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In Fast-Changing Columbia Heights, Tenants Fight Large Rent Hike

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Residents say they the owner of the building at 2724 11th St. NW is raising the rent as a means to push them out and convert the building to condos.
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Residents say they the owner of the building at 2724 11th St. NW is raising the rent as a means to push them out and convert the building to condos.

Howard Proctor is 77 years old. He’s lived in a snug one-bedroom apartment at 2724 11th St. NW for the past 13 years. He keeps his place tidy. His kitchen is spotless. He makes his bed every day. But he can't keep up with the roaches.

“We got traps all over the place, for the mice and the bugs,” Proctor says. “They're all over the place. You put the stuff down and they still come.”

Four huge roaches stick to a trap lay on the floor. But those aren't the only ones in Proctor’s apartment. He points behind his radiator and then behind his couch. They're everywhere.

On the next floor up, Ana Vilma Vazquez shows evidence of a rodent infestation in her apartment.

She says rats and mice have burrowed holes in their mattresses and they've had to buy new ones. Her husband says at night he can hear the rodents tunneling as he tries to sleep.

For the past two years or so, the residents of the 25-unit building have been complaining of uninhabitable conditions like these.

“Conditions are really bad in that building,” says Tamira Ramirez, tenant organizing manager with the Latino Economic Development Center. “You have rats digging holes in people’s furniture. You have bedbugs, you have holes in the ground from construction in the basement. And also the roof needs a lot of repair.”

There’s also mold, lead paint and unsafe appliances. With the help of Ramirez, some student lawyers from the University of the District of Columbia and a number of concerned neighbors, the tenants have been fighting to get these problems addressed. But earlier in the summer, they got some bad news — come September, the landlord was increasing their rent by a whopping 31.5 percent.

The building’s tenants are all low-income. Many are Latino. Some are elderly or disabled. Most pay around $900 a month for a one-bedroom unit. In rent-controlled buildings like this one, landlords can’t increase rent unless they can prove the property isn’t generating enough profit. That’s what the owner of 2724 11th St. NW claimed.

“A hardship petition is basically a petition the landlord can file with the city to say, 'Hey, I’m not making my 12 percent in here, so I want to increase rent on all the tenants, even elderly and disabled, so I can get that 12 percent that the city grants me by law,'” Ramirez explained.

The gas stove in Vannesa Benitez' apartment lacks a hood, and the open flame has burned the wooden cabinets in her kitchen. Benitez lives in a one-bedroom unit with her 18-month-old son and her parents. (Lauren Ober)

Basically, property owners in the District are guaranteed to make a 12 percent return on their investments. If they're not, they can petition the city to grant them a waiver so they can raise rent.

Council member Jim Graham (D- Ward 1) has seen this scenario play out with the same owner at other properties.

“It’s a situation we've run across before where the rents, which have been low and thus affordable, are not supporting the kind of profit the owner wants,” he says. “And so one of the responses of the owner is to not make necessary repairs. As if they had no responsibility.”

The building is owned by Ellis J. Parker, who lives in Florida. His daughter-in-law Jennifer Parker is his D.C. surrogate. Neither responded to repeated requests for comment. Nor did Stan Ford, whose company, SCF Management, LLC, manages the Parkers’ properties in the District.

The Parkers’ rentals are well-known to Graham and the D.C. Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs for the countless housing and fire code violations they've incurred over the years. In 2008, The Washington Post reported that a building in Adams Morgan owned by Parker had similarly fallen into disrepair.

Tenants and advocates like Tamira Ramirez suspect the Parkers are trying to push residents out of the building because of two words: condo conversion. “It is a building that could generate a lot of money to whoever has that building and whoever doesn’t have tenants living in that building,” Ramirez says.

In the past decade, D.C. has seen an explosion of affordable units getting renovated into condos. These conversions are partially to blame for the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Howard Proctor says the Parker family already tried to force a condo conversion on tenants of 2724 11th St. NW, but they declined. “I think they want to get us out of here,” he says. “All you gotta do is read between the lines since we turned down their proposal.”

The tenants have collectively refused to pay the rent increase. And they're demanding sweeping changes to make the building habitable. Proctor suspects they'll wind up in court. But that’s OK, he says. He’s ready to fight.

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