Tenants in the District's luxury Van Ness South apartment complexhave rejected a move to convert the building into condominiums, but owners and tenant association officials say they will try again next year.
The question of conversion split residents of the 624-unit apartment building into factions led by the established Van Ness South Tenants Association, which supported the conversion package, and the Group to Save Van Ness South For Everyone, which opposed the move. The result was a leaflet war that has been waged for almost a year, full of charges and countercharges over tenant accountability.
Tenants turned down the conversion package by a 30-vote margin in November, but the owners questioned several of the ballots, which kept the final results in limbo until this month, said resident Bill Immen, president of the victorious group.
This is the second time in three years that Van Ness South has turned down a conversion proposal. Van Ness North, another building in the 15-year-old complex, voted to form a co-op in 1979 and Van Ness East, also part of the complex, voted to convert into condominiums in 1980.
The three buildings, on Van Ness Street NW off Connecticut Avenue, surround a central swimming pool. One-bedroom apartments rent for as much as $585 a month, although long-time residents pay less under rent-control guidelines.
"People have the idea that we are wealthy," said Immen, who has lived in his $400-a-month, one-bedroom apartment since 1970. "A lot of us are just working stiffs, and 334 people in our building are senior citizens."
Immen charges that the decade-old Van Ness Tenants Association is a mouthpiece for building owner Robert Silverman and says Silverman paid for the association to hire two lawyers, while Immen's group had to scrape private funds together to hire their lawyer.
It is a charge that annoys association President Mark Evans, who says the lawyers helped them negotiate the best conversion package possible for the tenants.
"Our stand was that it was best to at least talk with the owners, to see what they had to offer," said Evans, a three-year resident of the building. "Some people didn't even want to listen to what the owners had to say."
Evans said the Tenants Association did not come out in support of the conversion package until five days before the November election.
"We thought the package we negotiated was the best deal possible," said Evans. "Obviously the owners Silverman and partners wanted to sell the building and were willing to make some attractive concessions."
He said the average purchase price for tenants already living in the building would have been $64 a square foot, or about $70,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the owners were happy the tenants turned them down," said Evans. "They will probably come back next year with a package that is less attractive to the tenants."
Suzanne Ives, a public relations specialist hired by the owners, said they indeed will return next year with another conversion proposal, although specifics have not been worked out. Under District law, conversion elections can be held no oftener than once a year, and 50 percent of the tenants must agree to convert.
Immen said his group was unwilling to negotiate with the owners because Silverman is appealing another conversion attempt from two years ago in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
"We won't deal with owners while they're in court trying to destroy tenants' rights," said Immen.
Silverman could not be reached for comment, and Ives, the owners' spokeswoman, said she was unaware of the details of the court case.
Evans said Silverman had agreed to drop the case if the tenants voted for conversion.
"They also agreed to renovate the building and a few other things," he said. "It was attractive but obviously the majority of the tenants did not think so. It is their decision and their right."
When the owners return next November, the Group to Save Van Ness South For Everyone will be there to oppose them, said Immen.
"If they try again, we will be there and we will be firm," he said. "No question about that."