BY AUBURN MANN
Steep rent increases up to 72 percent that would have displaced hundreds of Takoma Park tenants were reduced by a deal between building owners and Montgomery County.
Residents of high rise Hampshire Towers were given notice in September that their rents would drastically increase October 1.
“We are just sitting ducks here,” said Margaret Buraimoh a six-year tenant and acting president of the Hampshire Towers Tenant Association. “We were never consulted, informed or given a voice about the impact of this.”
Initially, the majority of rents were set to be raised between 25 and 72 percent by Oct. 1 to compensate the Orlo Fund for performing needed maintenance. Now, however, Hampshire Towers rents will be capped at an annual increase of 15 percent for all residents. The deal followed weeks of negotiation between the Montgomrey County Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Orlo Fund, who owns the property.
Buraimoh says that although this indicates progress, it is still not quite enough, especially on principle. “We were not part of the discussions that resulted in the 15% increase and they did not consult with us about it. We have no knowledge as to how they arrived at that figure, which is appalling,” said Buraimoh.
DHCA Director Clarence Snuggs said that the 15 percent annual increase limit was based on a consideration of several factors. “Terms that were included in the original rental agreement with the previous property manager/owner, current market price levels for similar units countywide, feedback and guidance from the City of Takoma Park and a member of the County Council, and the fiscal capacity of this department to provide this type of support and benefit for the tenants,” said Snuggs.
The 15 percent annual increase limit is distributed over a three-year period, to allow tenants to graduate up in payments to ultimately get to where it was initially scheduled to go. “Our whole agenda was to try to find a way to lessen the immediate impact on tenants in a balanced manner to create a win/win situation for all involved,” said Snuggs.
The two buildings, 7333 New Hampshire Ave. on the left, which is now condominiums, and Hampshire Towers, 7401 New Hampshire Ave. on the right. Photo by Bill Brown.
The Orlo Fund said that the 15 percent increases are scheduled to last for the duration of each tenant’s respective lease. According to a letter distributed to residents, “this means that the monthly rent paid in October 2015 will be the same monthly rent you pay for the duration of your current lease. In addition, if relevant, future annual increases will not exceed 15%.”
Tenant Association President Margaret Buraimoh says that although this indicates progress, it is still not quite enough, especially on principle. “We were not part of the discussions that resulted in the 15% increase and they did not consult with us about it. We have no knowledge as to how they arrived at that figure, which is appalling,” said Buraimoh.
Hampshire Towers at 7401 New Hampshire Ave. has long been affordable housing and had been owned by the Tenacity Group, a real estate company based in Greenbelt, for over a decade. When Tenacity bought the property in 2006 it was originally comprised of two buildings. Tenacity had intentions to convert both into condominiums. However, the county mandated that at least one building be reserved for rental housing. Tenacity converted 7333 New Hampshire Avenue to condominiums and sold it to Overlook Condominium Association in 2009, which still displaced many of the original lower-income residents.
When the Laurel, MD-based Orlo Fund purchased the building in March from the Tenacity Group for $20 million (five million more than it was originally purchased) earlier this year, they inherited a property that was in a state of disrepair. Another thing inherited was a seven-year-old agreement with the county to exempt the owners from Takoma Park’s rent controls, if certain improvements were made. The Orlo Fund quickly began to fix-up the property; by July, many of the residents began receiving notices that their rent would be drastically increasing.
County Councilmen Marc Elrich said, “The building should have never gotten that crappy in the first place.” Racking up hundreds of code violations under Tenacity, the building was assessed at needing approximately $3.6 Million worth of repairs.
Hampshire Towers. Photo by Auburn Mann.
According to Buraimoh, the tenants experienced a plethora of continuous issues with things like lighting, broken air-conditioning pipes that would often lead to flooding and mold, infestations and being sealed off from their balconies for two years. “They (Tenacity) were in default per agreement of the contract with the County,”said Buraimoh.
Executive Director of Renters Alliance Matt Losak said this could be reflective of a larger housing trend in Montgomery County. “Montgomery County and similar areas are behind the eight ball when it comes to their renter population,” said Losak. “With 36 percent of county residents occupying rental housing, up from 25 percent six years ago, the county’s policies are still oriented towards the house and garden as opposed to people residing in apartments,” he said.
Following a rally held in front of the apartment complex on Aug. 31, the Hampshire Tower’s Tenant Association, CASA and Renter’s Alliance collaborated to gain coverage and spread awareness of the tenants’ problems.
Led by Buraimoh, Montgomery County’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs and a contingent from the city and county councils, the rally received a great deal of media attention. This spurred further discussion between the intervening DHCA on behalf of the Tenants Association and the landlords to negotiate the increases down. “We are Still working with the owner to stretch out the increases over a longer period of time but we do not have any update regarding that,” said Buraimoh.
“So, we continue to fight and demand a meeting with other stakeholders to get more inclusion in the process and get a better outcome for the tenants long term.”