Real estate developer Robert T. Bonham, sounding like a battle-weary veteran, says he has seen too many condominium conversions turn into a legal war between tenants and owners, so lately he has been letting the tenants have their way.
And, he says, he's been making a tidy profit while he's at it.
"I figure what I spend in amenities to make the tenants happy I save in court costs at the end," he said last week. "I'm no saint. I'm in this for the money. I've just found a pleasant way to do it, is all."
"Pleasant" is having fresh flowers in the lobby, freshly painted halls and grounds so well-kept they rival the parks of great estates, say the tenants of Presidential Towers on Metzerott Road in Adelphi. The two-tower, 155-unit complex, converted from rental, is a case in point of Bonham's philosophy.
Last week, residents of the condominium, converted two years ago, gathered to accept ownership of the building and vote a board of directors, and many of the residents say they couldn't be happier with the transition.
"I have friends in other buildings who say their conversion has been a headache," said new board member Sidney Heyman, who has lived with his wife in a two-bedroom unit for seven years. "This transition went smooth as silk, though. I don't know anyone who isn't happy with it."
Bonham, who converted the building with the help of partners, said not one lawsuit has been filed against him by residents of the building, who now own 70 percent of the complex. Bonham and partners own the remaining 30 percent of the units. Some of those units, priced on the average just under $60,000 for two bedrooms, have not yet been sold.
Residents said the catalyst for the smooth transition was the Presidential Towers Social Club, which Bonham helped create after the building was converted from apartments to condominiums two years ago. He hired a temporary staff director for several thousand dollars to get the club off the ground.
As the club increased in momentum, members arranged Sunday brunches, trips to Atlantic City, holiday parties and a monthly "Thank God It's Friday Bash" in the Towers' recreation room, said resident Sylvia Herman, a retired attorney.
"It was the initial liaison between the tenants and the converter," she said. "We were all a little wary of the converter, even though he seemed interested in the building."
Herman said Bonham had spruced up the building and grounds when he renovated the apartments in preparation for conversion. Security was tightened and long-time tenants, who said they had seen the building vandalized by irate apartment tenants who objected to the conversion, said they began to take pride in the building complex.
"I've seen so many converters skimp every last dollar and the residents retaliate with vandalism and general misuse of a building," said Bonham. "Getting them to take pride in their building benefited me because they kept the building in great shape. They took care not to damage the hall carpets or whatever."
From the social club grew an advisory committee which angrily asked to see the Presidential Towers account books when Bonham hiked the monthly condominium fee by 17 percent.
"He let us see them right away and right away we could see why he had to hike the fee," said Heyman last week. "There were no secrets, so there was none of that suspicion and resentment you find between so many residents and owners."
The committee, with Bonham's encouragement, began to take an active interest in the running of the complex.
"I told my staff, 'Let them have anything they ask for--answer any question,' " said Bonham. "I was running the building honestly and I wanted them to see that."
Tenants on the advisory committee said they attended budget meetings and were consulted on most decisions regarding building repair and purchases. Bonham said they were in training to take over the building some day but didn't know it.
"I didn't want them to get in over their heads right from the start," he said. "I didn't tell them that though. I just let them in on all the decisions and then I just sort of let them make the decisions."
With the consent of the advisory committee, the owners have set aside $200,000 in condo fees for long-term repairs and Heyman said the committee already has estimated how long it will be before the roof needs repair and the boiler needs to be replaced.
Most of those on the advisory committee were elected by the residents to the board of directors last week.
"Most new condo boards get burned out their first year because there is so much to learn," said Heyman, newly elected to the board. "But most of us feel we have a good handle on how to run this building. We won't have to put in the hours that people just seeing the books for the first time would have to."
Bonham, who owns apartment houses in Baltimore and the District area, said he will use the same method when he converts them to condominiums in the future and advises other converters to do likewise.
"I saved money; I made people happy; I didn't have a lot of worries associated with conversion," he said. "It made life easier all around."