This story appears in this week’s newspaper (July 31-Aug. 6,2009 edition).

Cold Affront
Why Dorchester House tenants never warmed to an air conditioning upgrade.

The Dorchester House possesses some wonderful qualities: It sits on 16th Street in Adams Morgan, where the buses come and go reliably out front. There’s a Harris Teeter next door. And the nearly 400-unit high rise overlooks Meridian Hill Park, where you’re likely to see far fewer muggings than you would have in the 1990s.

On the other hand, Dorchester is one of D.C.’s most notoriously storied apartments:  Sign a lease there and you have stepped into a tempest over one thing or another, from allegations of illegal rental increases to sob-story evictions. (Earlier this summer, a 29-year tenant was kicked out while recovering from heart surgery.)

But the latest battle has been over HVAC installations, which the management has called an “environmentally friendly” addition to improve the building’s heat and air conditioning, but which residents have seen mostly as a pain.

From the start—which is to say, since the summer of 2007, when Borger Management, Dorchester’s management company, first announced the changes—Dorchester residents fought the installations, which were to require at least four weeks of construction inside each apartment.

“The tenant association opposes everything we do,” co-owner John Hoskinson told the Washington City Paper at the time. “If we did not make improvements to the building, they would be complaining about the sad conditions that they are forced to live in. But when we make improvements, they complain about the process.”

Now, some two years later, most of the work is done, and residents are still complaining—and fighting for appropriate compensation for their troubles.

Hoskinson isn’t rankled by these people. “It’s a big building, so you get, therefore, a number of oddballs,” he says. “There are [a] few people there that live for litigation.”

Sure, Hoskinson could be right; these tenants could be overreacting. Maybe Dorchester’s “lunatic fringe,” as he calls them, should see things another way. Here, a few reasons to embrace the new heating and cooling system:

  • Because everyone loves a new utility bill. When the HVAC installations were announced, Hoskinson promised rents would not increase. Technically, they haven’t. Dorchester managers have actually proposed $15 to $25 rental reductions—depending on the room size. But that is only to offset new heating/air-conditioning bills, which are likely to cost more than that. Seventy percent of the tenants still must approve the deal for it to pass, says Dorchester Tenants Association (DTA) lawyer Marian Chou, and Borger is still looking for signatures. Before tenants are forced to pay utility bills, the agreement must be ratified. The case will come before Erika Pierson, a judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings, in mid-September. If it reaches that point, Borger is threatening to drop the rental decrease down to $3 or less.
  • Because newborns thrive on airborne dust. When construction workers knocked on Kwame Fosu’s door, the timing was especially not perfect. His wife was breastfeeding their second child, born a month before. By that point, Fosu had heard what to expect from the invading workers. “It’s not just an installation, it’s major construction,” he says. “They drill holes in your floors. There’s white soot. So everything is covered with dust.” Perfect for infant development, right? He told construction workers they could not enter his home. Borger Management was describing the installation as a set of repairs—repairs that apparently required all-day, every day work for several weeks per unit, says Fosu, an attorney at the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and a Georgetown Law School graduate. He wasn’t buying Borger’s explanation. “They said it was maintenance. A broken pipe, a bathroom leak—that’s maintenance,” he says. Arianna Royster, a Borger executive, says the company offered all tenants the opportunity to move during construction. “We set up, at one point, probably 10 hospitality suites,” she says. Fosu says the process was more labored. “There was no form initially. I made a formal request,” he says. He eventually ended up fighting in court for a two-bedroom temporary apartment. The best came last: When  Fosu returned to his unit, his custom paint job was destroyed and a dusty film covered his walls and floors. Wires hung from his son’s bedroom ceiling. “They expected my 10-year-old to live with all these wires exposed,” says Fosu. He refused to move back in until the place was returned to its original state.  
  • Because damage de-clutters your apartment. Tenant Larry Hunter moved into Dorchester House in 1996. He lives with his wife Judith Lisansky, a World Bank anthropologist, who has worked with indigenous populations all over the world: Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Pre-construction, Hunter’s wife had a series of individually carved Brazilian figurines that she kept around the apartment. One day, she came home to find two of them smashed on the floor, says Hunter. “They’re irreplaceable,” he adds. But Hunter worried that wasn’t the last unplanned interior decorating change. After about a week of construction, he noticed that construction workers were going in and out of people’s units, leaving doors open, and not monitoring the hallways. “Sometimes the crews would go to lunch and forget to close the doors,” he says. (It would’ve been hard to distinguish actual workmen from thieves in paint-speckled jeans, anyway.) “No one had any official name tags or anything,” says Hunter. He sent a memo to Borger Management saying that he was concerned about his property and that there should be some security by people’s doors. Soon, hall monitors were hired. But Hunter wasn’t particularly impressed with their crime-fighting abilities. “The one on my hallway looked like she was about 18. And they had another guy in another hallway that looked like a retiree,” he says. “I saw them several times falling asleep.” 
  • Because who really needs a credenza? “Your longest wall is a treasured thing,” says Dorchester tenant Campbell Johnson, speaking broadly about apartments. Johnson used his longest wall to the max, managing to cram in a credenza with a book case on top, a large entertainment center and file cabinets. He moved into his Dorchester unit in 1979. Three decades later, he’s got some tough redecorating decisions to make too. When his HVAC unit was installed, workers ripped out his favorite flat surface. Now, part of the wall juts out. Johnson still hasn’t gotten around to rearranging his furniture. “I got file cabinets in the middle of my floor!” he says. The situation in his bedroom’s not much better. There, workers tore out the only wall without a closet or window. Now, Johnson has to move his bed up against his large bay window. “You get your walls all broken up, and it’s just something of a mess,” he says.
  • Because tenants received $500 in hush money. A number of tenants contacted for this article fought their HVAC installations. But others didn’t, and the management company offered a price for passivity: $500, to be exact. When workers completed the installations, tenants received a notice from Borger acknowledging the hassles generated by the “substantial upgrade” of their HVAC systems. “As a courtesy to you and in recognition of the inconvenience that the work may have caused you, please find a check enclosed as a one-time payment in the amount of $500.” So far, so good—unless you later decide you’re owed more. “By accepting this payment, you are in turn agreeing to waive and release any claims for damages or reductions in services you may have against the owner, its agents, employees, and contractors arising or relating to the installation of the HVAC equipment in your unit,” the letter continues. (The missive was provided to Washington City Paper by Kimberly Fahrenholz, a lawyer for tenant Campbell Johnson.) To literally sweeten the pot, the management also left tenants a “rather hilarious gift box,” says tenant Larry Hunter, via e-mail. He and his wife still have the little treasure trove, which includes a can of Coke, a lollipop, a package of microwave popcorn, a $5 Blockbuster coupon, a small package of M&M’s, and some Twizzlers. 

Note: This story was originally published as a series of posts, but I decided that structure was confusing to the average reader, and decided to republish it in this format.