Sara Caplan, 69, a secretary-researcher at the Federal Communications Commission, has been renting an efficiency apartment at 2800 Wisconsin Ave. NW since the building was opened 17 years ago.
The 107-unit building now is being converted to condominium ownership. The situation facing Caplan typical of that of many older renters in Washington, which has been swept in recent years by a wave of condominium conversions.
But what has happened in Caplan's case, which easily could be termed "the case of the tenacious tenant," is far from typical.
The case began last summer when tenants of 2800 Wisconsin were notified that the Holladay Corp., a Georgetown-based real estate firm, had bought the building from ISM Associates and planned a conversion.
Caplan, who had been paying $244 a month in rent, was told she could buy her apartment for $41,500. She says she did not want to buy the unit, which was offered at a price negotiated by the tenant group with the previous owner.
Twenty of the 58 members of the tenant group eligible for special prices did elect to buy, according to a Holladay spokesman who asked not to be identified by name. Other tenant group members were offered $2,000 to move out within 60 days. In addition, the tenant association was given $50,000 to cover its expenses for organizing and trying unsuccessfully to buy the building from the previous owner. Caplan said she paid a total of $90 in dues and got back that amount.
But Caplan elected neither to buy nor to move before last fall's deadline. Instead, she stayed and fought. In January she received a letter from the Holladay Corp. reminding her that she had received a notice last summer to vacate by Oct. 1. Three options were given:
Continue to rent -- but at a much higher price. Her apartment had been purchased by an investor who was offering it for rent at $450 a month "once the necessary [upgrading ] work has been completed." But she was told she would have to relocate temporarily while the kitchen and bathroom were worked on.
Move. She was offered help in finding another apartment and $125 to help defray costs, as required by city law.
Face eviction proceedings.
Later in January, the third option was activated. Miller, Loewinger & Associates, lawyers for Holladay, filed for possession of the apartment with the D.C. Landlord and Tenant Court. Caplan was told to appear in court Feb. 18.
Caplan retained real estate attorney Benny l. Kass. Kass says he agreed only to represent Caplan in her relation with the developer (Holladay) in terms of staying as a tenant or moving, but not in court.
Caplan did not go to court on Feb. 18, and says she expected Kass to represent her there. (She later field a complaint against him with the D.C. Bar Association, and now has hired another lawyer.)
The landlord-tenant court agreed to evict her and ordered her to pay $244 in rent each month until the case is cleared up.
Meanwhile, Caplan has stayed put, saying she cannot find another apartment. Because she does not have a car, she says she needs to continue to live in the conveniently located upper Northwest area of the city. She says she is willing to pay up to $450 a month, but for a one-bedroom apartment.
The D.C. apartment market is short of vacancies in buildings in the most desireable areas, such as Wisconsin or Connecticut Avenue corridors, where the number of available rental units has declined sharply with the proliferation of condo conversions.
Relatively few new rental apartment buildings have been built in recent years, because developers regard the risks as greater than the potential benefits. (Coincidentally the Holladay Corp. did build a new rental apartment complex on upper Connecticut Avenue in the early 1970s but recently has been specializing in buying and converting rental units to condo ownership.)
The reality or threat of rent controls, plus high operating costs and high borrowing rates have discouraged developers from building new rental apartments in recent years. In the 1960s, when this area had no rent controls and a surfeit of mortgage money was available for apartment developers, more than 40,000 new rental units were built in one boom year. In recent years that total has fallen to 5,000, including those apartments built with federal subsidies. Privately financed new apartments for rent have been relatively few in recent years.
Caplan said she is unwilling to move temporarily from her apartment to another to allow refurbishing because she could not obtain in writing a definition of how long "temporarily" might be. The Holladay spokesman said he had assured her that work on her apartment could be completed in five days.
Another aspect of this Caplan vs. Holladay confrontation is that the tenant investigated hardship rights for the elderly, as specified in the agreement signed by the tenants. But she also admitted that she was unwilling to disclose her net worth in order to be able to take advantage of those rights.
As a result, she was not given the opportunity to rent one of the four apartments set aside for elderly "hardship" tenants -- only one of whom took advantage of that offer. At least three other elderly tenants moved out, Caplan said.
The Holladay spokesman, who didn't hesitate to call Caplan "uncooperative and difficult," contends that she was not eligible for the $2,000 moving expenses given to other tenants because she did not move out within 60 days of receiving notice last year.
But he also said this week that Caplan would be given $500 if she moves out before April 15 and drops the complaint against attorney Kass.