District Artists Fear Loss Of Homes, Livelihood (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

District Artists Fear Loss Of Homes, Livelihood

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
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

00:00:30
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

00:00:50
Is that a pastel you're using there?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:52
...to a large figure drawing.

MS. RAYE LEITH

00:00:54
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.

SHEIR

00:01:01
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...

LEITH

00:01:15
I'm kind of into this blue. It must be my mood.

SHEIR

00:01:17
...things are different.

LEITH

00:01:19
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.

SHEIR

00:01:30
The situation is this, in early January, 52 O Street's landlord, Marty Youmans, sent an email to all first floor tenants.

LEITH

00:01:37
Totally out of the blue, saying, "It appears that most of the first floor will be vacant by June 1st."

SHEIR

00:01:47
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.

LEITH

00:02:02
Honestly, my heart went down into my feet. I just went, oh, god.

SHEIR

00:02:06
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.

LEITH

00:02:14
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.

SHEIR

00:02:24
Hence, her current blue period.

MS. SUSAN BENNETT

00:02:26
Commercial tenants tend to have no rights.

SHEIR

00:02:29
Especially commercial tenants with month to month leases, says Susan Bennett, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law.

BENNETT

00:02:36
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.

SHEIR

00:02:48
On the other hand, if you're a residential tenant in D.C.?

BENNETT

00:02:51
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.

SHEIR

00:03:08
Hi, Emma.

MS. EMMA JASTER

00:03:10
Yes.

SHEIR

00:03:10
Rebecca.

JASTER

00:03:11
Nice to meet you.

SHEIR

00:03:11
Nice to meet you.

JASTER

00:03:12
Welcome.

SHEIR

00:03:12
Thank you.

SHEIR

00:03:13
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.

JASTER

00:03:23
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.

SHEIR

00:03:31
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.

JASTER

00:04:02
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?

SHEIR

00:04:22
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

00:04:31
There's been a sea change in the building since this came up.

SHEIR

00:04:33
And given the way D.C. landlord/tenant law works.

YOUMANS

00:04:36
You pay, you stay is the policy. You know, it's difficult for landlords who want to make changes to their property.

SHEIR

00:04:43
He may actually delay his youth hostel plans.

YOUMANS

00:04:45
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.

SHEIR

00:04:58
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.

YOUMANS

00:05:08
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.

LEITH

00:05:22
Breathing new life? There is so much life in this building. There is so much phenomenal art going on in this building.

SHEIR

00:05:30
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.

SHEIR

00:05:56
To learn more about 52 O Street Studios and about landlord/tenant law in the District, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.