At a time when city apartments are in scarce supply, the 334-unit Envoy Towers apartment building stands at 2400 16th St. NW., 75 per cent empty - the result of deliberate, if unavoidable, government policy.
Two rent strikes, the inability of two private owners to make payments on a federally backed mortgage and a decision by the Department of Housing and Urban Development not to rent the once elegant apartments has transformed the building into a covernous shell. The building, which overlooks Meridian Hill Park, will remain a near-lifeless hulk until federal housing officials in Philadelphia decide its fate. Officials at the HUD regional office here have recommended that the building be sold for the third time in 12 years to a private owner.
HUD became the building's owner almost a year ago when it foreclosed on the mortgage for lack of payments.
Federal housing officials say they see their role as simply that of caretaker until they sell the building, and the remaining 91 tenants thus have not been evicted. One by one, they are leaving on their own. Vacant apartments are not being rented because a two-year-old rent strike in the building is still in effect. Also, officials do not want to put money into fixing up apartments for rent since the building will be sold.
A new owner, however, may evict the tenants after issuing them a 30 day notice.
When Jan Bailey, 34, a private consultant moved into the apartment building of young black professionals and college students in 1968, there was a shopping arcade in the lobby. The aromas of Caribbean and African dishes swirled in the hallways. The building had a reputation for excellent parties, and some tenants hired bands to play at parties in the twin ballrooms.
Now Bailey enters a dimly lit lobby, rides a usually vacant elevator to his seventh floor apartment and walks along corridors where he hears only his footsteps while passing one vacant apartment after another before reaching his own door.
"This place used to be vibrant and jumping all the time," said Bailey, his voice echoing as he stood in one of the darkened ballrooms. "Now it's a ghost town," he said.
Bailey, one of the original rent strike orgaizers, has stayed on as the tenant. organizers, has stayed on as the tenant population dwindled.
Bailey and other long time tenants in the building who organized the rent strikes and are still withholding their payments blame the building's demise on what they say was a lack of building services provided by former woner Burton Blackwell, a housing enterpreneur from Califirnia.
Blackwell and James Clay, director of the HUD Washington area office, blame the tenants for withholding their rent money, which they said was needed to keep the buding up to city standards.
Built in 1906, it was originally called the Hotel 2400 until 1963 when a group of New York investors purchased it and obtained a $4.6 million federally guaranteed mortgage from the Federal Housing Administration to remodel the building as an apartment house.
But the investors, Melvin and Robert Kaufmann and Carl A. Morse, could not meet payments on the mortgage, and the federal government foreclosed in 1967, after the building had been open only two years.
HUD held onto the building until 1972 when it was sold for $2.5 million to Blackwell's company with the government taking a $2 million loss, according to Clay.
A month after Blackwell bought the building, he discontinued the 24-hour secretarial service and the daytime guard service.
"That galvanized the disenchantment that had been smoldering within the tenants for over a year with the two previous management companies," Bailey recalled. A rent strike was organized.
The tenants demanded restoration of the switchboard and guard services and asked for rat and roach extermination service.
Blackwell said he closed down the switchboard because "there was quite a bit of dealing in dope and prostitution and they were using the switchboard to handle these calls." In addition, he wanted to use the money saved from these services to improve conditions in the building, he said.
After several cross-country flights to see the tenants, he relented and under an agreement with the tenants in June 1972. The switchboard and guards returned, and the rent money again began to flow.
The bickering ebbed until January, 1975, when it erupted again in a major rent strike after Blackwell attempted to increase rents - a rise federal housing officials had approved.
Bailey said the tenants rose up in opposition to the increases because the building was not registered with the city Rent Control Commission in violation of District law and the increase was greater than the law permitted . Also, Bailey said, when maintenance in the building was decreasing.
Blackwell said he asked for the rent increase to pay for greater operating expenses resulting primarily from higher fuel bills.
While the tenants withheld rents, Blackwell said he had only enough "money for the barest operating expenses such as garbage pickup, water and a skeleton maintenance crew."
He said he could not afford to buy oil, so the air conditioning would not work. "I was forced not to do important maintenance work on the elevators, the air conditioning system and the furnace," he said.
WIthout air conditioning that summer, many renants left, and Blackwell decided not to re-rent apartments as they became empty because many units had accumulated housing code violations and he wanted to add no more supporters to the rent strike, he said.
In October, 1975, the D.C. Rent Control Commission ordered Blackwell to roll back rents to 1973 levels and to refund tenants for all excess rent money paid.
Ernest Withers, a member of the rent control commission who was alos a tenant of Envoy Towers and a leader in the rent strike, abstained from participating in the commission decision.
Blackwell said he was "faced with paying a fine for violating the order or rolling back the rents."
Blackwell said he literally gave the building back to HUD and the government officiallt foreclosed a year later.
Bailey said about one-third of the tenants are still withholding rents, and with about $80,000 in their rent escrow account, the tenants hope to buy the building when it is put up for sale and convert it into cooperatives.
"We have a lot of people who have a lot of struggle and dogged determination in this thing," Withers said, and they are determined to hold onto the building for moderate income people. "We want to take over the building," he said Burton Blackwell said he believes that is what the tenants had done before he left the building.