MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're talking about fears, the kind you face, the kind you don't and in some cases, the kind of sort of sneak up on you. We'll explore that last kind now as we head to Northwest Washington and revisit a spot we featured on last year's Getting By and Getting Ahead show, 52 O Street Studios.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The converted warehouse in Truckston Circle has been providing artists with affordable space to live and work since 1978. Out of the 30 units, eight are rented as living spaces and 22 as commercial art studios. Raye Leith is one of the commercial tenants. You might remember her from our original story. During today's visit, she's adding light blue touches...
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Is that a pastel you're using there?
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
...to a large figure drawing.
MS. RAYE LEITH
It's called New Pastel, which has just a little bit more binder in it so it kind of holds its shape a little bit better.
When we met Leith last May, she was prepping for 52 O's annual open house and was counting her lucky stars that she'd nabbed such a spacious, sunny relatively inexpensive art studio on the first floor. But now, nine months later...
I'm kind of into this blue. It must be my mood.
...things are different.
I definitely think my work is changing. I feel a little bit more, ugh, you know, just a little bit tumult in the work because of the anxiety of the situation.
The situation is this, in early January, 52 O Street's landlord, Marty Youmans, sent an email to all first floor tenants.
Totally out of the blue, saying, "It appears that most of the first floor will be vacant by June 1st."
Youmans plans to convert most of the first floor into a youth hostel, one geared towards artists, he says, with two art spaces, a poetry stage, a coffee bar, as many as 40 beds. Raye Leith says the email ruffled more than a few feathers, including her own.
Honestly, my heart went down into my feet. I just went, oh, god.
Because she's been renting her studio for six years now and like most other commercial tenants at 52 O, she's on a month to month lease.
And that allows the landlord to do anything he wants with the rents and to ask us to come and go as he pleases. So there's no stability.
Hence, her current blue period.
MS. SUSAN BENNETT
Commercial tenants tend to have no rights.
Especially commercial tenants with month to month leases, says Susan Bennett, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law.
Really, their lease is their only protection and in the event that the owner wants the space back, then it's very, very tough to assert anything if all you do is work in the space. That's hard.
On the other hand, if you're a residential tenant in D.C.?
It's absolutely the opposite situation, even if you have only an oral month to month lease, residential tenants do have significant rights in the District of Columbia and they have the right to appear in court and to contest the reason for their eviction.
MS. EMMA JASTER
Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you.
Back at 52 O Street, first floor resident, Emma Jaster, hasn't yet contested the reason for her eviction, though she has consulted D.C.'s Office of the Tenant Advocate.
Who said, well, actually as things currently stand, the landlord does not have a right to make me, as a tenant because I live here, leave.
But here's the thing, Jaster's an actor and dancer who lives with her boyfriend, actor and musician, Matt Pearson. And as of April 1st, they'll be going on a month to month lease. In an email, Marty Youmans offered this arrangement in exchange for the promise he wouldn't raise their rent in 2012. As to why, Youmans writes in his message, "no specific reason at all and absolutely no reason related to you both." But knowing what she does about the proposed youth hostel, Emma Jaster is nervous and like her neighbor, Raye Leith, Jaster's been going through a blue period of her own.
For the last month, I've been losing time on my artwork in order to, you know, look up, well, where would I live instead. Okay, so if I can live over here, then where am I going to get my work done? Okay, if I can work over there, then Matt's going to need a studio space, too. Well, we can't find a space that we can both work into together. Do we each need to find our own? Does that mean we're looking for three new spaces?
I know we've only been hearing from landlord Marty Youmans via email so far, but I did meet with him at 52 O and he says given the nosedive in morale around here...
MR. MARTY YOUMANS
There's been a sea change in the building since this came up.
And given the way D.C. landlord/tenant law works.
You pay, you stay is the policy. You know, it's difficult for landlords who want to make changes to their property.
He may actually delay his youth hostel plans.
I quickly discovered with Raye and with two other tenants that live on the first floor that you just can bulldoze changes and I really do realize that. I don't want anyone to leave the building unhappy. No one's ever left this building unhappy.
Still, Youman says he's determined to charge ahead before too long. Not only would a youth hostel provide much needed, affordable lodgings to visitors, he says, but it could raise 52 O Street's profile.
This project would bring a lot of people into this building. It would really get the building the kind of exposure that I think it's never had and I've gotten some positive responses to it from newer tenants who do see this as an opportunity to breathe life into O Street.
Breathing new life? There is so much life in this building. There is so much phenomenal art going on in this building.
And artist Raye Leith hopes it'll keep going on, though she's far from optimistic. In fact, the way the area around Truckston Circle is changing and developing, she fears for the future of all of 52 O Street and for the many people breathing life into and drawing sustenance from this longtime haven for local artists.
To learn more about 52 O Street Studios and about landlord/tenant law in the District, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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