Official Rejects Deal In Rent-Hike Dispute At Kennedy-Warren

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008

The D.C. rent administrator has rejected a deal between the landlord and tenants at the Kennedy-Warren apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, reviving a dispute earlier this year that led to what city officials described as one of the largest rent strikes in local history.

A majority of the tenants in the historic section of the art deco building, which is next to the National Zoo, had signed an agreement with the landlord, Bethesda-based B.F. Saul Co., to avoid rent increases, including a $233 monthly renovation surcharge that went into effect in January and a $179 monthly surcharge paid since June.

In exchange for forgiving rent increases for those who signed the agreement, the landlord secured the right to raise rents to market rates in vacated apartments in the historic wing.

But Grayce Wiggins, the city's rent administrator, found on March 24 that the agreement was "patently coercive," punishing tenants who had refused to sign by not allowing them to lock in their rental rates.

In rejecting the agreement, the administrator said the deal allowed the landlord to circumvent D.C. rent control laws for future occupants by removing hundreds of units from the city's stock of affordable housing.

Thomas H. McCormick, senior vice president of the B.F. Saul Co., said the company was disappointed with the decision.

"We are hopeful that we can work out a satisfactory revision promptly," he said, adding that building renovations will cost more than $60 million and are necessary to upgrade safety systems, including sprinklers and access for disabled persons.

The company is proposing to more than double rents in newly leased units. A first-floor efficiency that had gone for $1,430 a month would cost $3,333. Rent for a two-bedroom on the 10th floor would increase from $3,974 to $8,400, according to a rate list provided by the tenant group, the Kennedy-Warren Residents' Association. Wiggins was out of the office and could not be reached for comment. But her spokeswoman, Najuma Thorpe, said the agreement contradicted the purposes of rent control.

The agreement drew criticism from tenant advocates in the city, who lobbied against it.

"We think voluntary agreements are a charade," said Jim McGrath, chairman of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition. "Tenants give up far more than they get."

Unless the tenants continue to strike, which they can do individually, they will have to pay the rent increases, which some said could force them to leave. Only 105 of the original 372 units in the historic art deco wing are occupied. Many residents accepted incentive deals from the landlord to move out before the renovations.

The tenant association has a new board but no new leaders yet.

Peter Schwartz, the former vice president of the association, has not paid his rent for three months. He said the landlord has threatened legal action.

Schwartz had argued against the agreement, refusing to sign it because he said it treated tenants unfairly.

"B.F. Saul went for broke on this agreement and got slammed down hard," he said.

The parties have 30 days to respond to the decision before a formal ruling is issued.

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