At Tiber Island, neighbors battle for control of the landmark D.C. housing cooperative


A resident arrives home at Tiber Island in Southwest Washington on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

No sooner had the wallpaper gone up than the sniping began.

“Some of the pieces are different colors. . . . And some of it is even peeling! Only weeks after it was installed!!!” read an anonymous complaint posted on Facebook in November.

The screed was one of many indications that war had broken out at Tiber Island, a historic mid-century apartment and townhouse cooperative that sits along the Washington Channel in Southwest Washington, just blocks away from a massive waterfront development that is scheduled to break ground this week.

But what started with complaints about a $1 million hallway renovation marred by peeling wallpaper, repeated delays and thousands of dollars in unused crown molding has morphed into a battle over the future direction of a D.C. landmark — a fight that mirrors conflicts pitting newcomers against longtime residents in other rapidly changing city neighborhoods.

Some of the tensions at Tiber Island will feel familiar to residents of other co-ops and condominium complexes, where unit owners pay monthly fees for amenities and maintenance and where spending decisions are made by elected boards. With about 1,100 people moving into the District every month, co-ops and condominium communities in every part of the city are absorbing waves of newcomers who sometimes take issue with how the buildings are run.

Co-ops “are like families,” said Michael O’Dell, a director with the D.C. Cooperative Housing Coalition, which represents 15,000 unit owners in the Washington region, including the residents at Tiber Island. “We have these spats. They work themselves out.”

At Tiber Island, there has been intense jockeying over three vacant positions on the nine-member board of directors, which oversees the 378-unit co-op and its $4 million budget. The election results are scheduled to be announced Wednesday.

Two opposing slates are vying for the three spots. With big-ticket renovations to the 50-year-old property looming, the challengers contend that the board of directors needs to have stronger managers. They complain that the current leadership is not responsive enough and does not feel any urgency to invest in amenities such as rooftop decks and in-unit washer/dryers that will allow Tiber Island — where a two-bedroom unit with parking is on the market for $399,000 and an efficiency is listed for $174,000 — to compete with the new developments sprouting up around it.

But at times the debate has been less than lofty. Two of the challengers in the board election, Dylan Ellis and Talmadge Seaman, said they have posted fliers that were removed from communal bulletin boards, including one that summarized a meeting with an expert on cooperative-housing law. When they started sliding fliers under residents’ front doors, they said, the board took up a proposal to ban the practice and to encourage residents to snitch on neighbors who violated it.

Ellis, 27, who analyzes data for a living and has lived at Tiber Island for more than a year, said he got in trouble with board members for posting charts of budget information for residents to see.

“We have folks that are not used to having anyone talk to the shareholders and communicate and give up any records of any kind,” said Seaman, a resident for one year. “Those are the transparency issues which help people avoid being accountable.”

Longtime leaders of the cooperative said they have managed Tiber Island well for years, and they said the proof is the owners have never had to shoulder a special assessment to finance a major renovation. While the hallway renovations had problems, they said, most people were pleased with the result.

In addition to avoiding assessments, the board counts among its accomplishments the installation of solar panels and a National Register of Historic Places designation. Board members have their own critique of the dissenters, starting with a mysterious “The Board Works for Us” Facebook page.

No one has claimed ownership of it. Some anonymous Thomas Paine started it in August, using it to rail against the board’s investment choices, to call out a resident/front-desk clerk for telling people whom to vote for, and to critique the installation of the wallpaper.

Board members said they are not used to what they see as the hard-charging tone of their critics or the virtual potshots via social media.

“They make assumptions that they know how things should be run and have not spoken to their neighbors or spent time getting to know the community,” said Colleen Rooney, the 53-year-old board president, who is not up for reelection this year. “That tone is a great departure from what has been the norm.”

The dissenting residents — aligned with investors who own nearly half the units — need to “dial it down,” she said.

A “meet the candidates” event last week quickly became heated after one of the attendees demanded that anyone affiliated with the Facebook page or a separate Google group for dissenting residents stand up. Seaman and Ellis, who later said they belonged only to the Google group, stood up and were grilled about the Facebook page, which they said they had nothing to do with. A longtime board member, Paul Greenberg, 61, who has lived at Tiber Island since the 1990s and is not up for reelection, said he felt compelled to “follow up” with some comments of his own. Several attendees said he was finally shouted down for not asking a question.

Seaman recalled joking with neighbors afterward, “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?’”

On a recent afternoon, opposing views coexisted peacefully on a bulletin board in the basement of the West Tower. Seaman and his wife, Beth, glanced at the printed entreaties from various candidates and their supporters. The boards are checked twice daily now, Seaman said, to make sure no fliers have been taken down.

Sitting in the living room of his townhouse, he said he appreciated the small group of residents who have stepped up over the years to shoulder the responsibility of managing Tiber Island.

But, said Seaman, a 50-year-old management consultant and former U.S. Coast Guard commander, they need to acknowledge that there are new people moving in “with higher expectations,” who “want more involvement in the process and more information pushed to them.”

Greenberg said that he recognizes the dynamics have changed and that the last really contentious election was about 15 years ago. “It wasn’t nice, but it was nothing like this,” he said. He added that he almost prefers the days when his neighbors were slightly more apathetic, because he took their lack of interest as a sign they were satisfied that the place was being run smoothly.

Social media, he said, has enabled the current crop of rabble-rousers to say outrageous things without using their names, while allowing them to appear perfectly reasonable in person. And it has helped sustain their campaign longer than he expected it to last.

“They are organized — I give them that,” he said. “Usually people get tired.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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