When Del. David Speck (R-Alexandria) eased into his front row seat in Richmond for the opening of the General Assembly last January, he felt confident about the session ahead.
After nearly a year and a half of hearing constituents complain about an ever-tightening rental market, Speck was ready to cosponsor several bills that would help tenants being displaced by the conversion of rental property to condominiums or cooperatives.
One of those bills, which carried Speck's name as a cosponsor, would have given local jurisdictions the power to require developers to file plans for tenant relocation. Eventually, the bill was amended to make relocation plans voluntary.
Last week, Speck was again talking about tenant relocation plans. This time, though, he was explaining why it had taken so long, and so much pressure from local officials, for a relocation plan to be filed on an Alexandria apartment building that is scheduled for conversion to a cooperative, a project Speck has been involved with for more than a year.
The project in question, a 17-unit apartment building on Russell Road, had been owned jointly by Speck and Charles T. Akre Jr., until Speck sold his share of the project to Akre last April. Akre is president of Port City Buildings, a construction firm overseeing renovation of the apartment building. Speck is vice president of Port City and is the person directly responsible for supervising the renovation.
At a City Council meeting earlier this month, some city officials charged that the project, out of 2,000 units now under construction in the city, was the only one that had not complied with the city's voluntary tenant relocation guidelines. Although Akre contends that at least half the tenants already have received some financial aid to relocate, Akre did not file a plan outlining specific aid to tenants until last Friday, a year after the city approved the voluntary guidelines and more than three months after Speck proposed that relocation plans be required of all developers.
"I don't see any reason to justify what we did or did not do . . . There's not a soul who expected that bill to go through in its original form," Speck said in an interview last week, arguing that there was nothing unusual about a legislator sponsoring a bill at the same time he is involved in a project that may be affected by that bill.
"What's a plan anyway? I had never seen a 'plan,' so I had no specific idea in mind during the legislative session as to what exactly a plan should look like," Speck said. "These are voluntary guidelines and no developer is required to provide them. My real concern is tenant relocation assistance."
All 15 tenants in the Russell Road building were given the option to buy their apartments. However, none of the tenants exercised that option, and all, except one tenant, have moved. According to information Akre filed with the Alexandria housing office, seven of those tenants were given financial assistance in relocating. In the relocation plan filed last Friday, Akre said tenants who need assistance have been promised comparable aid. Alexandria housing officials said that the new plan meets all voluntary city guidelines.
Although neither Speck nor Akre were required to file the plans, some city officials have questioned the propriety of an elected official, particularly one who frequently champions tenants' rights, disregarding repeated requests by a City Council member and other city officials to comply with a guideline even less stringent that one he asked the state legislature to approve.
"At the same time that Speck was working on the legislation, tenants (in the Russell Road apartment complex) were receiving notices to vacate. David Speck has taken a public position which is inconsistent with his private action," charged council member Donald Casey, a Democrat, who has been one of the strongest critics of Speck's actions.
"This whole business about him saying he should not be involved with the tenant relocation plan for this project is ridiculous. There are two people involved in this project -- Speck and Akre," Casey added.
Speck said he never discussed the legislation or the guidelines with Akre. Casey, however, contends that Speck still has a responsibility to make sure there is no conflict between his public duties and his private actions.
"Speck is a public official and as such has an obligation to abide by City Council guidelines and set an example for other developers," Casey said. "There are things you do and don't do as a public official. And one thing you don't do is speculate in your own backyard."
In January 1980, before Speck sold his interest in the apartments, Akre filed a rezoning request in an effort to convert the building to condominiums, and sought an emergency hearing. At the time, Speck was soundly criticized for his association with the project. The zoning change eventually was denied and Speck sold his shares to Akre, explaining that his political position made it inadvisable to continue as a partner. Shortly afterward, Speck became vice president of Port City Builders.
Criticism of Speck resurfaced earlier this month when council member Casey questioned whether requirements outlined in a building permit for the complex were being met. Casey noted that while it was assumed the complex was being converted to a cooperative, the building permit, issued in December 1980, approved the renovation work "for continuation as rental apartments only."
No one asked about the addendum until May 12 when the City Council requested an opinion from the city attorney as to whether Port City Builders legally could proceed with its renovation under the December permit. Last week, city attorney Cyril Calley gave the developers approval to go ahead.
At the same time Casey was questioning the permit, city and housing officials charged that Akre had not cooperated in providing a formal tenant relocation plan. Under its voluntary guidelines, the city recommends that elderly or low-income tenants should be provided financial assistance.
Although Akre provided some relocation information in a letter to housing officer Vola Lawson, Lawson contended that more detailed information was needed. Akre, even though he filed a formal plan last week, has contended that the information was adequate and all tenants who moved into the apartments in the last six months signed an agreement that noted the complex was to be converted to a cooperative.
Last week, Lawson got her information, but not without complaints from Akre.
"Quite frankly, I disagree with what I'm doing," Akre said the day before filing the plan. "But I am tired of being beaten over the head by the city. The city approaches the guidelines as if they are regulations and they are not."
As for his relationship with Speck, Akre said, "I have another business and he runs the day-to-day financial end of this one (Port City Builders). What he does or says in his political life is his business. We have never discussed the city guidelines."
Speck said he supported Akre's earlier decision not to comply with the city's request for a detailed relocation plan. The information Akre submitted, Speck said, was sufficient and in compliance with fair tenant relocation assistance.
As for the criticism regarding his role in the project, Speck said:
"A man has got to make money, doesn't he? When you become an elected official you don't give up your right to earn a living."