The General Services Administration plans to require that all new federal leases for office or warehouse space have a provision allowing the agency to stop paying rent if the building owner doesn't make fire and safety improvements that are agreed to in a contract.
The requirement, which GSA officials hoped would send a "shock wave through the government leasing community," was imposed by GSA chief Gerald P. Carmen after he learned that combustible ceiling tiles were still in place in most of the Gramax Building in Silver Spring when a fire heavily damaged government offices there.
The tiles were supposed to have been removed by the building managers, the Algin Corp., by November, 1982--six months after a new five-year lease was signed. But they were still there in July, 1983, and the electrical fire started what officials believe ought to have been a small blaze. Instead, the combustible tiles and the lack of sprinklers in the high-rise building were a factor in what turned into a $750,000 blaze that damaged part of three floors of the National Weather Service headquarters.
Algin chief Albert Ginsberg, who is based in New York, was not available and neither he nor his local representative returned telephone calls earlier this week.
Originally Carmen proposed that the agency begin to withhold rent where problems are not taken care of.
"If they don't fix the problems they are supposed to, we're not going to pay rent, it's as simple as that," Carmen said. "I'm ready to use the Gramax situation as a test case if I have to."
But Carmen's legal staff, including GSA general counsel Allie D. Latimer, told him he was not on firm footing unless he was willing to take the matter to court. GSA attorneys "made a determination that they could not totally withhold all of the rent" at the Gramax building because there was no contractual basis, confirmed Herb Koster, GSA's director of public affairs.
The snag is a boilerplate clause in government leases that says that "in the event of failure by the lessor to provide any service, utility, maintenance or repairs required under this lease, the government shall have the right to . . . deduct the costs . . . from rental payments."
"That's stupid," Carmen contended. "We shouldn't be bargaining away our right to stop payment. They sign a contract to do certain things, and if they don't do it the contract is voided." Although GSA has stopped paying rent on the three floors damaged by the fire, it has not decided whether to try to collect punitive damages for the problem because of the foot-dragging, according to GSA regional Public Buildings Commissioner James G. Whitlock.
GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase said that when the new contract clause is in place, it will emphasize that "one of the punitive actions will be the withholding of rent. There may be others."
"I want it to say that GSA can take action other than cure action," Haase said, referring to the fact that right now all GSA can generally do is contract out for a repair or correction of a safety violation--a cumbersome, time-consuming process that sometimes takes as long as six months.
Haase emphasized that if a lessor "doesn't empty the wastebaskets, we're not going to hold up the rent."
GSA now leases some 5,000 buildings nationwide, including 309 in the Washington area. At a reporter's request the agency collected information that shows 26 building owners in the Washington area have one or more safety deficiency outstanding that hasn't been corrected in what Whitlock contends is a "timely fashion."
Twelve of the 40 specific problems cited were in the Gramax and neighboring Willste Building, which is also run by Algin.
As the government's primary leasing arm, GSA is faced with accommodating the needs of federal agencies but market conditions often dictate how willing lessors are to comply with generally strict federal safety standards. Whitlock contends that federally owned and leased buildings are generally safe since they must comply with city and state codes and have occupancy permits before they can be leased.
"But we know problems do occur, and we are trying to address them," he said.
William Jenkins, chief of GSA's regional real estate division, said a special team of three professionals will soon be given the full-time job of monitoring leases to make sure that building owners are in compliance with contract terms.
"We've been kicking the idea around for some time now," he said, "but this has given us the impetus to move on it."
Meanwhile, the safety inspection reports compiled by the fire and life safety division will be routed to a central GSA office of Oversight where a team of investigators will periodically monitor the progress of all buildings to determine if corrective actions have been taken.