A Mount Pleasant apartment building has opened its doors to a group of Indochinese refugees -- and to a dispute with tenants trying to keep the building from turning into a condominium.
The focus of the squabble: an unusual agreement that calls for the refugees' sponsor to help the building owners get the refugees to sign a petition backing the conversion.
"The moment someone moves out, they fill it (the vacancy) with a refugee," said Kyle Holder, chairman of the tenant association at the Park Regent, 1701 Park Rd. NW. "Then they go and get the refugees to sign the petition."
The owners say their agreement with the refugees' sponsor makes financial sense. The resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (Irc) guarantees that the refugees' rent will be paid at a time when many of the other tenants are in arrears, said John C. Carlton, one of the building's four owners.
Meanwhile, the new refugee tenants move in knowing what the owners' plans are, he said.
IRC's director Jean McDaniels, believes the refugees have actually forestalled the condominium conversion.
"They (the tenants) should be happy because we rescued it from being a condominium," she said. "They now have tenants who pay their rent. The owners are making money, so they're not going condo."
This latest wrinkle in the on-going battle between District of Columbia apartment owners, who say they must convert their buildings to condominiums to protect their investments, and tenants who claim they won't be able to afford the asking price for their apartments, worries city housing officials.
"It's not illegal, but I'd say it's unscrupulous," said Akwaki O. Agyeman, an official with the city's Rental Accommodations Office. "Every time someone converts a building to condos, we lose rental units. And with fewer and fewer rental units around, the people forced to move out have a lot of trouble trying to find a new one they can afford."
"Little by little, they (the Park Regent owners) are getting a foothold by bringing in Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Loatians," said Don Leaming-Elmer, director of Washington Innercity Self-Help (WISH), a group that has helped Park Regent tenants with their problems.
He said that while renting to refugees is a new twist in condominium conversion battles, the tactic of renting to more acquiescent tenants to undermine the opposition of the others is an old one. "It's a very effective technique on the owners' part. In the case of the refugees, they're using people even more disadvantaged than the ones we've been dealing with in the past."
According to McDaniels, the agreement came about just over a year-and-a-half ago. She said IRC workers, who regularly scan newspapers for advertisements of rental vacancies, spotted several ads for the Park Regent.
"They said they would guarantee the rents and agree to accompany us and serve as translators when we went around to explain why they should sign the petition (for conversion)," said Carlton. "It was a fairly attractive opportunity."
As a result, today roughly 150 refugees live in the building, occupying about half of the 96 units, most of which are efficiencies or one-bedroom apartments.
Holder said initially the older tenants had tried to buy the building themselves, hoping to turn it into a condominium. They were unable to secure the financing needed for the $1.2 million asking price. It was at that point, Holder said, that the owners began their efforts to win tenant approval for conversion.
According to Carlton, the owners were able to obtain the signatures of about 60 percent of the tenants -- "all of the refugees and about 20 of the others" -- on their petition. Residents were offered $500 and a one-year lease with the guarantee that there would be no rent increases if the signed.
Holder said that many of those who signed did not realize they eventually would have to leave and that the $500 would not be paid immediately. Because of that, the tenants association circulated a counter-petition opposing the conversion that was "signed by many of the same people who signed the first one." The owners' petition subsequently was rejected by the city's Condominium and Cooperative staff because of the counter-petition, Holder said.
The owners have appealed that decision and a hearing date on the case is to be set next week, a staff member said yesterday.
"I'd say they got them cheap," said Agyeman, when asked about the $500 payment offered to those who signed. "I think it's more typical for the tenants to get about $3,000 to sign. Something like $500 is very outrageous." t
In the meantime, many longtime tenants are bitter about the way they say the refugees treat the building, built in 1910.
"It was beautiful at first here," said Helen Charles, 55, who moved in with her husband two years ago. "But now it's terrible." "It's filthy," added her husband Lawrence, 56. "It's always a mess."
The refugees are frustrated, too, over conditions in the apartment building. "I asked a month ago for the repair man to fix the hot water in the bathroom," said An Trong Luu, 22, a Vietnamese refugee, as he sat in the tiny apartment he shares with three others. In the background was the sound of continuously running water, and steam billowed from the open bathroom door. "But they still haven't fixed it. We can't take a bath because the tub gets too hot."