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A misleading calm. (Darrow Montgomery)

The District’s biggest, nastiest, longest-running rent control battle isn’t in a low-income apartment complex, or even a run-of-the-mill building in some gentrifying neighborhood. It’s in a historic art deco tower tucked into the side of the National Zoo, long viewed as one of Washington’s finest addresses—and the fight is finally stumbling toward a close.

For years at the Kennedy-Warren, a handful of holdouts have staged a rent strike, filed lawsuits, and appealed to every relevant authority to prevent longtime landlord B.F. Saul from doing what they thought it planned to do: renovate the old units with cookie-cutter modern luxuries, and then knock as many as possible out of rent control.

Saul’s position: The protests are coming from a small group of comfortable tenants who are just stalling for concessions, and don’t know a good deal when they see one. “A couple of them will find fault with heaven,” says Tom McCormick, the landlord’s chief financial officer and point person for all things Kennedy-Warren.

By now, McCormick has negotiated settlements with all but a few of the most stubborn tenants. In the interim, most of the rest have moved out; only about 60 of the 316 units are still occupied. The empty, renovated apartments began leasing this week, and construction will finish up in the next two months.

Despite the high attrition rate and the reams of paper expended on legal filings, in a few important regards, the holdouts have won: The units retain much of their historic feel, from the original decorative doorknockers to the restored blue-and-white tile bathroom floors. And lucky new tenants will still pay less than what the same unit would have cost if it had been rebuilt. But the cost of that quasi-victory was secret deals and endless delays, cracking apart the harmony that used to exist among those who call the place their home.

“There was all this flag-waving about ‘tenants of the world unite,’” says a tenant who asked to remain anonymous on account of ongoing legal proceedings. “That was all bullshit, because most of them have settled… B.F. Saul just divided and conquered.”

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To understand why tenants dug themselves in so deeply, you need to get the Kennedy-Warren mindset. Despite the trappings of faded elegance, this wasn’t a playground for the super-rich. It was a place where highly educated, reasonably well-off professionals who didn’t want to buy real estate could live in dignified surroundings—if they appreciated its historic idiosyncrasies.

“You have to be the sort of person who’s willing to live in Washington without central air,” says Christine Burkhardt, a research librarian for a federal agency who’s been living there since 1994. “They’re more bohemian, I guess.”

More bohemian than residents of the new wing, at least. In 2003, B.F. Saul finished a long-planned addition that was identical from the outside, but with much larger, cushier suites on the inside. Rents range upwards of $8,000 a month for the biggest apartments. Strolling through the wing’s common areas, where management had put on an Easter celebration for the well-coiffed tenants and their pastel-clad young children, Burkhardt and I seem distinctly out of place. “I consider myself the working poor,” Burkhardt explains (not entirely convincingly, given her white-collar federal job).

Originally, B.F. Saul’s plans were much grander: A wholesale remodel with altered floorplans and modern furnishings. To pay for it, they asked tenants for a $233 increase on all the units, on top of the annual increase of about 2 percent per year landlords are permitted under rent control rules, and in addition to a $179 rent hike to pay for replacing all the windows. The tenant association, which had supported building the new south wing in 1997 under the condition that the building be improved at no cost to tenants, staged a rent strike.

To end it, B.F. Saul came back with another proposal: They would keep rents the same for all current occupants, as long as they allowed future tenants to be charged market rates. The landlord would even pay lump sums of over $50,000 for tenants to leave the building (it was already more than two-thirds empty, since management hadn’t re-leased apartments that tenants moved out of since 2006). Seventy percent of the tenants would have to agree—but those who disagreed and stayed anyway would also be subject to rent increases.

All but 12, or 87 percent, of the tenants signed off; it was, after all, a pretty good deal. But in March 2008, the District’s then-rent administrator Grayce Wiggins vetoed the agreement, saying it was “patently coercive” and would undermine the purposes of rent control. Almost immediately, she was fired, under circumstances that a subsequent D.C. Council investigation failed to explain (tenant activists, of course, are pretty sure B.F. Saul had something to do with it).

After that, the combination of the recession and the inability to recover much higher rents down the road prompted B.F. Saul to scale back plans for the building, from a $40 million remodel to a $30 million replacement of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, as well as new appliances. But they would still need to move people around. In July 2009, the landlord requested permission to temporarily relocate tenants to work on their apartments.

The new, acting rent administrator gave the OK in February 2010, and B.F. Saul—which had already begun work in unoccupied units—immediately issued 120-day notices to vacate the apartments where they needed to go next. According to the original phased schedule, some tenants wouldn’t have to move until this summer. But some volunteered to move sooner—perhaps because having construction noise all around you is a powerful motivating force—so Saul tried to accelerate things. Even before that, a handful of tenants had filed a class-action lawsuit to stop the process, and soon a hail of tenant petitions, eviction notices, temporary restraining orders, injunctions, appeals, and motions filled the air above the old building.

“When the construction was well underway in this first zone, that’s when the tenants who were on top of this really began saying well, everything is going to be a fait accompli very quickly here,” says Marc David Block, a five-year resident who has three actions pending before various judicial bodies. “It’s like what they say with regard to the West Bank—‘events on the ground.’”

Hyperbolic metaphors aside, the tenants did win some victories. Blake Nelson, a lawyer drafting document after document on his own behalf, argued that his family would suffer “irreparable harm” if they had to move before the schedule allowed. He got the city’s Office of Administrative Hearings to invalidate one of the notices to vacate, and is still fighting to move at his originally scheduled date, staying through the winter even as his heat was turned off last October to allow renovations to happen elsewhere.

But most people left, taking an offer of four months’ worth of free rent to avoid constant jackhammering, drilling, and sawing. After extensive negotiations, Block took a 9th floor apartment. So did Burkhardt, who recalls a drill actually coming through the wall before she left her old place. “I feel like a Katrina victim,” she says, sitting in a spacious, 6th floor unit, filled with handsome wooden furniture and houseplants. “I got a trailer.”

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Despite complaints about disruptive construction (lead contamination*, pervasive dust, a water main break), and retaliation for resistance (legal action for a few days’ lateness on rent), the biggest source of rancor is simply B.F. Saul’s attitude. For example, tenants recall a meeting where McCormick explained that he expected the rent administrator to rubber stamp a voluntary agreement signed by more than 70 percent of residents.

“Frankly, within D.C., this is a building in a nicer area, with a population that’s relatively more affluent, the rent administrator says ‘Connecticut Avenue? Kennedy-Warren?’” McCormick made a sharp stamping motion on the table. “Tell me about a real problem in the city.”

Later, in response to tenants’ threats to hold the process up in the courts, McCormick expressed confidence that he and his lawyer—Richard Luchs, generally considered the most aggressive rent-control attorney in the city—would have no problem nudging the bureaucracy their way.

“I think the city administration, with whom we have lots of dealings—I’ll leave it at that—will be sympathetic to moving this along,” McCormick said, in footage posted to YouTube. “D.C. bureaucracies move faster in some instances than others, and I think I can make this one move fast.”

But there were some tenants—at least a silent minority—who were happy to pass on costs to future tenants if necessary, and who didn’t want to take part in a rebellion mostly aimed at fighting inconveniences. One of them, who also asked to remain anonymous, imagines how a representative of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs must have felt listening to people who complained that B.F. Saul was going to bring the building up to code at no cost to them.

“It was such a total mismatch between the tenants and the D.C. person, who spends his entire life dealing with landlords who won’t do repairs in Anacostia,” the tenant speculates. “He was exasperated with tenants who are upset with the repairs the landlord is doing.”

B.F. Saul, meanwhile, has mostly left the battle behind to focus on getting the historic wing leased up. Touring the building, McCormick and Saul’s vice president of building management Tanya Marhefka point out each of the building’s painstakingly preserved details—from the original sinks to latches on kitchen cabinets. Some didn’t even have washers and dryers, at the tenants’ insistence; McCormick can’t help but point out everything they insisted on keeping.

“There were a handful of tenants who insisted on not changing anything,” he says, as we walk through. “They absolutely didn’t want a modern feel, no matter what.”

After increases allowed after vacancies, the empty rent-controlled units aren’t cheap—one 998-square-foot one-bedroom (they’re all at different rates, according to rent increases allowed by rent control) was going for $3,181 per month, and a 549-square-foot studio at $1,693.

But some of those who stuck it out are still paying less than $2 a square foot—which, for a room in the Old Lady of the Avenue, is probably the best deal in the city.

“Yeah, God bless ‘em,” McCormick says, shrugging.

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* Updated to reflect the fact that lead was indeed found in old paint. According to the District Department of the Environment, which dispatched inspectors at least 35 times in response to tenant complaints, “management and their contractors worked quickly to address DDOE’s Notice of Violation and took subsequent corrective actions.”

Kennedy Warren, Tom McCormick, and Tanya M.?
B.F. Saul's Tanya Marhefka and Tom McCormick tour through revamped apartments. (Darrow Montgomery)