Residents of 3003 Van Ness including Harry Gural, the president of the apartment building’s tenants association, spoke of security and safety concerns during a December 16th meeting led by Council member Mary Cheh. MPD 2D Commander Duncan Bedlion said during the meeting that the building’s management company, Equity Residential, has been unresponsive to police recommendations on improving security, and later told Forest Hills Connection that it’s one of three Van Ness apartment buildings he has referred to the Office of the Attorney General’s nuisance buildings section for possible legal action.
Gural also has been active in efforts to stop Equity Residential’s use of rent “concessions,” which the Rental Housing Commission ruled in 2018 were rent increases based not on the amount a tenant actually pays, but on “an arbitrary, fictitious number.”
And now, Gural and his neighbors are trying to call attention to structural safety concerns. The Van Ness South Tenants Association recently released a report listing the 625-unit building’s structural and security problems, and sent a letter to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to request a thorough inspection. Bisnow’s January 7th article article on their effort noted that since 2019, DCRA has fined Equity Residential more than $23,000 for problems including rodent infestation, water damage and unsanitary conditions.
We asked Gural to tell us more about the tenants group and what they’re trying to do.
Henry Gural: I became president of the tenants association six or seven years ago, when our previous president, Karen Perry, became ill. I had no idea how much work it would be. We have over 100 members – many more have moved out. We have working groups that focus on different issues, like physical plant and security. Residents are pretty angry at Equity Residential right now, so we are pretty active.
Marlene Berlin/FHC: Could you give us a bit of background on Equity Residential?
Equity Residential is a $33 billion real estate investment trust (REIT) that markets itself as the developer and manager of high-end apartment buildings in Washington, Boston, New York, San Francisco and other cities. One of its slogans is “creating communities where people thrive.”
How would you describe the tenant association’s relationship with Equity?
We have a fine relationship with the building manager, who is a nice guy. The real problem is with the corporation, which has gradually run down the building and cheated residents (via the rent “concession” scam) for as long as Equity has operated the building.
Why did you write to DCRA?
Some residents of the building started to make a list of problems with the building. The list got pretty long and some of the problems seemed serious. So our tenants association working group that deals with physical plant issues began turning this into a report, with vivid photos that are pretty shocking.
Equity Residential has ignored these problems for years, so we decided to publish the report on our new website and send a letter to the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which conducts inspections. Our letter to DCRA asks for a comprehensive inspection of the property and if there are violations found, fines that are commensurate to the infractions and large enough to present a deterrent to future violations.
It’s not enough to give Equity a slap on the wrist – it has deep, deep pockets. It needs to pay a higher price, and it needs to be public.
You have put together a 45-page report. It’s quite a list of problems. What do you see as the most egregious?
Residents have long known about problems like large swaths of plaster falling from the ceiling in the underground garages. Equity patched large holes from time to time, but ignored many of them. We began to realize that this was caused by large leaks from above ground, and that some of structural elements – e.g., concrete beams, joints, rebar – may be compromised. The photos in the report are compelling.
We also are concerned about the mechanical systems in the building. The heating and cooling systems break down frequently – they may not be getting needed maintenance. The ventilation system in many apartments doesn’t seem to be working properly – residents complain of smelling cigarette or marijuana smoke, or dinner cooking, even with all doors and windows closed. The ventilation system is supposed to suck stale air out of the building, not exchange it between apartments. This is particularly nerve-wracking given that the coronavirus can spread via tiny aerosols; residents don’t know whether they should be worried.
Then there are simple things like fixing locks on exterior doors, or keeping the bulbs working in exterior security lighting. It is a very bad sign when a company won’t spend a few dollars to fix such things.
You have also reached out to ANC commissioners and Council member Mary Cheh. What has been the response?
Mary Cheh wrote me an email within an hour after I sent the letter to DCRA, promising to write a follow-up letter. She is aware of the many problems that we’ve had with Equity Residential over the years, including the rent “concessions” scam, and has been supportive.
Commander Bedlion of MPD mentioned in Councilmember Cheh’s community meeting on December 16th that he had referred 3003 Van Ness to the Office of the Attorney General’s nuisance buildings division. What role have you and your tenants association played that process?
We had nothing to do with MPD’s complaint to the DC Attorney General, although we support this action. The police have been very helpful at 3003 Van Ness, making an inordinate number of visits to the building. We are in frequent contact with MPD. We deeply appreciate their support.
Crime at 3003 is much higher than in the adjacent “sister” buildings, Van Ness North (a co-op) and Van Ness East (a condo building). On December 3rd there was a stabbing at 3003; residents are extremely upset. Equity promised to come up with a new security plan, it’s been a month already and we haven’t seen one yet.
Are you hopeful that Equity Residential will finally take its responsibilities as a landlord seriously?
A change of attitude? Not really. From our experience, Equity’s approach is only about profit – violating rent control laws, neglecting the building, ignoring mounting security concerns.
Our hope is not that Equity will change its corporate character, but that the city will pressure it to obey the law. Or that its top management will realize that the company can’t pitch itself as the manager of high-end apartment living when it treats the 3003 Van Ness the way it does. These things are not compatible. See the photos in the report – they tell the story.