Downtown Ghost Town The Last Days of an N Street Apartment Building

Joe Mullin cherishes his one-bedroom apartment at 1755 N St. NW. After all, he moved there way back in 1978, and it’s filled with 18 years worth of familiar clutter. He’s not bothered by his neighbors: Only three other tenants remain in his 20-unit building. And the 43-year-old Vietnam vet pays a mere $400 a month in rent—a pittance for his choice downtown location.

All of which explains why Mullin—a self-described “stubborn Irishman”—has almost single-handedly blocked the plans of his landlord, developer Morton Bender, to oust him from the apartment and convert 1755 into commercial office space. Mullin views his fight—which he has waged in rent control hearings, landlord-tenant court, and tête-à-tête with Bender—as a downtown version of David and Goliath.

“He’s an unscrupulous weasel who wants to take my home from me,” says Mullin.

In a larger context, Mullin’s battle represents the last, defiant resistance by the residents of old downtown. He is one of the final holdouts in a long-since-lost struggle by civic groups and tenants to stop developers from gobbling up the mansions and town homes bordering the central business district. Mullin’s block bears testament to the ravages of the struggle. It was once a street of stately houses. Now only the historic façades remain, as offices, hotels, and restaurants have occupied almost every building on the block.

“We have lost some of our finest residential real estate to office uses,” says Kay Eckles, head of the Residential Action Coalition, a Dupont Circle group that fights commercial conversion of residential properties.

For Mullin and his current neighbors—Georgette Miller and Frank and Vera Genovese—the trouble began back in 1988, when Bender paid $8 million cash for the building and an adjacent property. Bender bought the joint from Hamilton “Polly” Morrison, who had run it as a guest house and apartment building since 1940. Morrison’s motherly ways endeared her to guests and tenants, and her zeal for historic preservation made her a neighborhood favorite. “It was a real community here,” recalls Miller, who moved into her second-floor efficiency in 1984. The Genoveses have lived in the building since 1966.

The change in ownership was a culture shock for the tenants. By Mullin’s account, Bender saw the tenants as one of several irritating yet surmountable challenges to his conversion plan. Mullin recalls numerous snubs and slights, like the time Bender reportedly told him that he could no longer use the building’s patio. The landlord has neglected building maintenance in order to drive out tenants, Mullin charges. He cites a July 1995 city inspection that turned up 50 housing code violations for everything from cracked walls to missing windows to hole-ridden ceilings.

Bender declined to comment on any of Mullin’s complaints, citing ongoing litigation between him and his tenants.

The landlord seems to have hoped for a quick conversion, but snag after snag delayed him. He bought the building just as the thriving ’80s real estate market turned south, eroding the value of the property. Then in 1989 the D.C. courts rejected a petition by one of his employees to declassify 1755 as a housing accommodation. Declassification would have cleared the way for eviction and conversion. Bender’s streak of bad luck continued in 1990 when Dupont Circle preservationists blocked his proposal to raze the building, preserve the façade, and erect an expanded office complex.

But Bender’s maneuvering took its toll on his tenants. One by one, they moved out. Empty units stayed empty, and by 1993 only three apartments were occupied. In August of that year, Bender filed a “hardship” petition with the District’s rent control office. “Hardship” provisions of the city’s rent control law enable landlords to raise rents above statutory ceilings if rental income does not produce at least a 12-percent return on equity. But Bender was seeking a lot more than higher rents.

“He’s not interested in the ‘hardship’ petition, he’s interested in forcing those people out of there,” says Jim McGrath, president of TENAC, a pro–rent control tenant group.

On Jan. 18, 1995, Bender got what he wanted: Rent control magistrate Thomas Word issued an order mandating a nearly threefold rent hike for his three tenants.

The order launched Mullin on a rent control crusade. Mullin has plenty of time on his hands—he lives off veteran’s disability benefits—so he stormed public libraries, government offices, and the city’s courts to pore over the rent control law and case history. He represented himself in landlord-tenant court when Bender sued him for refusing to pay the rent increase. He investigated Word’s decision and wrote his own appeal. The Genoveses and Miller hired a lawyer and filed a separate appeal.

In all, Mullin has drafted 17 motions, appeals, and briefs in the past year—all of which bear the archaic typeface of the antique Royal manual typewriter that Mullin bought for $10 at a secondhand store. Mullin’s towering stack of files from the case includes detailed pleas for assistance to D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. (Mullin says neither has responded.)

Mullin gripes that Word never read the tenants’ legal briefs, which Mullin says were missing from the case file at the time of the decision. Word was unavailable for comment, but his supervisor Belva Newsome says that her office scrutinizes all rent control decisions for accuracy and compliance with the law.

In this version of David and Goliath, the giant is going to win. Word’s decision has withstood Mullin’s appeals to both the Rental Housing Commission and the D.C. Court of Appeals.

None of the tenants can afford the new rent payments. Mullin says his nonpayment of rent has forced an imminent appointment with the city’s eviction squad. (Every week, he calls the U.S. Marshals Service to see if he’s been scheduled for removal.) Miller and the Genoveses are not being forced out yet because their separate appeal has placed them on a slower eviction timetable.

But barring an unlikely reversal, Bender will soon prevail in his seven-year bid to convert the building to office space. Once he uproots the tenants, Bender must merely secure a “special exception” from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to build offices at the site. Such exceptions are required in “special purpose” zones such as Bender’s block of N Street.

When Mullin, Miller, and the Genoveses finally leave, it will signify yet another defeat for D.C. planning theory. City planners intended “special purpose” zones to be a mixture of homes and offices. They are supposed to form the buffer between exclusively residential neighborhoods and high-rise downtown. But to the dismay of civic groups, commerce has all but driven out homes.

“Thanks to BZA’s consistent record of favoring developers, our ‘special purpose’ zones have migrated toward commercial use and away from residential use,” says Dennis Bass, a former Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and opponent of commercial conversion. He notes that the four blocks of 16th Street between Scott Circle and Q Street are another casualty of the special-purpose scourge: In the past 10 years, commercial developers have taken over all of the 10-plus residential town houses in that stretch.

Devoid of inhabitants, these buffer zones become evening ghost towns. Below Dupont Circle and elsewhere, pedestrian traffic tails off sharply after rush hour, once workers turn out the lights in their cozy-looking offices and hop on the subway. The deserted streets invite petty crime: Last year Mullin’s block—an eerie depository of shattered glass—led the entire city in car break-ins. CP

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