Owners of the Berkshire Apartments at 4201 Massachusetts Ave. NW have met resistance to a renovation plan that includes new plumbing, heating, air conditioning and kitchens -- and a 20 percent rent increase.
Last month, Lewis Raimist of the Rental Accommodations and Conversions Office denied the owners' request to raise rents for the 779-unit building, noting that the renovations did not clearly "enhance the health, safety and security of the affected tenants, or the habitability" of the units, as required by D.C. law for rent increases based on capital improvements.
On Monday, representatives of the limited partnership that owns the building began their appeal of Raimist's decision. The hearing resumes today, with testimony by four more witnesses for the owners, as well as about 16 on the tenants' side.
"The right to make capital improvements is not unfettered," said Eric Rome, attorney for the 200-member Berkshire Tenants Association, which formed last month to contest the proposal.
"We understand the desire of the owner to protect its investment and to improve its property," Rome said. Still, he believes landlords throughout the city are using capital improvements as a method to raise rents. The resultant decrease in decent, moderately priced housing in the city violates the intent of the Rental Housing Act, Rome said.
Owners of the Berkshires learned while planning plumbing and heating repairs that the 37-year-old building's pipes were insulated with asbestos, a known carcinogen that must be extracted if the old pipes are removed.
The $6.4 million cost estimated by Berkshire owners includes the pipe repair and the price of asbestos removal, as well as charges to accommodate residents who must be out of their apartments for several days during the construction.
Rome said that the association wants to ensure that any repairs are conducted safely, and that the "tenants pay for no costs that are unnecessary or the result of the landlord's actions."
Because asbestos poses no threat unless disturbed, the cost of abatement should not be shifted to tenants, Rome said. Likewise, they should not be asked to pay for the inconvenience of having to stay out of their apartments in the hospitality suites.
The same point was raised by Raimist's report, which specifically disallowed charges such as $250,000 for "coordinators" to help the tenants, and $11,500 to furnish hospitality suites for use during the renovations. Raimist also noted the hardship that the renovation would cause for tenants, of whom 167 are over age 65, 12 are children and 14 are handicapped, including seven in wheelchairs.
At Monday's hearing before the city's acting chief of housing adjudication Gerald Roper, witnesses for the limited partnership that owns the Berkshire testified to the decrepitude of the building and to the presence of asbestos insulation.
"We were asked to come up with some alternative or to tell them, 'Gee, it's not all that bad. We can live with it.' We were not able to do this," said George Schoonover, an engineering surveyor who displayed a rusty pipe and a battered heating unit as evidence of the Berkshire's need for a complete plumbing overhaul.
Under District law, the rate of annual rent increase is tied to the Washington, D.C., Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area Consumer Price Index, but can rise no more than 10 percent yearly.
But the law allows landlords to file petitions for capital improvements. If judged by the rental accommodations office to be conducive to safety or energy efficiency, the plans can command rent increases of up to 20 percent.
According to the Smithy Braedon, which manages the Berkshires in the Wesley Heights section of Washington, rents range from $261 for the lowest-priced efficiency to $806 for a three-bedroom apartment. Efficiencies make up 42 percent of the units, and one-bedrooms 49 percent.
Landlords in the District can evict tenants for renovations that cannot "safely or reasonably" be made in an occupied apartment. The Berkshire owners chose instead to keep their tenants, who must leave their apartments at 7 a.m. each day during the renovations and can return at 5 p.m.
The management's plan to equip vacant units with food, furniture, microwave ovens, videocassette recorders and games for the displaced residents drew scorn from Cissy Lawson, who said she speaks for many of the "older people" in the building.
"We're expected to get out at 7 in the morning, and stay out until 5. That's a lot of poppycock," she said, adding that "most of us are on special diets" and would suffer from being away from their own kitchens.
The heating replacement will take about five days, and the kitchen about eight days, according to fliers distributed to tenants.
The management urges that residents leave when workers enter their apartments, because of the asbestos removal. According to Michael Gaston, an asbestos expert who testified Monday, workers in each apartment will wear disposable suits and respirators, build a double plastic wall around the asbestos area, and use a special, high-powered vacuum to guarantee that no fibers stay in the apartments.
Still, the prospect of asbestos removal at home worries some residents.
"There's a tremendous apprehension for safety," said Forrest Dick, president of the tenants association. Dick said he believes that even in the three to five years in which the Berkshire pipes are still functional, "a procedure less intrusive to the tenants" will be developed for asbestos abatement. He would like to see any removal postponed until some safer method is available, because "our owner is offering 779 guinea pigs for a foundling-type industry."