Housing Complex

16th Street Condo Conversion Foes Prevail by Exposing Phantom Residents

The day before the election at Somerset House, people were already challenging the results.

On July 12, 2008, the residents of the seven-floor building at 16th and S Streets NW voted on whether their apartments should convert to condos.

The conversion would surely mean buyouts for some and below-market rates for others. The residents expected a lucrative deal from the building’s owner, Tenacity Group. Deals, after all, are what they’re used to: They live rent-controlled in one of the pricier areas of Washington, D.C.

Many of the residents moved in more than a decade ago and never left. But Tenacity apparently came up with enough inducements to make change attractive: The July voting endorsed the move to condo conversion, but just barely—21 tenants voted for, and 20 against.

In lawyer-heavy Washington, a one-vote margin doesn’t just take effect. It gets challenged. Opponents of conversion noted some anomalies in the roster of residents eligible to cast ballots.

Take, for example, Alison Joann Martin, an employee of RMC Research—based in Portland, Ore.

Martin is the first Somerset “resident” named in a letter to the Housing Regulation Administration (HRA) from anti-conversion lawyer Jonathan Tycko, who represents three Somerset tenants—Robert Wollam, Thomas Patterson, and Jesse Mag.

“We believe this person appears on the rent roll as the tenant of Unit 110. We believe, however, that she moved out of Somerset House in November 2007.…She has been on the voting roles in Washington County, Oregon since December, 2007.” Martin voted in favor of conversion.

Tycko’s lawyering ultimately led to the vote’s nullification. At least one resident blamed the Martin shenanigans on Tenacity and D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, the lawyer hired by the pro-conversion tenant association board.

Strauss entered the picture within the last few years (his firm declined to confirm the year), during a time when proposals from various developers have been put on and taken off the table. His involvement has caused some anti-conversion tenants to argue he stands to gain more than almost anyone from going condo. A provision in the development agreement states that the developer has a $150,000 deal with Strauss; up to $100,000 of that will be released only if the conversion goes through successfully.

Strauss did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatever the ownership’s development aspirations, it has been working on clearing the building for some time. When residents left their units, the managers generally avoided filling the vacancies.

Midway through last summer, close to 40 of 84 units were unoccupied.

That an air of mystery hangs over the building’s future is partly the fault of the conversion-loving, secretive tenant association board. For example, when Tenacity issued an amended conversion offer months before the election, residents had to beg the board to part with the document.

“What ends up happening is they gave us two hours on two different nights, and they gave us 450 to 500 pages of documents, and a lot of it was just fluff,” Patterson says. “They buried in there this two-page development agreement thinking nobody would find it.”

Former president Pearl Alice Marsh takes issue with that account:

“There was no intent to avoid sharing the information, nor was there a ‘new’ condominium conversion agreement,” she wrote via e-mail. “The original agreement was modified in order to allow financing for the project to go through.”

Furthermore, she says, all that “fluff” was necessary: Without it, “I have no doubt that those same individuals would be complaining that we did not include all documents.”

Before the July 2008 election, the tenants were mailed copies of the agreement in full.

The tenants who planned to vote against the offer were trying to figure out who would vote for it, so they asked for a list of qualified voters and started picking through.

To be eligible, voters had to use Somerset House as their primary residence and must have lived there within the last 90 days.

Besides Martin of Portland, Ore., there were a few other names that stuck out. Objections and explanations were ultimately filed in court, as part of an investigation by HRA:

  • Melih Kutluer “stated that he considers the Somerset House his residence, as he works and occasionally sleeps at the apartment. Upon further questioning, however, he distinguished a [Capitol Hill] property his primary residence because his wife lives at the property.”
  • Fozya Osman could not be considered a qualified voter because she owned two Q Street properties and told another Somerset resident that she lived in a condominium. She still said in an affidavit that Somerset was her principal place of residence, although she claimed the homestead tax deduction—which is only allowed for your principal home—for her two Q Street properties.
  • Neema Osolnick, supposedly a resident of unit 601, admitted that she didn’t reside in that unit and that a previous occupant was forced out due to mold. Osolnick, at one point, did reside in unit 301, but moved “out of the Property approximately 6-7 months prior to the election.”

For her part, Osolnick says she had no idea that her vote would be considered illegal.

She lived at Somerset for five years, but there were repeated gas leaks on her floor, she says, so she moved out on the assumption that she’d come back eventually—as a homeowner.

“I was paying $1 for rent,” she says, waiting for the conversion to take place. Even though that never happened, she says she moved back in as a renter this May.

Still, since she did not live at Somerset for “at least 90 days prior to the tenant election,” she was disqualified, along with Osman, Kutluer, and Martin.

The HRA called for another election in October 2008. This time, the vote went the other way, prompting Strauss to file another round of attempts to nullify the new results.

In early September, longtime resident Wollam circulated a flyer with this claim:

“It is unquestionable that the [Somerset Tenants Association] Board, Strauss and Tenacity all conspired to win the election by including ineligible tenants: They will sink to any level to force this poorly negotiated, secretly revised and patently unfair Development Agreement upon the majority of tenants.”

Wollam has since been sued by his building’s owner. In that lawsuit—which is entirely separate from the lawsuit about the condo conversion—Tenacity claims that Wollam’s statements were “intentionally, recklessly, and maliciously made to damage Tenacity’s reputation,” and that “Tenacity has suffered as a result of the defamatory statements.”

“I have requested documentation from them to give me some sense of how Tenacity’s reputation has been harmed by virtue of this in-house communication,” says Wollam’s lawyer Richard E. Schimel. “I have not received one piece of paper yet. The deadline has come and gone.” Wollam declined to comment, as did a representative of Tenacity Group.

In the meantime, residents at Somerset remain jittery about their future, although they do have a decision.

In late February, Strauss’ lawsuit was dismissed.

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  • bamboozeled

    It's disgusting that a Board of Directors of a Tenants Association who's fiduciary responsibility to its members has tried to push an illegal vote through a VERY legal process called condominium "conversion". The only conversion going on here is that of once trust to complete and utter DISTRUST I suspect. Vote them out with a NO CONFIDENCE vote and loose the SLIMY attorney who is representing the...TENANTS??? or is it really the BOARD??? SHAME ON THEM ALL!!!

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  • Fred

    Good for the tenants.

    Many condo associations around the city are run in the same shabby manner. Phantom resident owners. Threats. People who serve on the board year after year - up to 25 years! It's ridiculous. Kickbacks to the management companies.

    Anyway, back to this case. See how you have to FIGHT all the time or else you'll be screwed over? Eventually we run out of time, and people with more money (and therefore time) know this. Anyway, blah blah blahblahblah. Good for these tenants! You are an inspiration to us all!

  • Fred

    Aw. Disappointed in Paul Strauss. Now, I must re-evaluate him.

  • SomersetMole

    In the summer of 2006, when Paul Strauss was hired by the Somerset Board to find developers who might be interested in purchasing the building and converting it to Condos, he told the Board that he knew a number of developers that might be interested. In the Fall of that year he brought a proposal to the STA Board that Tenacity had approached the building owner, Kramerco, and was prepared to purchase the building and make a condo conversion agreement with the Somerset Tenants. What Strauss never disclosed to anyone in Somerset was that he had just received maximum allowable campaign donations from six separate Tenacity Companies for his run for the Council seat in Ward 2. This conflict of interest is clearly a violation of his client/attorney privalige and he should be sensured by the bar for such a violation.

  • SomersetMole

    It's incredible that then Her Majest President-for-Life, Pearl "Mama Doc" Marsh could say "There was no intent to avoid sharing the information" In fact, Marsh secretly negotiated terms with Tenacity which raised unit prices to the potential buyers, gutted a provision to allow 5 tenants a 5year lease at rent controlled prices, eliminated upgrades for Senior units, and substantially downgraded electrical service and other common immenities in the building. She did this while telling the tenants over a 5 month period that she had no contact with Tenacity and had no idea why the developer was not moving forward with purchase of the building. She blatently lied to tenants in a meeting three months after signing the secret two page addendum saying " I have no idea what you are asking about. I have not had any contact with Tenacity". Only when tenants demanded to see the Development Agreement before voting on their future as a condominium was the Addendum discovered.

  • SomersetMole

    Isn't it interesting that Neema Osolnick has told the reporter that she had a $1 per month lease. In investigating the "illegal voters", there was an understanding that the building owners were giving buyouts to tenents who wished to move from the building for whatever reason. So, when the tenant wished to move, they were promissed $25,000 with some of that payed upon vacating the unit. The owner kept the units empty, gave the tenants a $1 lease, and agreed to pay the balance of the $25,000 when the condominium vote was approved. Of course, these tenants had a lease - just $1. And somehow they thought that gave them a right to vote ?. Oh, what tricks get played in this game!!

  • SomersetMole

    It was further interesting how Paul Strauss and his boytoy Ricky Bianco crafted a contractual life estate for Seniors who VOTED to give Mama Doc Marsh a palatial palace on 16th Street to rule from in Exile (when she is not in her native Africa) rather than the life estate that would be guaranteed to them under DC law. Let's see ... what is better... something enforced by DC Law or something cooked up by a marginal politico by the name of Paul Strauss? Even the AG found it hilarious. Now is the time for Mama Doc and her two legal turkeys to move on. Maybe nice accomodations in Montgomery, AL at Maxwell AFB. Hey Paul, how's that DUI coming Mr. Senator Strauss ... you'll never be a Senator, they wouldn't seat you.

  • Facts straight

    Hey bamboozled. You have formed an opinion based on reading a one page article in which the writer obviously had a one-sided agenda. Before you slander a group of people, look into the situation a little deeper or are you just not that smart to think there is probably more to the story?? Idiot.

  • Facts straight

    ...also, if you believe the Board broke the law, don't you think they would be sued???

  • SomersetMole

    The problems is that the people who have all the money in the building, Mama Doc and her little docs, are the ones that want conversion. Also ask Paul Strauss and Mama Doc where the $75000 in the association treaury disappeared to. Do you think Mama Doc will tell? Also ask Mama Doc about the attitudes she has towards the Afrikan tenants of the building. This is a woman who works for the House of Representatives as an expert on Africa, but she treats them like dirt, right Elizabeth? Mama Doc should have to face the consequences of her actions and be fired from her cushy House job.

  • bamboozeled

    Yeh, there probably is MORE to the story...NONE OF IT GOOD I'm sure

  • Facts straight


    You are a pretty naive person if you don't realize that newspaper writers often write stories based on "their agenda" and don't give readers a balanced account. Most of the "bad" stuff in the story is taken out of context, misleading, or is just down-right false information!! A VAST majority of the tenants voted in favor in having Tenacity buy the building and turn them into condos and the tenants knew explicitly the terms of the agreement. After Tenacity honored this request, a small group of tenants began blatantly lying to tenants about the deal and scared them into voting down the conversion. Did you read any of that in the article?? I could write a book on the shady dealings of those tenants along with the "GOOD" that you did not read in the article..Why? Because positive news information/press don't make for good reading!

  • bamboozeled

    hhhuuuummmm, "the tenants KNEW explicitly the terms of the AGREEMENT"??? a twelfth-hour amendmendment to the agreement WHO VOETD FOR THAT!?! The President of the BOARD!

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ Will Atwood Mitchell

    Reminder: You may not post comments under multiple pseudonyms, or pretend to be someone else. I have deleted several comments that appeared to be one person posing as another person.

  • People’sVoice

    It is unfortunate that Will Atwood Mitchell believes that people are using multiple user names or pretending to be other people. My comment was removed -- it was the first and only posing I made. I have never used another user name.

    I have no idea if Dr. Marsh actually admitted her guilt. But, I feel it is important that readers be aware of the numerous ways that Ms. Marsh has cheated residents. She has colluded with the developer to push a conversion agenda that was never approved by the majority of Somerset tenants. She has worked with Mr. Strauss and Bianco to ensure that ineligible tenants were able to vote in a DC condo conversion election. She has perverted tenant election in order maintain power to continue to force an unpopular conversion.

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant, Will Atwood Mitchell. In view of DC government's abdication of their responsibility -- what recourse do tenants have? Particularly when Paul Strauss associates is used by Ms. Marsh as a bludgeon against popular will -- ironically paid for by the developer, and in small part by tenants.

  • SomersetMole

    Disgraceful is Will Atwood Mitchell.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ Will Atwood Mitchell

    @People'sVoice: Sorry, but your comment was intertwined in a series of comments by a person who was pretending to be another individual. If you want to post it again, email me at wmitchell@washingtoncitypaper.com and I will send you the text, so that you can repost it.

  • Former Tenant

    I lived in the building for 7 years and I can tell you that The Tenants association board led by Pearl Alice Marsh betrayed the tenants. They DEFINITELY got better deals than the rest of the tenants on the conversion. There is no other explanation as to how all the board members were opting to buy while a good % of them did not make enough money to qualify for a mortgage and make the monthly payments. The only way possible was to get theirs by qualifying for the Tenacity financed mortgages! I hope they all rot in hell!

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