Van Ness landlord Equity Residential has been ordered to pay $2 million to the District and to residents of 3003 Van Ness for what Attorney General Karl Racine calls a “rent hike scam.”
“[A]t every step in the rental process, from online advertisements to apartment searches, tours, and applications, Equity misled prospective tenants, ultimately placing them in an impossible financial situation,” Racine said in a May 25th statement.
Residents of 3003 Van Ness, a rent-controlled building formerly known as Van Ness South apartments, complained to the Office of the Attorney General in 2016 after they’d received notices of rent increases with some eye-popping numbers. Equity was listing “current rent charged” in the $3,000-plus range – a shock to residents who were paying closer to $1,800 to $2,000 per month in the first year of their lease, and were unaware that those rates were what landlords call “rent concessions.” In year two, Van Ness South Tenants Association President Harry Gural says, the rent demanded would “skyrocket” by as much as $1,500 per month.
“For a while, Equity entirely omitted any indication about its use of concessions on the website. When the company did add details, they made it almost impossible to read or find within the apartment’s advertisements,” Racine said.
Racine sued in 2017, and in 2018, the Rental Housing Commission ruled that Equity was basing its rent increases on an “arbitrary, fictitious number.” Still, the case dragged on, and it went to a bench trial in December 2020.
In October 2021, a DC Superior Court judge ordered Equity to pay $985,122.79 to tenants of 3003 Van Ness for the amount they were overcharged plus 2% interest. The District is getting $1,010,493 from Equity to cover the costs of bringing the lawsuit.
Gural told WAMU/DCist that his email was “exploding” with fellow residents who wanted to know how they were going to get their share of Equity’s payment. “People were traumatized,” he said.
We asked Gural if there was anything else he’d like to say about this case. His response:
“The important thing to know is that the OAG went after Equity for just one building – but it has six other rent-stabilized buildings. I have FOIA’ed info on them. It’s likely that the same thing was done in those buildings. Private attorneys should help people seeking restitution for overcharges.”