New Front Opens In Owner-Renter Battles in D.C.

Residents of the apartments where William Murray and his daughter Trudy live have been told to vacate because of lead paint and asbestos.
Residents of the apartments where William Murray and his daughter Trudy live have been told to vacate because of lead paint and asbestos. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005

When William Murray moved into his apartment near Capitol Hill in August, his landlord assured him that the unit was free of lead paint, asbestos or any other hazard.

But a month later, the owner informed city officials that all 46 units at the Lincoln Terrace Apartments, including Murray's, had to be vacated because of dangers posed by lead paint and asbestos. The tenants were given 120 days to leave.

Murray was perplexed and angry.

"I can't believe one month later there's lead paint," said Murray, who works for a publishing distributor. "I think it's part of a scheme. I realize we're in the Capitol Hill area. They're trying to build condos."

For the tenants, the order to vacate was an introduction to a little-known District law, 501 F of the Rental Housing Act, that allows landlords to temporarily empty buildings if planned renovations and repairs present a safety hazard to the tenants. Although the law guarantees tenants the right to return, an acceleration in landlords' use of the provision has raised concern among tenant advocates. They say it is yet another tool to turn affordable housing into luxury units in the city's many gentrifying neighborhoods.

Under the law, tenants have an "absolute right" to reoccupy apartments after repairs are made, and they can return at the same rent if the repairs are meant to bring the building into compliance with the housing code. But the law does not place a time limit on repairs, which in some cases can take years and consequently reduce the likelihood that a tenant would return.

This year, city officials have received requests to vacate 13 buildings, totaling 443 units. In 2003 and 2004, requests were received for eight buildings.

At two recent hearings before the D.C. Council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, chaired by Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), tenants in Murray's building described the owner's tactics, which included a late-night visit from a representative who offered $500 immediately if tenants signed papers agreeing to move out in four months and $500 more once the building was emptied. Some tenants said they were not told by the owners that they could move back into their apartments at the same rent after the repairs.

Murray's building and several others that have received similar notices are owned by Perseus Realty LLC, which initially received approval to vacate the properties from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But the approval was based on a lead and asbestos study done for a building in Leesburg. The city official who signed the order to vacate, rent administrator Raenelle Humbles Zapata, told Graham's committee that she rescinded it when she realized the error.

Patrick J. Canavan, director of the regulatory agency, told Graham's committee that the rent administrator's work was "sloppy" and said steps would be taken to have experts available to inspect buildings for toxic materials. The regulatory agency is responsible for enforcing rent control and reviewing and ruling on requests from building owners to remove tenants before doing major repairs.

Woody Bolton, a partner with Perseus Realty, acknowledged that a mistake was made but denied any intentional wrongdoing. Bolton said that Murray's building, on 16th Street NE, contains asbestos and lead and that Perseus has reapplied for permission to vacate it as well as three others that initially received approval: two on Vernon Street NW in Adams Morgan and one on T Street NW in Shaw.

Bolton said that tests were done in June and July on all four buildings and that the correct study will be submitted to city officials. He said the buildings need structural repairs that would create a hazardous condition for tenants because asbestos and lead will be released into the air.

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