The Museum Square Apartments have been the subject of two lawsuits and three D.C. Council bills.
The Museum Square Apartments have been the subject of two lawsuits and three D.C. Council bills.

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For a group of low-income residents, many with limited English skills, the tenants of the Museum Square Apartments are getting a lot of political attention.

First came emergency legislation aimed at protecting them from eviction, after the owner of the building informed them that Museum Square would be demolished unless the tenants paid $250 million. Then came a companion temporary bill, which, along with the emergency measure, was passed by the D.C. Council last fall. Also in the fall, there was a lawsuit on their behalf; last week brought another lawsuit, this time from the building owner, the Williamsburg, Va.-based Bush Companies, against the District.

And today, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds is introducing yet another bill seeking to protect the residents of Museum Square, and those like them, from excessive price tags in order to avoid eviction.

The controversy at Museum Square, a building of 302 Section 8-subsidized apartments at 401 K St. NW, hinges on a phrase in the 1980 Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. That law gives tenants the right to buy their building before it can be demolished or sold to a third party. Generally, the sale price is determined by the market, but in the case of demolition, the owner is required just to make a “bona fide offer of sale”—-a term that the law does not define. Some lawmakers found Bush’s $250 million offer to be excessive, aimed at preventing tenants from exercising TOPA and forcing them from the building so a more lucrative one with higher-paying tenants can be erected in place of Museum Square.

Bonds’ bill, the TOPA Bona Fide Offer of Sale Clarification Amendment Act of 2015, would do just what its name suggests: namely, clarify the type of offer that qualifies as “bona fide.” Under the bill, a property owner would not be able to base the sale price on the potential future value of the property, as Museum Square’s owner has tried to do, but rather would have to base it on the property’s current value. If the tenants find the sale offer excessive, they can request an independent appraisal.

“We must do more to protect tenants and strengthen legislation that preserves affordable housing,” Bonds said in a statement. “Our bill will protect District residents, like the tenants at Museum Square, and bring further certainty to the housing market.”

The timing of the bill is noteworthy, given that its introduction comes just four days after Bush sued the city for legislation of exactly this nature. Bush’s suit challenges the emergency and temporary bills, from former Councilmember David Catania and former Mayor Vince Gray, for allegedly targeting Museum Square unfairly and for applying retroactively to include Museum Square. Bonds’ bill does the same two things: In her press release on the legislation, she describes the bill as “legislation to protect Museum Square residents and tenants across the District,” and specifies that the bill will protect “the residents of Museum Square by applying retroactively to TOPA sales without a third-party contract.”

Josh Brown, a spokesman for Bonds, says in response to a question about the bill’s legal status in light of the lawsuit, “We received the signoff from the Office of the General Counsel to introduce our bill today.” Brown referred further questions to that office; an official there familiar with the matter was not available for comment.

Bonds is also introducing a bill intended to protect tenants in rent-controlled apartments from sudden rent increases. An exception built into D.C.’s rent-control law allows landlords to apply for permission to raise rents well beyond the allowable limits in order to ensure a 12 percent return on investment in the property. And if it takes the city more than 90 days to process the application and rule on it, the landlord is entitled to raise the rent by the full amount requested on a provision basis until the case is decided—-which sometimes means a rent hike of 50 percent or more, forcing some tenants to relocate even if the request will ultimately be thrown out. An emergency bill passed last year capped these provisional increases at 5 percent; Bonds’ bill would make that cap permanent.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery