Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In yet another Columbia Heights apartment complex that has long been home to immigrants and seniors, tenants wonder how long they have left in their homes.

Sixty-two-year-old Ana Maria Ramos moved into 1466 Columbia Road NW half a lifetime ago. She remembers how, 30 years ago, the building’s manager threatened to evict her for being pregnant. She remembers seeing a man violently attacked in the apartment courtyard, his hand sliced clean off by an assailant. She remembers paying less than $300 per month for an efficiency. 

Ramos is the first to admit that life in the building has been far from perfect, but she depends on the stability it has provided her. It’s home.

She fears it may not be for long. Last May, the owners of 1466 Columbia Road NW filed a hardship petition with the District—a document testifying that the revenue generated from the building, which is rent-controlled, has not kept pace with rising costs to maintain it. The apartment building’s owners are asking the city to increase tenants’ monthly rent beyond the standard allowable amount for rent-controlled units, which is the consumer price index plus 2 percent. They want to raise rents by as much as 60 percent over four years.

They can do that because, in D.C., landlords of rent-controlled buildings are effectively entitled to a 12 percent rate of return on their properties. The owners of 1466 Columbia Road NW report a net income just shy of $30,000 annually for the building, which they report costs about $356,000 each year to maintain.

The hardship petition law “is outdated and wholly unfair to tenants,” says Beth Harrison, the director of the Legal Aid Society’s Eviction Defense Project, in an email. Legal Aid is representing the tenants of 1466 Columbia Road NW. “Too often, they lead to high rent increases that price out tenants in situations where the landlord is making a profit and hardly facing a ‘hardship,’” Harrison says. She says Legal Aid found that, in a review of 95 hardship petitions filed between the fiscal years 2007 and 2015, 57 percent of the petitions granted came from properties with positive net income.

Ramos’ 34-unit building sits just one block south of the sprawling DC USA complex on 14th and Irving streets NW, an area that is perhaps the heart of new development in Columbia Heights. In 2016, City Paper reported on the challenges that many of the District’s Latinx residents face in Ward 1 neighborhoods, where developers have snatched up older buildings that have fallen into disrepair with the goal of breaking rent control covenants and boosting profitability. The practice is common around D.C., but is particularly acute in the constellation of neighborhoods in and around Columbia Heights, which the Urban Institute says has experienced some of “the hottest housing boom[s]” of the aughts. 

Ramos and her neighbors have watched their neighborhood change around them. They just didn’t expect to become a casualty of it. 

Over the last year, the building’s tenants, represented by the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) as well as Legal Aid, have engaged in mediation efforts with the building’s owners in attempt to negotiate as low an increase as possible. Tenants who spoke with City Paper say they’re caught between vacating their homes of two or three decades and facing rent increases close to double what they’re paying now, at a time when many are past the point of their peak earning potential.

The owners’ hardship petition includes a proposed schedule for tenants’ new rents. A roughly 60 percent increase would mean leaping, for example, from a $1096 monthly payment for a one-bedroom unit to $1,765. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment across D.C., according to a March report by real estate website Zumper, is $2,150; across the D.C. metropolitan region, it’s about $1,500. 

“For others, it’s a lot harder,” says Johanna Valenzuela, a tenant counselor at CARECEN. Some people “are not in a financial situation” where they can sign on to a price hike of that magnitude. “If it came to that, some might say, ‘Well, I’m going to have to leave,’” Valenzuela says of her clients.

Their frustrations are compounded by concerns about how the building has been maintained. Maira Sanchez, a 51-year-old who has lived in the building for 26 years, says that she’ll be in the shower with shampoo in her hair when the water cuts out without warning. Fifty-seven-year-old Addisu Wondem, a 19-year resident of the building who immigrated from Ethiopia, says that he must sometimes fill up the water tank of his toilet by hand in order to flush it properly. 

Wondem, Sanchez, and Ramos simultaneously burst into laughter at the suggestion that they would ever take their trash out at night, when they say droves of rats cluster in the dumpsters on the property. All three have tackled pest infestations. All three say they have gone nights in the winter without heat. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued or approved 13 notices of housing code violations on April 22 alone, which include mandates to install smoke detectors in tenants’ apartments, fix water leaks that have deteriorated walls inside the building, and repair holes in tenants’ ceilings.

The property’s hardship petition, received by the Department of Housing and Community Development in May of 2018, lists the owner of 1466 Columbia Road NW as a limited liability corporation called New Ravenswood LLC, with an address courtesy of The Barac Co., a property management company that maintains thousands of units across the District. 

The listed authorized representative for New Ravenswood LLC, Anthony Bruno, is also working on behalf of Barac, according to the document. 

Business registration filings with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs show that the registered agent of New Ravenswood LLC is Barac, and public property records show that the registered owner of 1466 Columbia Road NW is Barac. 

When City Paper reached out to Bruno for comment, he wrote in an email that “naturally—it’s not that cut and dry. Barac is not the owner that filed the [hardship petition]—Barac is the Management Agent.” Bruno then directed City Paper to local real estate attorney Richard Luchs, who “is representing the owners,” Bruno wrote. (Of Barac’s fingerprints on the building’s public property records, he says, “The Barac Co is the Registered Agent for many entities. This one included.”) Luchs, who is perhaps most well known for successfully exploiting loopholes in the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act on behalf of property owners, did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment. 

While some tenants, like Sanchez, say they would consider taking a buyout if it proved enough to serve as a down payment for a house—some of CARECEN’s clients in the Park View and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods have taken buyouts ranging between $20,000 and $30,000—Ramos sees her options as limited. She points out, for example, that she doesn’t know if she’ll live long enough to pay off a 30-year home loan.    

“Yo no. Yo no, porque yo estoy vieja,” Ramos says. Not for me, because I am old. So Ramos will stay at 1466 Columbia Road NW, fighting for as little of a rent increase as possible, because she doesn’t know what else to do.