On Nov. 5, the Begum sisters were at home in their second-floor apartment at 1846 Vernon St. NW when they heard the first explosion. The noise woke up Rashida; Rabia was doing her homework. The explosion was followed by a second one, this time right outside their door. Their building was on fire.
Like the majority of the building’s residents, the Begums are Bangladeshi immigrants. Rashida, 23, studies public health at UDC; Rabia, 20, is a biomedical student at Montgomery College. Despite the building’s crumbling hallways and general state of neglect, large middle-class immigrant families have moved in to 1846 Vernon and its next-door twin, 1840, with uncles and cousins living across the hall from one another. The Begums had lived there four years when the fire broke out.
“I turned my head towards the front door and saw flames outside our doorway,” Rabia recounts later. “Then my mother, brother, sister, and I ran to the balcony near our kitchen and started to scream for help.”
Meanwhile, upstairs, one woman who was alone with her two children opened the door, saw smoke, and made a very quick decision: “She take our two baby in her arms and just go down, run down the stairs,” recounts her husband, who has asked that his family’s names not be used.
Just down the hall, Anowara Begum (no relation to Rashida or Rabia) was also home with her two children, but she decided not to brave the stairwell; she threw open the window and, with the children, began climbing three stories down a drainpipe outside. On the second floor, the drainpipe was either already broken or broke under the weight, and everyone fell. The kids, according to Begum’s husband, Abdul Kader, were OK. Begum was not so lucky—her ankle shattered into a dozen pieces when she hit the ground.
The fire department has called the fire arson, and a criminal investigation is now under way. “We know it was deliberately set,” says department spokesperson Alan Etter. “An accelerant was used in more than one part of the building.”
This news hardly comes as a surprise to the tenants of 1846 Vernon—the fire was just the latest, but by far the most serious, in a series of mysterious incidents. And residents believe that the episodes may be connected to their vacating the premises.
One year ago, the tenants of 1840 and 1846 Vernon received a letter from their landlord, Perseus Realty LLC, informing them that the building needed to be stripped of asbestos and lead paint. Residents had 120 days to vacate. Using a provision of D.C. real-estate law, Perseus had received approval from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to clear out the buildings in order to perform what they claimed were needed repairs.
In addition to the notice, a Perseus representative went door-to-door and offered tenants $500 to sign a statement agreeing to vacate, with another $500 promised once they left.
According to D.C. law, a tenant who has to vacate his unit under these circumstances retains the right to return paying the same rent. But the agreement that the tenants were asked to sign, say local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alan Roth and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who have both seen the document, waives that right.
And with those rights waived, Perseus would have an empty building in the heart of Adams Morgan ready to be renovated and converted to condominiums that could be sold at a hefty profit. “This is not about fixing the building,” says Graham, who is investigating the matter. “They are market developers of luxury condos. They are not involved in this to replace some lead pipes.”
After Graham started asking questions and new, more-tenant-friendly staff took over at the DCRA, the agency rescinded the orders to vacate and was charged with looking into the asbestos and lead issues itself. In the meantime, the residents could stay.
It was around then that life on Vernon Street started to get rough. According to tenants, attempts by management to get them to take the cash and leave continued. At first, the offers were low—one resident says, chuckling, that they started at $500 and, as families began to leave, went up from there to $600, $700, $1,000, $5,000. Since the fire, the few remaining families have been offered as much as $15,000 to go.
Stan Ford, an employee of Barac Co., which manages the building for Perseus, did most of the door-knocking. The purpose of the visits, say tenants, were always the same: There was a piece of paper that needed signing, and there was money to be made in signing it.
The building, which was not in great shape to begin with, fell into gross disrepair—even Perseus, in a statement, admits it became “slum-like.” Tenants complained of massive water leaks, broken security doors, and lights that never got fixed. Empty units had their windows boarded up.
Then the vandalism began. One night in September, say multiple tenants, someone came through the building, banging on doors and shouting that the residents had 24 hours to leave or they would be killed.
On the evening of Oct. 17, Joe Meier, a neighbor who lives across the street, heard screaming from the building. “It sounded, literally, like screaming banshees,” he recalls. “I thought there was a dead body or somebody was being attacked.” He found a crowd of distraught residents gathered outside; the power had been cut, he was told. Then someone had come through the building in the dark, smashing windows and shouting threats. “[One resident] took me down to the basement,” Meier says, “and I saw the circuit box.…It did appear that someone had gone down there and cut the wires.”
At a Nov. 16 hearing before Graham’s committee, Rabia Begum told how she stayed in her apartment after the power was cut, until she heard the screaming. “I ran to my balcony, and [neighbors] told me someone had broken the glass doors of two apartments on the first floor. The two apartments whose doors were damaged were families who had not agreed to vacate the building.”
Less than a month later, the building was set on fire.
“I’ve got to ask you this question,” said Graham, addressing himself to Rabia Begum, the only resident of 1846 present at the hearing. “Is there someone you could imagine doing all of this?”
“I can’t think of someone who would do this to the tenants,” Begum answered at the hearing. “I can only think of the owner or manager of the building. We were inside the apartment and it was set right in front of our door.”
So far, no one has been charged in the arson or the vandalism. Perseus, according to a statement denying any connection, believes “that many of the building’s recent problems have stemmed from tenants trying to evict their illegal sub-tenants so that they can vacate their apartments and take advantage of the relocation assistance grants.”
John “Woody” Bolton, executive vice president of Perseus, also posits that tenants who had been recently evicted for having too many people living in their apartments might have been responsible. “Do we crack down on the people who break the law? Yes. Were some of them pissed off about it? Probably,” he says. “Did they do something destructive in response? I don’t know.”
Bolton says that the repairs, which he claims could still pose a safety hazard to tenants, justify vacating the entire building. “There were children in the building,” he says, and he blames the DCRA for dragging its feet in doing its own analysis of the building.
Of the two dozen apartments at 1840 and 1846 Vernon, perhaps three or four in each building are still occupied. The building is empty and quiet. “It’s scary,” says Rashida Begum. “It’s like a horror movie,” says Nishat Sankera, Begum’s 14-year-old cousin who has come to keep her relatives company—Rashida’s mother is afraid to sleep alone now.
The Begums, one of the last families to stick it out at 1846, have given up; they’re looking for housing elsewhere. “When we’re sure we’re leaving, we will sign,” Rashida says. “It is not safe here.”
Actually, DCRA’s inquest into 1846 Vernon, which will be released this week, nearly 11 months after it began, reveals that the opposite is true: Building residents are safe—from asbestos and lead paint. While tenants may have to temporarily vacate individual units, they do not have to leave the building itself.
The revelation that they can legally stay, however, fails to impress the remaining families. When asked if he might change his mind about leaving, the man whose wife carried their children downstairs through the fire says no. “We still want to stay here, but we can’t. We are scared now. They try to kill us. We stay, maybe another fire and everybody die here.”
“I know people want to help,” he adds. “But they cannot be here 24 hours a day. Police, councilpeople—thank you…but we are done here.”