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Last June, residents of the Museum Square Apartments at 401 K St. NW learned that their building would be demolished unless they could come up with $250 million. After that threat of displacement, though, everything seemed to go the tenants’ way. Then-D.C. Councilmember David Catania quickly drafted emergency legislation to prevent landlords from charging these exorbitant prices to residents in order to avoid demolition. Then-Mayor Vince Gray offered up companion temporary legislation; both measures passed the Council.
Meanwhile, the building owner, the Williamsburg, Va.-based Bush Companies, changed course and notified the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that it would not, in fact, be opting out of its Section 8 contract for the building. Given that a year’s notice is required to opt out of a Section 8 contract, that implied that the Museum Square tenants, all of whom receive federal Section 8 housing subsidies, would be able to remain for at least a year.
And just in case Bush changed its mind back and the legislation didn’t help, residents filed a lawsuit against Bush in October, alleging that the company’s actions violated the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, the loophole-filled 1980 law that gives tenants the right to buy their building before it’s sold or torn down.
Now they might have to hope that lawsuit pans out.
When Catania introduced his bill, it was with the intention of preventing the Museum Square tenants from being displaced in the likely event they couldn’t cough up $250 million (or more than $800,000 per apartment). “Our intent is to capture Museum Square,” Catania chief of staff Brendan Williams-Kief told me at the time. “That’s the purpose of the legislation.”
But the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser doesn’t see it that way. This month, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs released its regular list of raze permit applications it received, and Museum Square was on the list. DCRA referred me to the Department of Housing and Community Development, which must approve the demolition before DCRA can grant the permit. And according to DHCD, the legislation from Catania and Gray won’t help the Museum Square residents.
“The emergency legislation expired on January 5, 2015 and the temporary legislation is currently pending before the U.S. Congress for approval,” DCHD spokesman Marcus Williams says in an email. “Further, the emergency legislation cannot have retroactive effect on the Museum Square case. The Museum Square offer of sale was issued prior to the enactment of legislation which modified TOPA, so the raze permit process is unchanged as it relates to the Museum Square case.”
DHCD’s Rental Conversion and Sale Division, which administers TOPA, has not received the raze application, according to Williams, so no determination has been made yet. But without the protection of the new legislation, the odds may not be good for the tenants.
TOPA stipulates that before demolishing a building, the owner must give tenants a “bona fide offer of sale.” But the law doesn’t define “bona fide,” and the courts have yet to weigh in on this specific issue. Bush’s attorney, the ever-present landlord lawyer Richard Luchs, has argued that $250 million is a perfectly reasonable price, while others, including Catania and the tenants themselves, have disagreed.
DHCD could still rule that the offer violates TOPA and deny the raze permit application. But if it doesn’t, the tenants will likely be at the mercy of the courts, whose past interpretations of TOPA have only sometimes benefited tenants, despite the law’s explicit stipulation that ambiguities in the law be interpreted in whatever way maximizes tenant protections. If that doesn’t go their way, the tenants could be forced out—-and the Chinatown area could lose about half of its remaining Chinese population.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery