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Purchase of Logan Circle’s Norwood Apartments by Tenants After More Than Five-Year Effort Celebrated

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2011 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Victory celebrations for middle income and working class tenant associations in the District of Columbia are classically few and far between; economic forces are generally overpoweringly unequal between tenants, even if well organized, and their adversaries — typically the buildings’ owners and their well-paid advisers, managers, and attorneys.

For one of the last remaining affordable apartment buildings in the rapidly changing Logan Circle neighborhood, the Norwood Apartments at 1417 N Street, NW, however, both timing and the stars, together with the availability of an ensemble of talented individuals in DC government housing agencies, local advocacy groups and public interest lawyers, plus the generous provision of pro bono legal services by the Hogan Lovells law firm (formerly Hogan and Hartson), came together to set the stage for a dramatic victory resulting in the completion in October, 2011, of a six-year battle by the Norwood Tenants Association to gain control of their building and to complete their purchase.

This purchase resulted in the conversion of a seven-story, 84-unit, rent control building to a limited equity cooperative apartment building; it thus joins 85 other such Washington apartment regimes, which are located in all eight of the city’s wards. These cooperatives range from just one in Ward 3 to 31 in Ward 2, according to a poster board study by Amanda Huron on display at the Norwood’s October celebration in the fellowship hall of the National City Christian Church, the rear of which is directly across N Street from the Norwood.

In addition to the support of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, in whose ward the Norwood sits and who cut the formal ribbon at the event celebrating the new tenant ownership status, the association’s co-president David Fabian praised the efforts of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and Council Chairman Kwame Brown on behalf of the tenants and the key role played by retired U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) litigation attorney Jonathan Strong, and that of the work of the association’s continuing attorney Aaron O’Toole.

Strong emphasized the critical pro bono work of Hogan and Hartson, estimating that it represented $500,000 worth of legal services and was critical in negotiating a settlement with the building’s owner and The Tenancity Group, which is known for its tenacious hold, once gained, on residential redevelopment and prospective condominium conversion properties.

During informal conversation with The InTowner, Fabian spoke optimistically and confidently regarding the daunting tasks required of the building’s new tenant association in the successful implementation of the limited equity cooperative. The building’s present cash flow, Fabian asserted, will both support and improve the Norwood’s operation and maintenance. These costs include  repayment of two 40-year, low interest loans –- one of  $3,000,000 from the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund and the other, $6,000,000 through the DC Housing and Community Development block grant program. And, as they start to implement their ownership as a cooperative, the task of assembling an estimated $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 renovation and rehabilitation fund will be before the association.

The creation of this remarkable cooperative began with individual tenants forming an organization in 2005, initially over problems caused by malfunctioning building systems and services, beginning with the laundry room and the elevator. Health and safety issues were quickly added to the organization’s agenda. For example, the building was plagued with problems of black mold, vermin infestation and bedbugs. Added to that were threatened evictions for tenant organizational efforts.

A 2006 landlord proposal for a condominium conversion was unanimously rejected, and a lawsuit was filed opposing the threatened evictions, which was dropped upon the enactment of a tenants’ right to organize measure by the DC Council, an initiative that originated in the on-going legal work being performed for the Norwood tenants.

In 2007 the tenants began working with the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LECD) to develop a plan “to make the tenant purchase a reality.” Half of the residents are Hispanic, and Silvia Salazar, by all accounts a vibrant and dynamic organizer, serves as the association’s second of two co-presidents. Protracted negotiations with the building’s owner and with Tenacity, with strong support for the tenants from Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to ensure the recovery of rent rebates based on numerous building code infractions resulted in a reduction in the building purchase price from over $12,000,000 to $9,200,000.

The exuberance of the October celebration reflected the inspirational results of that collaboration and those negotiations, and the support of such other organizations as the District’s Office of Tenant Advocacy and the DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition (TENAC).

Current residents of the Norwood, over 60 percent of whom are members of the association, reflect in age, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation that of the surrounding community. Hispanic and other ethnicities, gays and straights, those married with families and singles, with ages predominantly in the 20s and 30s were all in attendance at the festive event celebrating heir new ownership.  The highlights of the occasion were Hispanic food and drink, live music, a children’s play, and the display of an extraordinary floor mural, compositionally complex, and made of brightly colored small sawdust chips, rice, and dried beans, and reflective of Mayan decorative traditions.

And remarkably apparent in the midst of this celebration was a palpable recognition of the magnitude facing the new owners. Having achieved the great plateau of building ownership, the association will now have the equally great tasks of building equity in a sparkling renovated and rehabilitated building, one that has been too long neglected by distant and detached owners and their agents, and with the problems and opportunities of planning for immediate remedies of long-deferred systems and mechanical maintenance tasks and the need for significant capital improvements.