Local apartments add plenty of perks — for a price

June 20, 2014

Erin O’Connor lives at First and M in NoMa, an apartment building that comes with plenty of swanky amenities, including a rooftop pool and outdoor theater. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Walk through Erin O’Connor’s apartment building at First and M and you might get a bad case of amenity envy. The building offers a lot: a spacious, marble-countered kitchen in the first-floor party room, a pool and outdoor sitting area on the roof, a hot tub, a sauna and a gym with spinning bikes and a studio that offers classes (yoga and Zumba, to name a few). There are even indoor and outdoor theaters.

Perks like these are the new normal for many D.C.-area apartments. But, as renters may learn, those extras come at a price: the amenity fee, which can be a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars, or an annual or monthly charge.

At First and M in NoMa (1160 First St. NE; 877-242-9963), the amenity fee is usually $500 — though when O’Connor moved in this past November, the one-time fee was waived as part of a promotion.

If it hadn’t been waived? “I would have considered it as part of the cost of getting to live here,” says the 32-year-old foreign service officer.
And she might have ended up paying as much or more to get those amenities a la carte. Saving money on things like a gym membership was a factor in choosing First and M, says O’Connor, whose junior one-bedroom apartment costs $1,850 per month.

“That was a big draw,” she says. “I was looking at other buildings, but those didn’t have gyms.”

At Liberty Towers in Arlington (818 N. Quincy St.; 866-575-8477), where rents start at $2,040 for a one-bedroom and go up to $3,015 for a two-bedroom, renters pay a one-time amenity fee of $100 per resident.

“I think it’s a pretty good deal,” says Annie Valentine, 24, who works for a nongovernmental organization and shares a two-bedroom apartment with a den at Liberty Towers with two roommates.

The fee covers a gym and a rooftop pool, but doesn’t cover all uses of the common areas, as Valentine found: Renting out the club room for a private party costs $100 an hour.

Where Does the Money Go?
The way newer buildings distinguish themselves from the competition is the amenities, be it a pool or yoga classes, says attorney David Freishtat of Maryland-based law firm Shulman Rogers.

Unfortunately, standing out from the crowd can get expensive. “[Apartment buildings] need to have those fees to subsidize the additional cost,” he says.
For instance, an apartment company might hire a contractor to manage the pool, and then pass along the costs — at least in part — to the renters, Freishtat says.

And though some buildings boast no fees, those costs may actually be factored into the rent, he says: “You may pay one check to one person, but it may include a lot of different charges for parking, amenities and the rent.”

The Art of Negotiation
If renters have a question or concern about their amenity fees, they could discuss it with their landlord, says Joel Cohn, legislative director of the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate. Or go the more extreme route and take the landlord to court for a breach of contract.

And tricky questions arise when, say, a pool or a gym is taken away or closed temporarily. Will fees be reduced or refunded? In general, it boils down to the terms of the lease, Freishtat says.

“If the lease promises a pool and there’s no pool, then go to the landlord and renegotiate,” Freishtat says. “If it says there will be amenities, but it doesn’t say which ones, it might be hard to negotiate.”

Renter Rights

Amenity fees are certainly not without controversy. The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate (202-719-6560) has fielded complaints from renters about fees for storage and parking spaces, pets, gyms, pools and other services, says Joel Cohn, the office’s legislative director. For instance, he says, one tenant in a rent-controlled building was charged a $500 per month air-conditioning fee that Cohn’s office believes was unlawful.
In rent-controlled apartments, extra fees beyond the security deposit are more tightly regulated, but for other apartments, the sky’s the limit, he says. “In general, there’s too little regulation in the District of Columbia of amenities,” Cohn says.
Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, a tenant advocacy group, says he’s noticed a trend in recent years of apartments shifting the costs of amenities to renters, though it’s hard to know exactly why.
As rents go up and more fees get passed on to renters, many long-time residents may get priced out of their homes, Losak says. “It’s a big issue and we’re looking into it.”

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