The projection-screen television affixed to the eye-popping green wall, 1950s-style diner barstools and pop culture paraphernalia in Fritz Wood's English basement in Shaw all scream swank downtown lounge. Perhaps it is Wood's touch. A bartender at a popular Penn Quarter restaurant, he and girlfriend, Alexandra Nicholson, who shares the apartment, prove that in a city where reaching the top is almost everything, there can be an advantage in looking down.
Today, the English basement, long thought of as a damp dwelling rife with creepy crawlers and sometimes creepier residents, is becoming popular among young career professionals trying to save money. Wood and Nicholson, who pay less than $1,300 a month, said they have friends who pay the same amount for tiny studios in the District.
"I wanted a place where I could entertain," said Wood, 27. "Someplace where, after I closed my bar, I could have my friends over for last call."
Residents said creativity and innovation help maximize their space and comfort.
Michelle Reilly, 29, and her roommate were the first tenants to move into her two-bedroom Capitol Hill English basement after her landlord renovated it. With Spanish tiles, air-conditioner units cleverly hidden behind shutters and a kitchen that could rival those in some single-family rowhouses, Reilly knew she found a gem. They pay a combined $1,800.
"When I walked in here, I was like, I have to have it," Reilly said.
The term "English basement" can confuse a newcomer to the area. It signifies a basement apartment with windows that are at or at least partially above street level. That means lighting is key. For Wood, a self-described film buff, lack of light is perfect for watching movies. But many English basements, especially those in the more densely populated Northwest neighborhoods, do not get much natural light.
Michelle Hyun's one-bedroom English basement in Columbia Heights has one kitchen window that offers little more than a glimpse of shrubbery and the ankles of passersby. She offset that with hanging lamps. Exposed white brick walls help make the space feel larger while the soft lighting throws shadows over nooks and crannies, giving the apartment a cozy, lived-in feel.
Sitting in her small kitchenette, which shares space with a tiny couch, bookshelf and a stereo, Hyun, who pays $925 monthly rent, points out a recent addition: a light installation that her artist boyfriend Micah Reed made from a discarded pizza parlor sign. Because her landlord will not let her paint, Hyun, 23, has added splashes of color by making the walls a showcase for paintings and photographs that she and her friends produced.
A number of wall clocks set to several countries' time zones give the apartment a funky, urban flair.
"I think it helps give it less of an illusion of a basement dwelling," Hyun said. Basement living can come with a sacrifice. Poor ventilation means Hyun cannot set up her easel in her apartment and, though she likes to cook, sometimes the smell from dinner hangs in the air for days.
Wood and Nicholson, who have two small dogs and are both smokers, keep an air purifier running at all times.
The apartments are also notorious for dampness and the occasional flooding if drains and gutters on the main house are not kept clear.
Mold chased Nicholson, 28, a publicist for National Geographic, out of an old basement apartment and landed her in the hospital. Along with the purifier, she and Wood keep a dehumidifier running non-stop. Without it, they say, mold would grow on the couch.
"It pulls about two gallons of water out of the air a day," Wood said.
Another woe shared by English basement residents, a complaint familiar to a lot of city dwellers, is lack of storage. With living space already tight, closets are often little more than an afterthought.
Hyun solved storage woes by hanging linen curtains over cubbyholes, creating precious closet space for her purses.
To accommodate friends for movie viewing, Wood and Nicholson keep ottomans on wheels, which are pushed against the walls when not in use. There is a large storage space behind their apartment, but because it is shared with the group house above, it is full, and Wood said they are considering renting additional space.
Officials do not know the exact number of English basements in the District, said Darrell Donnelly, program manager for business licensing at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In part, that is because some homeowners convert a basement into a rentable dwelling but fail to get the proper business license required by the city.
A campaign started this year to identify unlicensed landlords could change that. It was begun in response to a townhouse fire that killed Georgetown University student Daniel Rigby in October 2004. Rigby lived in a basement room without adequate exits, and the property owner was not licensed, Donnelly said.
D.C. housing codes require that English basements used as rental properties have breakaway bars on windows, deadbolt locks that turn by hand, smoke alarms in all common areas and bedrooms. All bedrooms must have either a door or window no more than 44 inches from floor to sill. Rules differ for individually owned English basements. So far, D.C. officials have identified at least 1,500 suspect properties through tax records and newspaper advertisements and have sent letters. Since May, Donnelly said, officials have licensed 410 "two-family rentals," which include rowhouses with separate basement apartments.
Reilly, Hyun and Nicholson were not sure if their landlords were licensed, though each apartment did appear to meet D.C. code. Nicholson said she was not aware of the requirements until the mold found in her old apartment made her sick.
Despite the drawbacks, it is hard to leave a good English basement behind.
"I wouldn't trade it for the world," Wood said. "There's a waiting list for after I move out."
Fritz Wood and girlfriend Alexandra Nicholson's apartment has a projection screen at one end of the living room. With lighting a key component, a panel of glass blocks helps to brighten the room. The computer is in a bedroom corner.