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The day before the election at Somerset House, people were already challenging the results.
On July 12, 2008, the residents of the seven-floor building at 16th and S Streets NW voted on whether their apartments should convert to condos.
The conversion would surely mean buyouts for some and below-market rates for others. The residents expected a lucrative deal from the building’s owner, Tenacity Group. Deals, after all, are what they’re used to: They live rent-controlled in one of the pricier areas of Washington, D.C.
Many of the residents moved in more than a decade ago and never left. But Tenacity apparently came up with enough inducements to make change attractive: The July voting endorsed the move to condo conversion, but just barely—21 tenants voted for, and 20 against.
In lawyer-heavy Washington, a one-vote margin doesn’t just take effect. It gets challenged. Opponents of conversion noted some anomalies in the roster of residents eligible to cast ballots.
Take, for example, Alison Joann Martin, an employee of RMC Research—based in Portland, Ore.
Martin is the first Somerset “resident” named in a letter to the Housing Regulation Administration (HRA) from anti-conversion lawyer Jonathan Tycko, who represents three Somerset tenants—Robert Wollam, Thomas Patterson, and Jesse Mag.
“We believe this person appears on the rent roll as the tenant of Unit 110. We believe, however, that she moved out of Somerset House in November 2007.…She has been on the voting roles in Washington County, Oregon since December, 2007.” Martin voted in favor of conversion.
Tycko’s lawyering ultimately led to the vote’s nullification. At least one resident blamed the Martin shenanigans on Tenacity and D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, the lawyer hired by the pro-conversion tenant association board.
Strauss entered the picture within the last few years (his firm declined to confirm the year), during a time when proposals from various developers have been put on and taken off the table. His involvement has caused some anti-conversion tenants to argue he stands to gain more than almost anyone from going condo. A provision in the development agreement states that the developer has a $150,000 deal with Strauss; up to $100,000 of that will be released only if the conversion goes through successfully.
Strauss did not respond to requests for comment.
Whatever the ownership’s development aspirations, it has been working on clearing the building for some time. When residents left their units, the managers generally avoided filling the vacancies.
Midway through last summer, close to 40 of 84 units were unoccupied.
That an air of mystery hangs over the building’s future is partly the fault of the conversion-loving, secretive tenant association board. For example, when Tenacity issued an amended conversion offer months before the election, residents had to beg the board to part with the document.
“What ends up happening is they gave us two hours on two different nights, and they gave us 450 to 500 pages of documents, and a lot of it was just fluff,” Patterson says. “They buried in there this two-page development agreement thinking nobody would find it.”
Former president Pearl Alice Marsh takes issue with that account:
“There was no intent to avoid sharing the information, nor was there a ‘new’ condominium conversion agreement,” she wrote via e-mail. “The original agreement was modified in order to allow financing for the project to go through.”
Furthermore, she says, all that “fluff” was necessary: Without it, “I have no doubt that those same individuals would be complaining that we did not include all documents.”
Before the July 2008 election, the tenants were mailed copies of the agreement in full.
The tenants who planned to vote against the offer were trying to figure out who would vote for it, so they asked for a list of qualified voters and started picking through.
To be eligible, voters had to use Somerset House as their primary residence and must have lived there within the last 90 days.
Besides Martin of Portland, Ore., there were a few other names that stuck out. Objections and explanations were ultimately filed in court, as part of an investigation by HRA:
- Melih Kutluer “stated that he considers the Somerset House his residence, as he works and occasionally sleeps at the apartment. Upon further questioning, however, he distinguished a [Capitol Hill] property his primary residence because his wife lives at the property.”
- Fozya Osman could not be considered a qualified voter because she owned two Q Street properties and told another Somerset resident that she lived in a condominium. She still said in an affidavit that Somerset was her principal place of residence, although she claimed the homestead tax deduction—which is only allowed for your principal home—for her two Q Street properties.
- Neema Osolnick, supposedly a resident of unit 601, admitted that she didn’t reside in that unit and that a previous occupant was forced out due to mold. Osolnick, at one point, did reside in unit 301, but moved “out of the Property approximately 6-7 months prior to the election.”
For her part, Osolnick says she had no idea that her vote would be considered illegal.
She lived at Somerset for five years, but there were repeated gas leaks on her floor, she says, so she moved out on the assumption that she’d come back eventually—as a homeowner.
“I was paying $1 for rent,” she says, waiting for the conversion to take place. Even though that never happened, she says she moved back in as a renter this May.
Still, since she did not live at Somerset for “at least 90 days prior to the tenant election,” she was disqualified, along with Osman, Kutluer, and Martin.
The HRA called for another election in October 2008. This time, the vote went the other way, prompting Strauss to file another round of attempts to nullify the new results.
In early September, longtime resident Wollam circulated a flyer with this claim:
“It is unquestionable that the [Somerset Tenants Association] Board, Strauss and Tenacity all conspired to win the election by including ineligible tenants: They will sink to any level to force this poorly negotiated, secretly revised and patently unfair Development Agreement upon the majority of tenants.”
Wollam has since been sued by his building’s owner. In that lawsuit—which is entirely separate from the lawsuit about the condo conversion—Tenacity claims that Wollam’s statements were “intentionally, recklessly, and maliciously made to damage Tenacity’s reputation,” and that “Tenacity has suffered as a result of the defamatory statements.”
“I have requested documentation from them to give me some sense of how Tenacity’s reputation has been harmed by virtue of this in-house communication,” says Wollam’s lawyer Richard E. Schimel. “I have not received one piece of paper yet. The deadline has come and gone.” Wollam declined to comment, as did a representative of Tenacity Group.
In the meantime, residents at Somerset remain jittery about their future, although they do have a decision.
In late February, Strauss’ lawsuit was dismissed.