On your average weekend day, Barney Singer is just a guy in faded jeans who owns a red-brick house near Dupont Circle. But when he turned the basement of that house into a two-bedroom apartment and put it on the tightest rental market in recent memory, Singer suddenly acquired the powers of a minor earthly god.
He stepped out of his front door one Sunday to find a throng of young professionals with big, pleading eyes waiting to attend his open house. With a few words, he could bless whomever he wanted with a lease, or send that whomever back into the streets in the city's choicest communities to hunt for an apartment that normally takes months to find.
"For a landlord," Singer said while standing outside his $1,240-a-month basement in the 1400 block of Swann Street, "things are good."
Things could hardly be better.
If you somehow missed all the headlines, you don't know that the availability of apartments in Washington's high-end, professionally managed buildings has hovered near zero for months.
But you could be forgiven for not knowing that apartments in the smaller buildings--such as independently managed housing flats and basements and such--are just as bad. No one has said a peep about the estimated 3,000 that are out there.
Ann Halverson and her roommate, Keltie Hawkins, are among the thousands of hopeful tenants who found out the hard way that going house-to-house in the ultra-hip sections of Northwest Washington was no picnic either.
"It's snobbery on our part that we won't look elsewhere in the District," said Hawkins, a 24-year-old University of Iowa graduate who works in the marketing department of the Brookings Institution.
Elsewhere is not where the action is. As far as Hawkins is concerned, Dupont Circle and its surrounding area has the finest restaurants, the coolest people, the trendiest bars and the best shopping.
"It rocks," Hawkins said of urban living.
Hers is an opinion shared by hundreds of young professionals of all backgrounds and races who are now choosing homes in Washington rather than the suburbs.
That's good news for the city, and bad news for aspiring tenants.
"You'll find that most tenants who want to live in the District don't want to live in a corporate-managed apartment building," said Dale House, a real estate associate and property manager for Pardoe ERA.
"The most desirable building is that brownstone with charm and character," House said. "A basement with good light is good, too. But people have to go through a lot to get that."
It meant misery for Halverson and Hawkins.
By the time the two of them reached Singer's doorstep, they were in their third month of hunting for a place to live. Hawkins said they'd searched for so long that they were meeting the same people over and over again at various open houses, and made new friends.
They had encountered landlords who showed them tattered two-bedrooms that rented for $1,600 and said "take it or leave it," Hawkins said. As they stood dumbfounded, others in line rushed in to grab the apartment. Never mind that insulation drooped from holes in the ceiling or that shag carpeting was as thick as yak fur.
Eventually, Halverson and Hawkins learned to play the game.
"You lose your personality," Hawkins said. "You do things you wouldn't ordinarily do. You think of bribing. You think about whatever. You think, 'I'll do anything to get this apartment.' You become super-competitive. You become a fiend."
But at Singer's open house, Halverson decided to bury the fiend deep in her subconscious. In the landlord's presence, she wore the face of a child in prayer, looking as sweet as could be.
"We're fantastic tenants," she said, pleading. There was no shame in begging. A long line of other young professionals were filling out applications behind her. "I'll put a star in the corner of our application, okay?" Halverson said.
Because their salaries are less than $45,000 a year, Hawkins and Halverson were not thought of as prime tenants in an apartment market where rents suddenly rivaled those in notoriously expensive San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston.
Nancy L. Bymers, president of Empire Management Inc., said she has never seen anything like this in the District. She manages apartments all over the city for owners who don't want the hassle. Typically, when a tenant moved out, Bymers was barely able to get a 3 percent increase in rent from the next tenant.
"For six years, we got that," she said. "That's all the market would bear."
But in February this year, she noticed something different. "I held an open house, and I was looking for $50 more a month in rent, a 6 percent increase. Forty people came to a Saturday open house. The top bidder offered me 50 percent more than the asking price, and it hasn't slowed down since."
Bymers rented her last three vacancies within two weeks, with the rents up 30 percent. She increased rents for apartments she managed in west Dupont Circle by 17 percent, and in Adams-Morgan by 30 percent.
"My clients," she said, "are ecstatic."
She couldn't hide her own delight. "I do my open houses on Wednesday and Thursday nights," she said, because it's convenient for her, not tenants. "I finally got weekends off after seven years in real estate."
Not every landlord is enjoying great times. In the District as a whole, the vacancy rate is 13 percent, according to Shaun Pharr, who cited census data. Availability depends on where you look, and if you're looking in the Dupont Circle area, Capitol Hill and Georgetown, for example, good luck.
"People got interested in buying again in the District," Bymers said. "So you had former property for rent now being occupied by owners, and people who were renting got kicked out. So it was the increase in sales in the District that created this rental monster."
Speaking of monsters, Singer said he was trying not to be one. "I feel bad because I don't like telling people no," Singer said. "I wish I had room for all of them, but the reality is that only two can get it."
A week after his open house, he did something that most landlords don't. He called back each applicant. For Halverson and Hawkins, he had bad news. A pair of male graduate students got the apartment. The women had noticed those guys and thought they were pretty cute--but not that cute.
Hawkins took the news badly. Her stomach hurt, and she could barely sleep that night. Halverson slumped on the couch in the living room, dejected.
"It's almost, like, painful," Hawkins said. "You think about it constantly."
Time was running out. They were about to lose their current apartment in the 1800 block of T Street NW because their rent went up and a roommate took a job out of town, leaving them with a place they couldn't afford.
They had three weeks to find a new place.
Hawkins, the more aggressive of the two, relied on a strategy. Each Wednesday, she probed the Web site of a weekly alternative newspaper for apartment listings. She would dial the number immediately and express profound interest in what she said sounded like a great apartment, whether she thought so or not.
"I try to be the first one there," she said. Often, she would get to a doorstop right on time only to discover that the place was being shown to someone else, even though the landlord had promised to not do that.
At Singer's place, Hawkins and Halverson ate Jodi Keyserling's dust. She got there way before them. Not that it mattered. "I love this place, but I probably won't get it," said Keyserling, a 23-year-old legislative aide. "I went to another place in Dupont Circle, and there were 50 people there. It was like a sorority rush. I was like, 'When is the swimsuit competition?' "
A week later, Hawkins and Halverson rushed to an open house on 13th Street NW, near Logan Circle. Although she promised not to show the place before 2 p.m., Le'one Hettenbergh already was showing it to Alexis Taylor, a 36-year-old lawyer who got there 30 minutes before the opening.
Taylor, who pleaded for the $1,200-a-month apartment, got it. She liked the red-brick walls and the bedroom fireplace. She didn't like the insulation that fell out where water damage rotted through the ceiling.
"You can't hesitate once you see what you like," Taylor said as Hawkins and Halverson walked out the door with their heads down. "You've got to go for it."
Hettenbergh promised to fix the place before Taylor moved in, and Taylor believed her. But Halverson and Hawkins thought the landlord had broken a promise to them.
Halverson seethed. She was no longer the sweet girl from Iowa. What kind of place is Washington, she wanted to know. "If it wasn't for my friends, my job, I would have pulled up out of here already. I'm so frustrated with D.C.
"Oh, God. I feel like going to a bar and getting drunk." Halverson said.
"I feel really let down," Hawkins said. "We try to get by on our charm. It's not working."
But two days later, charm worked. Getting out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to make an 8 a.m. open house on Harvard Street didn't hurt either.
"I got the apartment!" Hawkins yelled.
With a little more than a week to spare before being forced to move in with Hawkins's parents in Manassas, they were saved. "That would've been a disaster," Hawkins said of the very notion. But now, the nightmare was over.
No longer dejected, Halverson went out for a night of drinking after all.
CAPTION: Alexis Taylor writes a check for an apartment near Logan Circle as Keltie Hawkins chats with the landlord. Taylor, who pleaded for the place, got it.