Experts question Columbia Plaza rental rate hike

Legal experts said Columbia Plaza management may have overstepped its legal bounds by increasing rent up to 40 percent for some residents and requiring students to sign a notice when new roommates move in.

Legal advisers and city officials at a Columbia Plaza Tenants Association meeting Thursday urged angry tenants, especially students, to immediately examine a rental history of their unit and calculate all rent and rent-ceiling increases. About 100 residents of the 800-unit apartment building attended.

Marilyn Rubin, CPTA president, said the rent increases, which are as high as $450 a month for some tenants, are suspicious because Columbia Plaza is a rent-controlled property. Rental rates for Columbia Plaza rooms cannot increase more than 2.1 percent a year, no matter how long the tenant lives in the building, according to D.C. law. There are a few exceptions to the code.

But, D.C. law allows landlords to implement rent increases accumulated from previous years. The one stipulation is that tenants receive one increase at a time, which usually occurs every six months for tenants with year-long leases and every three months for tenants with month-to-month leases.

Leasing agents and management officials told some students living in Columbia Plaza they must sign a notice to vacate and then sign a new lease when a new roommate moves in – allowing the apartment’s management to raise the rent and the rent ceiling.

If an apartment becomes vacant, the landlord may increase the apartment’s rent by 12 percent – a figure that can also factor into rent increases, said Betty Sellers, a tenant advocate who works with the Columbia Plaza Tenant’s Association.

The point of having lots of students in the buildings, as long as there’s a constant turnover, rents will increase, said David Conn, a tenant advocate who has been working with Columbia Plaza residents since the 1980s.

Because it creates a legal question that has not been tested, the practice is in a legal gray area, Conn and Sellers said.

I think it’s a new issue, Conn said. We haven’t had buildings like Columbia Plaza where the student population is so big. The practice of the vacancy increase ought to be challenged. If this has happened before, it’s happened on a very small scale. I think this is an issue that’ll come to the forefront now. I think a victory for students might change the University’s thinking.

GW became a shareholder in the complex when it purchased about 29 percent of the property in January.

Under D.C. law, the University cannot turn the property into a residence hall, but the University does hope to include the property in this year’s residence hall lottery, said Bob Chernak, vice president for Student and Academic Support Services.

When an apartment becomes available in the building, the University has one week to respond to the property’s management and request that the University take over the unit. If GW decides to pass, the unit will go on the market, Chernak said.

If the University purchases the unit, it will be offered to GW students, he said. Until a student moves into the unit, the University will pay the rent on the property.

Conn and Sellers said this practice puts the University in the role of master lessor – a legal term that means GW still has the power to determine who fills each unit even though the University is not the sole owner of the building.

D.C. law usually allows for a right of first refusal to tenants, Sellers and Conn said. Under that provision, tenants are allowed to buy the property themselves before it is turned over to a third party. But, if sections of the property are sold to a third party – like GW – over the period of at least a year, the right of first refusal clause is void, Conn said.

University officials said they had no part in the building’s rent hikes, but some residents said the higher prices are a result of the University’s new control in the building.

Conn and Sellers said they agree.

“I think it’s the GW influence that’s causing this problem,” Conn said. “I think they’re looking for some loopholes in the law so they can take it over.

The University has not disclosed how much it paid for its share of the property, but the entire five-tower complex was assessed at nearly $33 million in 1999, according to a February Washington Post article.

With its holdings in the property, the University would be allowed control of about 240 units, according to a memo from the Foggy Bottom Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

For (GW) to argue that (it is) a silent partner and that the management company is really calling the shots seems ludicrous, Conn said. Most tenants, especially students, have no idea what their rights are and have no idea what the law and regulations imply. They can use that against regular tenants and students.

After students finish moving into the building this fall, as many as 500 units may be filled by GW students, CPTA officials said.

Columbia Plaza tenants should immediately check the rental history for their unit, residents were told Thursday. If they suspect a problem, they can file a complaint with the D.C. government.

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