Many homeowners have struggled through all the difficulties of continuing to live in a single family house while it is undergoing renovation. But what if it's not just one family in the structure, but rather 25, 50, or 100 or more?
That's the dilemma many Washington area tenant groups have confronted in choosing to purchase their rental apartment buildings to rehabilitate and convert to condominiums and cooperatives.
In a number of those cases, the renovation was a major undertaking, including installing all new electrical and plumbing lines, putting in new windows, replacing the old kitchens and bathrooms with new ones, and doing plastering and painting.
"You have to keep on top of the renovation scheduling and you have to have good communications with the tenants," emphasized Bernie Vallandingham, president of Frederick Contractors.
His company is one of several local construction firms that have each rehabilitated at least a half dozen multi-family properties while the residents continued living in them.
"You have to be certain you have construction materials on hand in advance of when you need them," Vallandingham added. "We set up a schedule sometimes down to as little as every several hours. Once you establish the pattern, it all goes ahead."
Explaining that plan to the residents who will be living through it is also critical, Frederick and the other builders have found.
"We spend a lot of time and spell out everything before anybody 'hits the building,' " said Thomas Hendrix, president of Rise Construction Co., Inc. " The residents have to know exactly what is going to happen in their units."
That information can be conveyed in a variety of ways. Hendrix works with a building's tenant association to hold free construction informational meetings for all the residents. Many of the tenant groups put out detailed work schedules and special newsletters.
"If necessary, we will even walk with people through their units before rehab, to show them what is going to be done," said Hendrix.
In spite of all the preparation the contractor and the residents association do, the renovation work itself can still be a shock.
Speaking of the residents of her 181-unit Scott Circle condominium conversion, General Scott tenant association chairman Emerald VanBuskirk commented: "Even though they knew it was going to happen, they were distressed with the noise, the dust and the confusion. As the thing wore on, it dragged on everyone."
During construction work hours in that building, the heat was off in the winter and the air conditioning was off much of this summer, VanBuskirk said.
While most residents worked at office jobs and were out of their apartments during the day, it was more difficult for the property's retired people.
"The ones who had it the hardest were the folks who live here 24 hours a day," VanBuskirk explained. "We set up a 'lounge' in a vacant apartment and put in space heaters in the winter and fans in the summer and had coffee and tea available. It was a place for people to go while their units were being worked on."
In that project and many others, residents had to pack up their possessions, push them to the center of their rooms, and put tarps over them. They often had to leave them that way for as much as two months while the contractor was working in their units.
"One of the worst things," VanBuskirk commented, "was living out of boxes and living with things covered up."
Recently, VanBuskirk unpacked and laid out one of her rugs that she had had stored since March. "Just putting down that little carpet was a milestone," she said.
While most residents accept the inconveniences of renovation, tenant associations have found some tenants less cooperative.
"You have to have a board of directors willing to roll up its sleeves and go to work, to go into a unit and help the family pack up if that is necessary," said Michael Crescenzo, deputy director of Ministeries United to Support Community Life Endeavors (MUSCLE). MUSCLE is a nonprofit housing organization that has assisted a number of D.C. tenant groups in purchasing their buildings and rehabing them.
"Some of the elderly people felt they wanted you to only work when they wanted it," reported Burnette Johnson, president of the 1901-07 15th St. NW Cooperative. "When we explained that there was a contract and a schedule that had to be followed, they relented."
Tenant groups must also be firm with their contractor in setting guidelines for conditions during rehab, Crescenzo said. MUSCLE works with the residents associations to establish ground rules on how long services, such as water and electricity, can be out.
Contractors experienced with tenant-in-place rehab have developed a number of ways of reducing the difficulties for residents.
"We have been able to maintain services," said Hendrix of Rise Construction. "People may not have use of a kitchen for an evening, but they have at least hot and cold water at one place in the apartment.
Rise sometimes puts in temporary kitchen sinks while working on permanent installations, Hendrix explained.
When switching the electrical service over from old lines to newly installed ones, the company tries to do that in one day, putting on extra work crews when needed.
Some co-op and condo groups establish a buddy system, matching up residents whose kitchens are being replaced with other tenants who still have those services. The General Scott association provided hot plates for the members who were having new kitchen installed.
Regardless of how much care the contractor and the tenant association take, problems still come up during renovation. "It worked on your nerves," Johnson said of her 15th Street project. "It was very depressing because your home was all torn up."
Hendrix realizes how stressful rehab can be. "We know people are going to get mad," he said, "but we always try to keep the lines of communication open."
Hendrix has found satisfaction in the challenges of tenant-in-place rehab.
"The residents will often give us a party at the end," he said. "They become close to the men who work on the project.
"We don't make a ton of money off these things, but I like doing them. I get to meet and know a lot of wonderful people."
While happy with the outcome of renovation, building occupants are straightforward about the hassles of going through the experience. "The best thing was seeing it all come together," commented Christine Messer, the resident manager of the General Scott. "The worst part was living through it."