Q: The apartment building where I live may be bought soon by our tenant organization. I understand that the laws of the District give a tenant group the right of first refusal to purchase the entire building from the landlord. I have not participated actively in the group, because I had a busy schedule and did not believe that the tenants would be able to make the purchase.
Now the leaders of the tenant group are suggesting that when the building is purchased and converted into a cooperative or condominium I will not be able to purchase my apartment at the low tenant price. Is that legal? What are my rights?
A: Although a lot has been written about the rights of tenants to purchase their buildings under the applicable laws of the District, very little has been said about the individual tenants rights within the tenant organization.
If you look at the District law, it does not give individual tenants a right to buy the building if there are more than five rental units in the building. The law says that only an organization of tenants with the legal capacity to hold real estate has the right to purchase from a landlord. The Rent Control Commission and most of the lawyers involved in landlord/tenant mattrers have concluded that the best form of "legal organization" is a non-profit corporation organized under the laws of the District.
Indeed, under the law the tenant organization has 90 days to enter into a contract to purchase the building but if there is no such organization at the time tenants receive notice from the landlord, the residents have 30 additional days to form that legal entity.
Thus, it should be made quite clear that individual tenants in large complexes do not have any rights other than those afforded them by the tenant organization, acting pursuant to the law.
In my opinion, if the tenant organization is the only legal entity that has the right to buy the building on behalf of the tenants, the tenant organization has the right to set reasonable rules and regulations. Some of these rules include maintaining active standing in the organization by attending meetings, paying dues, joining committees and generally participating in the affairs of the group.
In many tenant organizations of which I am aware there is a substantial group of individuals who volunteer considerable time, money and effort to secure rights.
Perhaps it is cynical to suggest that the law encourages the old adage: "To the victor goes the spoils," but in reality this is exactly what the current District law permits. Now that the tenants in your building are about to succeed in their efforts, you want to get the benefit of someone else's work.
Quite candidly, I do not believe that the law permits you to share in the tenant's organization benefits. As long as the organization was validly constituted, and gave plenty of notice to all of the tenants of their rights to join the organization, any reasonable rules, regulations and restrictions are valid.
Needless to say, you still have your rights as an individual tenant in the building. Regardless of who will ultimately sell your condominium or cooperative unit (the tenant group or an outside developer) you have the absolute right to purchase your apartment -- at whatever price is being offered to the public.