.C. rent-control law

Disputes between landlords and tenants are not uncommon in big cities
with thousands of apartment and townhouse dwellers. But D.C. officials,
landlords, tenants and housing experts agree: The battle between the
owners and managers of the Dorchester House,
an aging brick apartment building in Adams Morgan, and some of its
nearly 400 tenants is the strangest, the longest and the most fractious
such conflict in this city's long history.

The dispute began in 1979, when tenants accused the building's owners
and managers of illegally including air-conditioning charges in their
base rent. The cash-strapped tenants association, led by a handful of
20-year residents, has $18,000 in unpaid legal bills and a laundry list
of demands. One of the building's co-owners, John Hoskinson, has said
the legal battle is now being carried on by the Dorchester's "oddballs."

The Dorchester's troubles underscore, in the most extreme way, lingering
issues with the city's 35-year-old rent-control laws, which will
probably be made permanent next year. With Washington's rents rising at a faster pace
than those of almost any other major U.S. city, the push to convert
many low-income apartments into market-rate housing has taken on an
added impetus.

In 2000, about 100,000 rental units in the District were
rent-controlled. A decade later, according to various estimates, there
are between 10,000 and 25,000 fewer rent-controlled units.

But in some cases, despite the steep rent increases, low-income tenants
have stayed in their apartments and fought change. And those fights can
take a long time. The appeals process with the D.C. Housing and
Community Development takes years. And years. And years.

"My assistant is younger than some of these cases," said B. Marian Chou,
an attorney for the Dorchester Tenants' Association. "People die,
people move out, but these cases keep going on."

In the past two decades, many of the District's older apartment
buildings, such as the Dorchester, have been bought, renovated and
changed from affordable rent-controlled housing into profitable
developments, said Jim McGrath, chairman of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition,
which works on behalf of tenants groups. The result: fewer privately
owned, low-income housing options in areas undergoing small
renaissances, such as Northwest Washington's Adams Morgan, the U Street
corridor and the Shaw neighborhood.

The theory of rent control

Eleanor Johnson, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who has
lived in her ninth-floor apartment at the Dorchester for 15 years, has
seen her rent nearly double from $675 on move-in day. As tenant
association president, Johnson has filed complaints against the
Dorchester's owners and management over air-conditioning outages,
surcharges and the decision to install a $10 million individual
electrical meter system.

"You have a revolving door here now with people moving in and moving
out, signing short-term leases. It undermines rent control," Johnson
said. "And it has been absolute hell."

The District's rent controls limit rent increases to about 2 percent
plus inflation, or no more than 10 percent a year. Rent increases for
the elderly and disabled are capped at 5 percent a year. One-time rent
increases on vacant units are set at 30 percent.

The Rental Housing Act of 1985 was designed to protect tenants from
rising costs and provide incentives for new construction and
improvements. Facing another expiration on the act next year, the D.C.
Council is considering making the city's rent-control laws permanent.

The idea is to codify rent-control regulations so tenants can fight
cases filed on constitutional grounds. A permanent law would allow the
city to cite itself as "being a perpetually attractive locality for
wealthy individuals" resulting in "a perpetual state of emergency in
terms of its ability to ensure affordable housing for the poor,"
according to the office of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

In 2006, the city made the most sweeping changes
to its rent-control statutes in more than two decades, capping yearly
rent increases, changing the way vacant rent-controlled apartments are
priced, and making it easier for tenants to form tenant associations and
to receive information on how rents are computed. The moves were a
response to the city's rapidly shrinking, and increasingly expensive,
rental housing stock.

The economic downturn, coupled with the District's booming rental
development market, has given developers incentives to move away from
rent-controlled housing. About a third of the 216 units in the Cleveland
House, on 29th Street NW, were deemed moderately affordable in 1999 -
between $500 and $1,000 a month. Within seven years, only eight of those
apartments remained.

Apartment building owners say the ability to charge market rents for
newly vacant units has allowed them to renovate and improve their
buildings and preserve low rents for existing tenants. Strict rent
controls, they argue, have forced many smaller owners to sell or convert
their properties.

"The way the D.C. laws are, it really doesn't pay to be involved in
rent-control housing," said Shaun Pharr, senior vice president of
government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.

A storied building

Like many large Washington apartment complexes of its generation, the art deco Dorchester was a prize
when it opened in 1941. Standing nine stories high near the crown of
Meridian Hill Park, the Dorchester's rooftop terrace towers above much
of Washington and provides sweeping views of the monuments and the
Fourth of July fireworks on the Mall. A young Navy ensign named John F.
Kennedy lived in Apartment 502 for a brief spell when the building

Decay and crime plagued the Ward 1 neighborhood near 16th and Euclid
streets NW in the 1980s. In 1984, tenants won a $1.1 million ruling
after alleging that the Dorchester was in substandard condition, with
numerous housing code violations, and that the managers had violated
their legal rent ceiling. At the time, it was one of the largest fines
ever imposed by the city.

Despite the settlement, several issues were left outstanding. Residents
wanted fire alarms installed and a new laundry room. Leaky roofs needed
to be fixed, and a working central air-conditioning system was sorely
needed, residents said. A new management company, Borger Management,
arrived in 2005. Some changes were made, but the old fight remained.

"Some of these cases go on and on and only stop when people die or they
move out," said Hoskinson, one of the building's owners. "But eventually
the cases that stick around just trickle down into irrelevance."

Johnson, said she has no plans to stop fighting. "I'm not going anywhere," she said.

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