Tenants In Huge Equity Residential Building Sound Alarms Over Structural Maintenance Concerns
UPDATE, JAN. 10, 11:15 A.M. ET: An inspector with DCRA visited 3003 Van Ness on Friday, Jan. 7, and after the publication of this report, ordered Equity Residential to patch the holes in the garage ceiling, according to emails shared with Bisnow by the Van Ness South Tenants Association. The association has asked DCRA to force Equity to pause those repairs until the building receives an "adequate inspection of possible structural problems," saying the patches allow Equity to cover up potential underlying issues. Equity still hasn't responded to Bisnow's requests for comment.
Tenants in a building owned by one of the nation’s largest multifamily owners are calling for the Washington, D.C., government to take stronger action against their landlord over water damage and other maintenance issues they worry could jeopardize the building's structural integrity.
The tenants association at 3003 Van Ness St. NW, a 625-unit building owned by Equity Residential, are calling on D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to inspect and potentially fine the property manager for what they say are multiple violations of the city’s housing code. DCRA says it is already taking action in response to the concerns.
The Van Ness South Tenants Association argues that Equity has left “structural issues, safety hazards and security vulnerabilities” unaddressed despite complaints going back months and are demanding a top-down inspection of the building.
“We urge DCRA to conduct a comprehensive inspection of the property, and if violations are found, to assess fines that are commensurate with Equity Residential’s long history of infractions and that are large enough to deter additional violations in the future,” the association's letter reads.
DCRA plans to send a representative out to the property in response to the tenant association's report, a spokesperson confirmed. The agency has issued Equity Residential several fines totaling more than $23K since 2019 for problems like rodent infestation, water damage and unsanitary conditions.
The spokesperson said further fines are possible.
Dennis Taylor, general counsel at the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate, said DCRA had issued an unusually high number of fines for a building of this kind.
The tenants association compiled a 45-page report that covers just the most egregious maintenance issues that tenants have raised over the past few months, said association President Harry Gural, including water damage in the garage that he is worried could cause structural damage to the building.
“We just know they are not keeping this up, and it's kind of a slow mounting frustration with residents,” Gural said. “Ceilings don't just fall apart, rebar doesn't just rust on the spot like that.”
Structural integrity issues have drawn heightened scrutiny in the building industry over the last six months following the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside Florida that killed 98 people. Two weeks after the disaster, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched several new initiatives to improve D.C.'s building safety review process, such as requiring building owners to report and notify DCRA of any unsafe structural conditions.
The Van Ness property, built in 1970, was purchased by Equity Residential in 2013, according to court records. Nationwide, Equity owns or has investments in 307 properties in the Northeast, California and Denver totaling 79,322 apartment units, according to its website.
A spokesperson for Equity didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.
Beyond the water damage, tenants are also concerned about security in the building in part because exterior door locks aren’t functioning in some places. The tenants association has been in a struggle with police to get detailed crime statistics on the building, but Gural said the building is experiencing more issues than other buildings in the same neighborhood.
The tenants association’s report also said the building’s exhaust system isn’t functioning properly, noting odors passing from one apartment to the next and air pushing clumps of dust through residents’ kitchen exhaust fans into their apartments.
“With Covid, everyone is kind of up in arms because they're like, 'If I can smell steak, then what the hell else is going on in my apartment,'” Gural said.
Other issues include cracked sidewalks, elevator issues, and heating and cooling problems.
Members of the tenants association have long been involved in struggles with Equity Residential over rent and maintenance issues. Taylor said the Office of the Tenant Advocate has “been involved in one way or another, in one issue or another with tenants at 3003 Van Ness ever since the Office of the Tenant Advocate was created.”
“It is a building that has generally very sophisticated tenants who are familiar with how to make their concerns known,” Taylor said.
Notably, those concerns resulted in a court case and a 2019 city law that banned landlords from basing rent increases on arbitrarily high numbers that the resident was never charged in their initial lease. That case, Fineman v. Smith, was brought by VNSTA board member Gabriel Fineman.
The attorney general’s office also brought a case against Equity Residential, arguing the property manager should pay back rent money charged via this questionable tactic. In September, D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams ruled in favor of the tenants and AG, ordering Equity to pay nearly $1M.
That case is currently pending appeal. Bisnow has reached out to the attorney general’s office for comment on whether it expects that case to be appealed and on the tenants association’s report.