Dorchester House tenants' fight highlights issues with D.C. rent-control law

Dorchester House tentants have been in a long-fight with the buildings owner
Dorchester House tentants have been in a long-fight with the buildings owner (Nikki Khan - Washington Post)
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 11:39 PM

Disputes between landlords and tenants are not uncommon in big cities with thousands of apartment and townhouse dwellers. But D.C. officials, landlords, tenants and housing experts agree: The battle between the owners and managers of the Dorchester House, an aging brick apartment building in Adams Morgan, and some of its nearly 400 tenants is the strangest, the longest and the most fractious such conflict in this city's long history.

The dispute began in 1979, when tenants accused the building's owners and managers of illegally including air-conditioning charges in their base rent. The cash-strapped tenants association, led by a handful of 20-year residents, has $18,000 in unpaid legal bills and a laundry list of demands. One of the building's co-owners, John Hoskinson, has said the legal battle is now being carried on by the Dorchester's "oddballs."

The Dorchester's troubles underscore, in the most extreme way, lingering issues with the city's 35-year-old rent-control laws, which will probably be made permanent next year. With Washington's rents rising at a faster pace than those of almost any other major U.S. city, the push to convert many low-income apartments into market-rate housing has taken on an added impetus.

In 2000, about 100,000 rental units in the District were rent-controlled. A decade later, according to various estimates, there are between 10,000 and 25,000 fewer rent-controlled units.

But in some cases, despite the steep rent increases, low-income tenants have stayed in their apartments and fought change. And those fights can take a long time. The appeals process with the D.C. Housing and Community Development takes years. And years. And years.

"My assistant is younger than some of these cases," said B. Marian Chou, an attorney for the Dorchester Tenants' Association. "People die, people move out, but these cases keep going on."

In the past two decades, many of the District's older apartment buildings, such as the Dorchester, have been bought, renovated and changed from affordable rent-controlled housing into profitable developments, said Jim McGrath, chairman of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition, which works on behalf of tenants groups. The result: fewer privately owned, low-income housing options in areas undergoing small renaissances, such as Northwest Washington's Adams Morgan, the U Street corridor and the Shaw neighborhood.

The theory of rent control

Eleanor Johnson, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who has lived in her ninth-floor apartment at the Dorchester for 15 years, has seen her rent nearly double from $675 on move-in day. As tenant association president, Johnson has filed complaints against the Dorchester's owners and management over air-conditioning outages, surcharges and the decision to install a $10 million individual electrical meter system.

"You have a revolving door here now with people moving in and moving out, signing short-term leases. It undermines rent control," Johnson said. "And it has been absolute hell."

The District's rent controls limit rent increases to about 2 percent plus inflation, or no more than 10 percent a year. Rent increases for the elderly and disabled are capped at 5 percent a year. One-time rent increases on vacant units are set at 30 percent.

The Rental Housing Act of 1985 was designed to protect tenants from rising costs and provide incentives for new construction and improvements. Facing another expiration on the act next year, the D.C. Council is considering making the city's rent-control laws permanent.

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