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District Artists Fear Loss Of Homes, Livelihood

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52 O Street commercial tenant Raye Leith might have to vacate her studio to make room for a youth hostel.
Rebecca Sheir
52 O Street commercial tenant Raye Leith might have to vacate her studio to make room for a youth hostel.

When Metro Connection last visited 52 O Street - the converted warehouse in Truxton Circle that's been providing artists with affordable space to live and work since 1978 - artist Raye Leith was on top of the world.

It was May 2011, and not only was she prepping for 52 O's annual open house, she 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 in to this blue," she says, as she scribbles with a light-blue pastel on a huge figure drawing. "It must be my mood. I definitely think my work is changing. I just feel a little more tumult in the work, because of the anxiety of the situation."

Leith says 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 1.'"

Youmans plans to convert most of the first floor in to a youth hostel, one geared toward artists, he says, with two art spaces, a poetry stage, a coffee bar, and as many as 40 beds. Leith says the email ruffled more than a few feathers, including her own.

"Honestly, my heart just went down into my feet," she says. "I just went, 'Oh, God.'"

After all, 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.

"That allows the landlord to do anything he wants with the rents," she says, "And to ask us to come and go as he pleases. So there's no stability."

Hence her current "blue period."

Differences between residential and commercial tenant laws

Susan Bennett, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, says, indeed, in D.C., "commercial tenants tend to have no rights." Especially those with month-to-month leases, since "their lease is their only protection. 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, she says, 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 contest the reason for their eviction."

Uncertain futures at 52 O Street

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, whom she says told her "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 1, they'll be going on a month-to-month lease. In an email, 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, Jaster is nervous. And, like her neighbor, 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 look up well, where would I live instead?" she says. "If I can live over here, then where am I going to get my work done? And okay, if I can work over there, then Matt's going to need studio space, too. Well, we can't find a space that we both can work in together. Do we each need to find our own? Does that mean we're looking for three new spaces?"

After sending his original email in January, Youmans says he's seen "a sea change" in morale around the building, and not for the better. He says since D.C. landlord-tenant law operates on a "You Pay, You Stay policy," it's difficult for landlords who want to make changes to their property. He says 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't bulldoze changes," Youmans says. "I don't want anyone to leave the building unhappy; no one's ever left this building unhappy!"

Still, Youmans 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 also raise 52 O Street's profile.

"This project would bring a lot of people into this building," he says. "It would really get this 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."

But Leith disagrees. "Breathing new life?" she asks. "There is so much life in this building! There is so much phenomenal art going on in this building!"

And she hopes it'll keep going on, though she's far from optimistic. In fact, the way the area around Truxton Circle is changing and developing, she fears for the future of all of 52 O Street, and for the many people breathing life in to, and drawing sustenance from this longtime haven for local artists.

[Music: "Mona Lisa" by Santo & Johnny from Mona Lisa]

Photos: O Street Studios


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