Abandoned apartment buildings have become an increasingly common sight in Adams-Morgan, where residents and community leaders express fears the boarded-up structures could help trigger another round of displacement among the area's low- and moderate-income families.
The 1980 Census recorded 500 vacant units in the Adams-Morgan area of Ward 1, among 23,649 such units citywide. But a recent informal survey by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission found nearly 2,000, ANC officials said.
Last fall, residents in the 1900 block of 16th Street NW counted 700 vacant units in 14 buildings in an area bounded by T, U, 16th and 17th streets NW, according to Charles Bien, the survey team leader.
Some community activists say they are worried that with an improving real estate market the buildings, many of them once-elegant addresses, may be converted into luxury condominiums that could upset the delicate racial and economic balance that is now a source of community pride.
"Our concern is the displacement that has been going on here, pushing people to goodness knows where," said O'Bryant Kenner, housing committee chairman of the ANC.
Their concerns were heightened, others activists said, when the City Council recently gave preliminary approval to an amendment to the city's strict condominium conversion law that was intended to remedy the problem of vacant apartments citywide.
The amendment would exempt from the provisions of the condominium law any buildings vacant before Jan. 1 of this year. That would allow landlords who abandoned their properties in recent years to convert them without having to contact former tenants or establish a new tenants' group to vote on conversion and to qualify for purchase discounts, both of which the law now requires.
Adams-Morgan leaders said the advent of higher-priced homes would increase surrounding property values and tax rates, thus making it attractive for other landlords to convert their buildings, which may now house low- and moderate-income families.
"Our fear is that . . . as soon as the market turns around, these buildings will be converted into luxury apartments and condominiums that will increase the costs of living here for all of us," Kenner said.
As a prevention effort, he and others in the neighborhood have asked city officials for help in averting a recurrence of the displacement of low- and moderate-income families that took place there in the late 1970s when Adams-Morgan became a fashionable home for young professionals, most of them white.
John McCoy, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, attributed the increase in empty buildings to a combination of the city's rent control law, hefty increases in utility costs and the sluggish economy.
"Clearly, what happened in some of these buildings is that, in an effort to keep down expenses, the landlord opted not to make more repairs than necessary and that became incentive for people to leave," McCoy said.
"After awhile, the place became totally undesirable, and at that point the decision for the landlord was whether to sell or close it up until he can make the massive reinvestment required to get a much higher sale or rental price."
ANC leaders in Adams-Morgan have suggested that city officials use financial incentives to encourage developers to convert the empty buildings into affordable apartments for low- and moderate-income families.
The ANC leadership noted the city recently has offered developers a series of financial inducements to help spur the long-delayed rebuilding on city-owned land around two downtown Metrorail stations.
But the solution to vacant buildings is not quite so simple, according to Ivanhoe Donaldson, deputy mayor for economic development.
"We are looking at multifamily units up there and aggressively trying to get some new starts," Donaldson said. "It's great to say, 'Let the city go in and do something.' You do as much as you can with the resources you have . . . but if you let private developers do it, they're going to do it at market price."
Last year, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, then the Ward 1 representative, introduced legislation to levy a $1,000 annual surcharge on buildings that remain vacant for more than three years. The bill died in the council's finance and revenue committee.
Earlier this year, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the committee on housing and economic development, took a different approach. She introduced legislation to exempt vacant, renovated buildings from the city's rent control and condominium conversion laws. Jarvis said current laws make such renovations economically unfeasible.
City programs to help tenants buy their apartment buildings when owners have wanted to sell also have slowed because of high interest rates and cuts in federal funds.
"The city does not have an inexhaustible supply of funds to help tenants who do not have the money to purchase their properties," said James E. Clay, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.
Many of Adams-Morgan's abandoned buildings are trash-laden shelters for homeless people who sleep in the empty apartments.
"We're not really so worried about the street people," said longtime Adams-Morgan resident Josephine Butler, who was echoed by other residents. "People sort of accept them and take care of them here in Adams-Morgan."
Kenner added: "Our concern is the future of our community. We'd like to get a handle on it. Diversity is our motto, and we want to keep it that way."