The third floor of 1618 21st St. NW gets lonesome when Maj. Wayne Pieringer is out of town, says his neighbor, Cinnamon Balmuth. Pieringer’s away a lot on Air Force business, and with war looming he could be deployed any day now. His absence will be acutely felt. The third-floor community is small and tightly knit. Mostly small. Besides Pieringer and Balmuth, the only other tenant is a retiree, a World War II vet with a Jason-like hockey mask adorning his apartment door. He mostly keeps to himself, says Balmuth, although recently he’s taken to communicating via notes. “It feels so empty,” she says.
The rest of the building is even emptier. The retired woman one floor down is often away visiting relatives in New Jersey. Balmuth doesn’t bump into the guy who lives on the ground floor much, but sometimes he plays his stereo loudly enough to be heard in the hallways upstairs. No one lives on the fourth floor.
According to the most recent deadline imposed by the Phillips Collection, 1618’s neighbor and landlord, all 15 apartments in the building must be vacant by March 3. The museum first said it was going to kick residents out in 1999, when it contracted to buy the building; officially notified them in 2001, when it purchased the building for $1.4 million; and has repeated its intentions many times since. Sixteen-eighteen is a 20th-century apartment conversion of two 19th-century town houses; the Phillips plans to demolish all but its white stucco facade and erect a $25 million modern-art study center in its place.
The five remaining tenants have been able to stay this long through the intervention of Michele White, who lives a block away and owns a business that rents short-term housing to executives. Through a provision in D.C. tenant law, White is trying to force the Phillips to sell the building to her so she can keep it residential and let the people living there stay at their current affordable rates. As units in the building became vacant, she would furnish them for executive rental.
“I’m the ‘White Knight,’” says White. “Without me, the tenants would be out on the street.” But a judge recently ruled that the museum’s proposed sale price of $7.8 million —which White dismissed as too expensive—was “bona fide” under the tenant law, tipping the scales against her.
This, says White’s attorney, is the “endgame.” Meanwhile, Balmuth, who’s lived in the building for about seven years, isn’t even sure which date the latest notice says she has to pack up and leave by. “I’ve pretty much ignored them all, you know?”
Inside, the building isn’t much to look at. The hallways’ yellowish paint is peeling. The lights are out in the back stairwell. The lobby is cluttered with ads for a moving company. But rent control has cast its spell. When you live at the end of the rainbow, paying half what others on the block are paying to live in one of the District’s priciest neighborhoods, you’re not looking to leave. Balmuth and her fellow bitter-enders seem intent on waiting for the U.S. marshals to come knocking.
Until that happens, they expect the Phillips to play the role of landlord to the fullest. Balmuth says the Phillips—the guardian of van Goghs and Renoirs—has neglected the property. She points to a hole in the lobby ceiling above the entrance door, where there is water damage. She complains about litter that never seems to get picked up off the shrubbery out front. It took a phone call to the building manager to get a dead bird removed from the sidewalk, and at one point, the building didn’t have hot water for three days. “They haven’t been great neighbors,” says Balmuth.
The biggest outrage, she says, was being told that a broken clothes dryer wasn’t going to be replaced because all the tenants would soon be gone anyway. “I threatened to call Channel 7,” says Balmuth, a public-relations consultant. “The next day, we had a dryer.”
George Siasoco, an administrative official at the Peace Corps and the lone ground-floor resident, pays only $600 in rent after six years in his studio apartment. He says the Phillips’ new building manager is marginally more responsive than the one under previous ownership. But when he needed the museum’s OK to get a DirecTV satellite dish installed, he couldn’t even get his calls returned.
“It’s the little things,” says Pieringer. Pieringer used to pay $100 a month to park his BMW in the apartment building’s parking lot. Last spring, the Phillips posted a sign restricting parking to employees only. For a couple of months, Pieringer continued to write out checks to the building manager and to park in the lot. This past summer, he received a ticket, and he’s not parking there anymore. (Pieringer was reimbursed for his payments.) “Basically, they are ignoring the fact that people are here,” he says.
Or at least trying to. “We have not made improvements,” admits Richard Rutledge, the Phillips’ deputy director. “Frankly, that’s not what this is. We’ve been saying for a long, long time that we’re not interested in continuing to run an apartment building, and we’ve made no moves to signify we are.”
Sometimes what Balmuth sees as the Phillips’ abdication of responsibility gets to her, and she feels moved to speak truth to power, although not to Rutledge himself. On one recent occasion, she marched next door and vented on the guy minding the Phillips’ ticket counter. “I told him, ‘They’re trying to kick me out. Can I have some passes?’” He obliged.
Housing limbo has its benefits. With White covering legal fees both for herself and for the tenants’ eviction cases, the residents of 1618 have had little reason to give up their fight. “I got what I wanted out of this situation: lesser rent for however long I could get it,” says Siasoco. CP