2-year tenants' strike at Marbury Plaza ends with plan for $5 million in repairs

April Goggans, president of the tenants' association, at her building with resident Benjamin Richardson.
April Goggans, president of the tenants' association, at her building with resident Benjamin Richardson. (Robert A. Reeder For The Washington Post)
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A two-year tenants' rent strike at a Southeast Washington apartment complex, started after the deaths of a toddler and her mother in a 2005 laundry room explosion exposed longstanding security and maintenance issues, has been settled, with the complex's owner agreeing to pay $5 million for repairs.

Tenants at the 672-unit Marbury Plaza in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road struck the deal this month with building manager Urban Investment Partners of Washington to repair or replace roofs and heating, air-conditioning, hot water and building-access systems. New windows will be installed throughout the complex, which includes two towers and several garden-style apartment buildings. A little more than $401,000 has already been spent, according to the settlement.

More than 100 residents launched the strike in 2008 after building conditions became "subpar" and negotiations with the complex's owner, the Lightstone Group, stalled, said Phylisa Carter, a staff attorney with Bread for the City, the District nonprofit organization that handled the cases of several striking tenants.

The tenants agreed to pay their monthly rents, which average $1,000, to a D.C. Superior Court escrow account. Those who withheld their rent will probably get a 50 percent rent abatement (75 percent for the disabled and the elderly) for what they owe, according to the settlement agreement. Tenants will be credited with money that they paid, and any overage will be applied to future rent.

A string of hot days in June and concerns over failing air-conditioning units for elderly residents prompted the offices of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles and D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) to push for a settlement, officials said.

"The biggest thing are the leaks and plumbing issues. It's constant, everyday," said April R. Goggans, president of the Marbury Plaza Concerned Tenants' Association and a resident since 2006. "We have a lot of mice and insects, and we go without air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. This has been a long struggle."

A walk-through of the complex in 2008 by building inspectors and the tenants' association found about 825 housing code violations, the association said, including the presence of mold and widespread electrical outages. "Some days, you don't have hot water. Some days, you don't have water. It's terrible," said Tracey Charles, who moved into the building in 2001.

Peter Bonnell, a senior vice president at Urban Investment Partners, said workers have corrected the violations. The city sent a compliance letter to Marbury Plaza's manager two weeks ago.

"We think these improvements will return Marbury to its former glory," Bonnell said. The building is about 90 percent occupied, he said.

The dispute began Jan. 11, 2005, when Vanessa C. Brantley, 30, and her 2-year-old daughter, Shiah, were killed after a second-floor laundry room exploded. At least 19 others were injured. Investigators said juvenile thieves likely caused the explosion when they pulled laundry equipment from natural gas lines in an attempt to steal coins.

Built in 1968, Marbury Plaza was known as an upper-middle-class haven east of the Anacostia River, with amenities that included a manned security desk and a fitness center. Black professionals flocked to the complex in the 1970s, and the late singer Isaac Hayes, who once called Marbury Plaza home, threw parties in the community room. Situated on a hillside, top-floor apartments offer sweeping views that stretch from Washington National Cathedral to Virginia.

But by the 1980s, the buildings had begun to deteriorate. Attempts by several firms and the tenants' association to purchase Marbury Plaza failed. A Lightstone subsidiary acquired Marbury in 2003.

Urban Investment Partners agreed in February to manage the property but said it wouldn't "accept the assignment until we were assured that the owner was prepared to provide the funds necessary to improve the property," according to a statement.

Alexander said the settlement would help fix some of the buildings' glaring problems but that it wouldn't "do all that's needed."

A spokesman for the New York-based Lightstone did not return a request for comment.

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