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Forced Out

An Investigation Into Casualties of the District's Real Estate Boom

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In the Page One article, Hartford E. Bealer was identified as one of the founders of Chevy Chase Bank. That institution, whose full name was Chevy Chase Bank & Trust, merged in 1977 with Citizens Bank & Trust Co. of Maryland. It is not related to the current bank, Chevy Chase Bank FSB.

In One Heated Dispute, Someone Set a Fire

Unsolved Arson Followed Efforts to Move Tenants

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On November 5, 2006, a fire broke out at 1846 Vernon Street NW in Washington D.C. The blaze came amid one of the city's fiercest battles betweeen tenants who wanted to stay in the building and a landlord who wanted them out so the property could be redeveloped. Responsibility for the blaze has never been determined and the arson probe is stalled.
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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.

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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.


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