Code Violations Plague Owner

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008

The owner of the Mount Pleasant apartment building recently destroyed by a five-alarm fire charged onto the District's real estate scene in 2001 scouting for opportunities.

NWJ Cos., based in Philadelphia, shopped for modest apartment buildings in budding Northwest and Northeast Washington neighborhoods, eager to pierce a thriving housing market. Within months, NWJ bought seven complexes for $15.5 million.

Lawsuits, accusations and widespread housing code violations have hounded the company ever since.

The 85-unit complex in Mount Pleasant that burned two weeks ago had been cited for 7,755 code violations, the highest count in the city, and tenants for years had been sparring with the company over building conditions and rent.

But bitter disputes and code violations have also surfaced at other NWJ buildings, which racked up a combined 2,000 code infractions for falling ceilings, crumbling walls, rat and roach infestations, broken appliances and inadequate heat, records show. By comparison, most D.C. apartment buildings have no violations recorded in city files.

Conditions grew so bad at a NWJ complex on Ontario Road NW last fall that tenants decided to paint filthy hallways themselves with help from advisory neighborhood commissioners. NWJ fired back, suing commissioner Wilson Reynolds for trespassing and seeking $100,000 in damages.

Company Vice President Eric Kretschman said that NWJ has not violated any laws or mistreated tenants and that he did not recall receiving notices for that many code violations. He said NWJ filed the suit against Reynolds because he did not have permission to enter the building and because the cleanup damaged the property. The suit is pending.

"Nobody is perfect, but I think we do a very good job year after year of improving these buildings," Kretschman said. "We are not the guys forcing people out. We're providing very good housing at a very good price."

In recent years, similar clashes between tenants and landlords have played out across the city as owners pushed to turn rental properties into condominiums. A Washington Post investigation published this month found that landlords emptied more than 200 buildings in the past four years, with many quickly converted to condominiums.

District law requires that property owners gain permission from tenants before converting to condominiums and pay a hefty conversion fee for every new unit. Those requirements, however, do not apply to vacant buildings that receive a pass from the government known as a "vacancy exemption." D.C. Council members are now trying to close the loophole, and the D.C. attorney general's office has promised to crack down on landlords who intentionally allow their buildings to fall apart to drive out tenants.

NWJ wasn't pushing condominiums and has never applied for a vacancy exemption, records show. Instead, the company eventually put four of its properties up for sale.

Tenants and some local politicians charge that NWJ didn't invest in repairs and allowed conditions to deteriorate in order to empty apartments, making the buildings more profitable to condominium developers.

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