By Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 10, 2008
On a narrow balcony three stories high, with flames shooting through her apartment building and her children screaming at her side, Anowara Begum made a terrifying decision.
She had her 6-year-old son slide down a drainpipe to safety. She would go next, her 11-year-old daughter behind her. Clinging to the pipe, Begum heard her daughter sobbing her name from the balcony.
Then she fell off the pipe, landing on the alley below.
Within hours of the November 2006 fire in Adams Morgan, investigators declared arson: Inside the apartment building, they found a charred plastic container that had been filled with a mixture of gasoline and alcohol, stuffed in a plastic shopping bag. The liquid was poured in the basement near 12 electrical boxes and on the second floor, just below Begum's apartment. Flames quickly choked the building, searing walls and melting lights.
The blaze came amid one of the fiercest battles in the District between tenants who wanted to stay in the building and owners who wanted them out so the property could be redeveloped. As in dozens of cases in a gentrifying city, every family eventually moved, despite a sweeping District law meant to protect tenants and the city's stock of affordable housing.
Responsibility for the fire has never been determined, and the owners vehemently deny involvement. They sold the vacant property last summer for $4 million; the new owners are developing condominiums.
The 18-month struggle at 1846 Vernon St. NW exposes how loopholes in the law, breakdowns in enforcement and a negligent city government have allowed property owners to cash in again and again.
In the past four years, landlords across the city have emptied more than 200 apartment buildings, with many quickly converting to condominiums. The city gave its approval even though records show that dozens of landlords had allowed buildings to fall apart without repairs or had sent mass notices demanding that tenants leave.
Vernon Street co-owner Ellis J. Parker said he only wanted tenants to move temporarily so he could rid the building of asbestos and lead-based paint. He said he had no plans to convert to condominiums but added that had tenants moved out permanently, he could have raised rents.
"We have always looked out for our tenants, and we have never violated any law of the District of Columbia," he said.
After tenants fled, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who had been investigating the treatment of the tenants, chastised the owners in a report for what he called an "aggressive, relentless" campaign to empty the building. He urged the city to continue investigating.
But the arson probe stalled just months after the fire, and an inquiry by the council has run aground.
"The greatest distress I have in all of this . . . is that the whole case seems to have been dropped," said Alan Roth, former chairman of the advisory neighborhood commission, who lives on Vernon Street and knew many of the families that are now gone. "There was so much evidence of impropriety -- it's tragic."
* * *
The Washington Post reviewed more than 500 government records, e-mails, transcripts, bank statements, corporate documents, deeds, housing code violation reports, court cases and property transactions to detail how families on Vernon Street lost their homes in a city that nearly three decades ago vowed to preserve working-class housing in the nation's capital.
For a half-century, the three-story building on Vernon Street and a second one next door had been home to a diverse mix of young professionals, college students and, recently, a tight-knit community of Bangladeshi immigrants, whose children held streetside soccer matches and lemonade sales. They lived on a quiet street of townhouses and brick apartment buildings adjacent to the Hilton Washington and near the bustling 18th Street entertainment corridor.
The buildings had been owned for decades by the Hartford E. Bealer Development Corp., started by Bealer, a longtime Washington real estate investor who in 1969 helped found Chevy Chase Bank and became its first president. The development company also owned a complex on T Street NW and one on 16th Street NE.
After Bealer's death in 2003, his son-in-law, Parker, of Palm Beach County, Fla., became president of the development company and decided to redevelop all three properties. In the summer of 2005, the company formed a partnership with Perseus Realty LLC, a Washington-based development firm. Overseeing the redevelopment was John Wood Bolton, Perseus Realty's executive vice president.
Within weeks of starting the partnership, the owners made their first move.
In August 2005, they submitted to the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs a report that found that all three complexes, with about 95 units, were contaminated with asbestos and lead-based paint. They asked for permission to evict the tenants while renovations were made.
DCRA approved the application, records show, freeing the owners to issue "Notice to Vacate" orders to tenants. By law, tenants have the right to return to their homes once work is complete.
Consultant William Salmon, who had been hired by the owners to negotiate with tenants, started offering money to families who agreed to leave permanently. While meeting with tenants, Salmon used a prepared script: "We understand that this type of move is difficult and due to the fact that the work will take several years, the move will most likely become a permanent one."
Tenants grew more confused when they were presented with a document to sign, agreeing to permanently leave the building and waive their rights in exchange for $500, along with another $500 when the building became empty. An 84-year-old woman who had lived at 1846 Vernon St. for four decades called Roth, the advisory neighborhood commissioner who lived across the street.
"There was something about it that didn't seem right to me," said Roth, who took the documents to Graham.
DCRA took a closer look at the case and found a discrepancy: The asbestos and lead report submitted by the owners appeared to have been prepared for a building in Leesburg.
The owners said that the report mentioned Leesburg just once and that it was a typographical error. The issue was never resolved, but DCRA later ordered its own study, which found the cleanup could take place without emptying the buildings.
Graham, meanwhile, had called a hearing to investigate whether tenants had been treated fairly. His committee later issued subpoenas for e-mails and other documents.
In December 2005, Salmon e-mailed Perseus Realty's Bolton and asked: "What is the worst case scenario in this whole process? Are there any possible legal ramifications?"
Bolton responded: "Short of bad press we have no issues. You are very clean as you don't know anything and you are not party to any real information."
In an interview, Bolton said he did not remember writing the e-mail. He said Salmon was hired to work with tenants in person and to present a choice: Either return after the renovations as renters or leave permanently.
"The reality is that people readjust their commuting pattern, they readjust their neighborhood, and to the extent that they did not want to come back after they relocated, we simply wanted to give them that right," Bolton said.
Salmon could not be located to comment. Perseus Realty President Robert Cohen said the company did nothing wrong.
"We conduct ourselves with the highest level of responsibility," Cohen said.
* * *
Although DCRA hastily told tenants they no longer had to move for asbestos and lead cleanup, they faced another problem: the buildings were breaking down.
Ceilings were cracked and leaking. Window frames had rotted. Smoke detectors, lights and radiators were not working.
For years, Lupin Rahman had gone door-to-door on Saturday mornings summoning her friends to kickball games. Her father, Lutfar, was a chef at a downtown restaurant, and Lupin had grown up to the familiar smells of beef, rice and vegetables drifting from her family's tiny kitchen.
But by late 2005, her apartment on Vernon Street was so run-down that 10-year-old Lupin stopped using the bathroom unless her mother was nearby.
"I didn't want to get bit by a rat," said Lupin, holding out her arms. "They were this big."
Anthony Bruno, with the buildings' longtime property management company, Barac Co., e-mailed Parker about the violations, saying: "It seems a can of worms is now open. . . . Barac has a good reputation with [DCRA] and all the notices must be addressed. Barac cannot be placed into a position where it cannot respond to violations."
After the fire, Barac said it would no longer oversee the buildings. Parker said he thinks Barac quit because of the publicity generated by Graham's hearings.
In all, DCRA inspectors found code violations worth more than $160,000 in potential fines at the three complexes between 2005 and 2006. But the agency quickly closed most of the cases, saying repairs had been made or inspectors couldn't get inside buildings because of a "lack of cooperation" from tenants.
The agency pursued fines for some of the violations in court. But one case was dismissed when a DCRA inspector did not show up for a hearing, and another when, as an inspector noted in a report, the agency had "accidentally omitted" crucial information on court documents. All told, the owners have paid about $2,800 in fines, records show.
They say that once their property became the subject of a D.C. Council investigation, city inspectors spent an inordinate amount of time in the buildings looking for code violations.
"Every bloody time somebody complained about heat or hot water, we fixed it," Parker said.
In March 2006, Keith Anderson, who at the time monitored rental properties for DCRA, ordered a separate agency hearing, saying there were grounds to believe the owners had "engaged in a pattern and practice . . . to steer tenants from exercising their right to return to their rental units."
But the owners' attorney, Richard Luchs, fired off an e-mail to then-Deputy Mayor Stanley Jackson with a blunt request.
"Mr. Jackson, I am, to say the least, perplexed," Luchs wrote to Jackson about three weeks before the scheduled hearing. "When we met several months ago, you stated that [the mayor's office] did not share the view of Councilmember Graham as to our client's proposed renovation plans and that DCRA would work with us to address the property conditions. . . . While I was away last week, the attached [hearing] order arrived, which is directly contrary to what you told us in our meeting.
"Mr. Anderson answers ultimately to you and we ask that you cause this hearing to be cancelled."
Jackson replied by e-mail, assuring Luchs that the "matter was being addressed" by DCRA.
Anderson postponed the hearing, and it is yet to be held.
Just days after his first e-mail, Luchs again e-mailed the deputy mayor after a DCRA official raised questions about repairs at the owners' building on 16th Street. "Mr. Jackson, once again, we call upon you for the promised cooperation from DCRA on the housing inspection issues. . . . Your intervention would be appreciated."
Jackson wrote back, "I have been assured . . . that the agency is working with you to address your concerns."
Luchs did not return calls seeking comment.
At a D.C. Council meeting after the fire, Graham asked Anderson and then-DCRA Director Patrick Canavan whether the deputy mayor had any influence on the decision to scrap the agency's hearing.
Anderson said he called it off because DCRA and the buildings' owners were trying to reach a settlement. No settlement was ever reached.
Canavan said he had no recollection of the deputy mayor contacting him. But had there been a call, Canavan pointed out, the deputy mayor would have likely said, " 'You know what? I want you to provide good customer service.' . . . He wouldn't in any way ask us to do anything that's inappropriate."
Graham said: "You want us to believe that this is purely coincidental?"
Jackson, now the acting president of the University of the District of Columbia, said his e-mails showed only that he was pushing DCRA to provide feedback to the property owners.
There was "no undue influence," he said. "I have been one of the strongest advocates in supporting affordability."
* * *
In mid-2006, the owners tried something new.
They started paying Stan Ford, who managed the properties for Barac, $2,500 for every apartment that became empty. Ford acknowledged at Graham's hearings that he had earned $75,000 in six months by clearing 30 apartments.
"The person who these tenants looked to for repairs and maintenance and making sure that they had a quality of life in this building, in other words the property manager, was also the person who was profiting handsomely from every vacant apartment," Graham said.
Ford countered, "No tenant went without repairs at any time."
He declined to comment for this report, but at the time of the hearing, his attorney said that Ford did nothing wrong.
Anowara Begum's family had decided to leave and accepted a $20,000 move-out payment from the owners. Earlier, they had scraped together a down payment for a small house in Springfield, which they rented out. They began planning their move and told the landlords that they would leave in a matter of weeks.
But some tenants were still refusing to go. By September, the friction on Vernon Street intensified.
Tenants called police at least three times in the weeks before the fire. One tenant told police that two men had banged on doors yelling, "You've got to move out of this building in 24 hours!" Another reported a stranger knocking on doors shouting, "You have to move out! You have 48 hours," according to a police report of the incident. Tenants also told the D.C. Council that vandals had smashed glass panels on doors and cut electrical cables.
Then, just days before Begum's family planned to move out, the building caught fire. At 10:40 p.m. on a Sunday in November, a series of calls went out to 911, pleas for help mixed with the sounds of screams and barking dogs.
"Our apartment is on fire and we're locked in," a terrified tenant from the second floor told the 911 operator.
"The apartment building is on fire?"
"Yes, ma'am. . . . My door is on fire. We can't get out of the apartment."
Begum and her two children had been having a late supper with friends when smoke overwhelmed the stairwell just outside their third-floor apartment. They ran to the balcony, where Begum offered a silent prayer: "Please save my children."
Begum's son and a friend shimmied down the drainpipe, landing bruised and shaken on the ground. Her daughter was later rescued by firefighters. But when Begum started sliding down the pipe, it came loose and toppled alongside the building, sending her to the alley below.
She lost consciousness, her heel fractured.
Her husband, Abdul Kader, was working a late-night job as a waiter at the Madison Hotel when a friend called to say the building was on fire.
"Where is my family? Where is my son? Where is my daughter?" he remembers crying.
He caught a taxi, but it took him most of the night to find them; they had been transported to three different hospitals.
"In one night," he said, "I lost 10 pounds."
* * *
Lupin, who lived in the building next door, wrote to the D.C. Council 11 days later: "Please help us." Her family, along with every other tenant, was too shaken to return home after the fire. Perseus's Cohen said Lupin's family was given a move-out deal that included an apartment in another of the owners' buildings.
With the Vernon Street buildings empty, the owners could bypass a District law that gives tenants the first shot at buying their apartments. The property sold last summer for $4 million.
Parker said he opted not to renovate once tenants were gone because he feared that the controversy would jeopardize the necessary construction permits. He said his company had become a scapegoat in a politically charged debate over tenants' rights.
At a council hearing, neighbors, a tenant and Graham questioned whether the vandalism and fire could have been part of a campaign to force tenants out.
"I believe that someone set the fire on purpose because we had not agreed to vacate the building," said Rabia Begum, a Montgomery College student who lived at the property with her family.
Parker denied wrongdoing. He suggested in an interview that the fire was set by former tenants who wanted to take lucrative move-out offers but couldn't because they had sublet their apartments to others.
"We didn't do it," Parker said. "It would not benefit me in the slightest to do that, and it wouldn't benefit Perseus in the slightest to do that."
He said repairs were made at the building and tenants were offered the chance to return after renovations were complete. He also said tenants were offered "an immeasurable amount of money" to move out.
"We're very sorry all this stuff happened. . . . If I didn't believe I was doing something for the benefit of my tenants, I never would have done it," Parker said.
On Vernon Street, the new owner has announced plans to develop condominiums. The law gives tenants exclusive authority to decide whether to turn rental units into condominiums, but with a vacant building, the owner can get a pass from DCRA to quickly convert and save thousands of dollars on a condominium conversion fee normally imposed on developers.
The new owner has already applied. In late January, construction workers were busy gutting the buildings, hauling loads of drywall and debris to a trash bin on the street.
Meanwhile, the city's investigation at Vernon Street has been idle since the beginning of 2007, when council oversight of rental housing transferred from Graham to Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). The arson investigation is also inactive.
Handwritten notes by fire investigators, made 11 days after the fire, detail a to-do list: Get documents from tenants, study lease agreements, follow up on the shopping bag that had been found with the container of gasoline and alcohol.
But Sgt. Phillip Proctor of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department said investigators were unable to find tenants.
"We just could not track those individuals down," he said. "We really ended up having no complainant, if you will. We really tried."
Proctor said investigators also interviewed property manager Ford, who agreed to turn over lease agreements and other records. But Bolton, with Perseus Realty, stepped in.
"Mr. Bolton wasn't happy at all and was not helpful at all," Proctor said. "He told us we needed a subpoena. It was very frustrating."
Proctor said the U.S. attorney's office did not issue a subpoena, leaving investigators "kind of shooting in the dark."
But U.S. attorney's office spokesman Channing Phillips said the fire department never referred the case. Bolton said he cooperated fully with investigators.
Tenants at the owners' two other buildings on T Street and 16th Street say they are now in the midst of precisely the same struggle, with run-down conditions, eviction notices and letters urging them to leave. Ford, who resigned from Barac in late 2006, is now managing the two buildings.
Last October, tenants on T Street found a sign from Ford posted in the lobby: "If you would like to make money, you need to pay attention to this notice. The owner of the property will offer money to all tenants if they sign an agreement to move out."
Parker said he wants to renovate the building and bring the tenants back.
Meanwhile, more than a year after the fire, Anowara Begum still walks with a cane and cooks dinner sitting in a chair at the stove. Her injury has caused some permanent deformity, her medical records show, and she complains of persistent pain. The family is suing her former landlords, citing dangerous conditions, an aggressive campaign to push tenants out and an unsecured building that allowed arsonists to enter.
The family moved into the house in Virginia last fall, and her husband commutes to the city for back-to-back jobs, waiting tables from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. five days a week.
"In 10 years of living there, nothing ever happened," Abdul Kader said. "They scared us into leaving."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.