Marbury Plaza Saga Ends With Release of Rents–Maybe
A year ago, we checked in with Marbury Plaza, the gigantic set of residential towers on Good Hope Road SE that were supposed to improve dramatically after a years-long rent strike over poor housing conditions, which led to a new management company under a settlement brokered by the District's attorney general. Things were getting better, but residents remained especially concerned about security, after a few shootings and armed robberies on the property.
Last week, the attorney general signed off on all the improvements, certifying that Urban Investment Partners had satisfied the terms of the settlement—which meant they could access the more than $400,000 that the tenants had paid into an escrow account until the fixes had been made. And UIP couldn't be happier about it.
"We did a tremendous amount of work there, and we have a largely very, very satisfied and very happy resident base," says firm principal Steve Schwat. "The residents there are now virtually all paying their rent every month, on time every month, and the property is a massive turnaround. It is really something to be proud of."
April Goggans, the tenants association leader * who campaigned relentlessly to get the settlement in the first place and to hold UIP to its promise, strongly disagrees. In late January, a pro bono legal team from Bread for the City had sent the attorney general a letter detailing the Association's objections to unlocking the escrow account, including inadequate lighting, uneven access for the disabled, and continuing pest infestations. Goggans herself also complains of lax security, slow response times, poor communication, and failure to collect fines for code violations (the most recent inspection, according to the city's online permitting system, turned up 22 of them).
"This has been an exhausting exercise in endless gaslighting," Goggans says. "The current AG was completely silent and purposefully during disengaged from the entire process. The UIP Executives and the property owners can say and do anything, because no one follows anything from start to finish with them. They know the systems and all of its loopholes."
The problem is, the settlement didn't require the building to be perfect—just that UIP expend a certain amount of money for certain improvements.
"I believe they probably complied with the precise terms of the settlement agreement. The single most important factor in it was 'did they invest $5 million to make improvements at Marbury Plaza,' and I believe the answer is yes," says Vytas Vergeer, head of the legal clinic at Bread for the City. Still, he said, "I think the landlord and UIP still have some work to do to really make that a complex worth being proud of."
In an ironic twist to the story, Goggans actually no longer lives at Marbury—she was evicted at the end of January for non-payment of rent. "This allowed them to exact their personal kind of revenge and retaliation and, and of course was an attempt to send a message to tenants," she wrote, in an e-mail to Association members. "Their message is that they can and will continue to try to divide and further marginalize the tenants so that the Association will die and tenants will act and feel defeated."
To an outsider, it's clear that windows have been replaced, but the once luxurious pool is closed off and has plants growing in it [UPDATE, Tuesday, 8:35 a.m. – Schwat says the pool was open last summer and will open again this summer]. The tenants who remain are of many minds on the building's current condition—while some newcomers are happy with their newly renovated units, others say that conditions haven't gotten much better since UIP took over.
"Everything is bad. They just put a facelift on certain things," says Michael Thomas, who's lived there since 2007, complaining of security in particular. "Everything is still just poor."
Here's the thing about Marbury, though: At least for now, it's still affordable. One woman who declined to be named moved in nine months ago, and says it took management nearly that long to get leaks fixed and walls painted. But she's paying $815 per month for a studio, which is pretty unbeatable, especially for a high-rise apartment. "If it weren't for the view that I have, I would move," she says.
The building is 95 percent leased, too. Now, free of legal encumbrances and more up to code than they used to be, the buildings might fetch a decent price. According to a memorandum filed in property records, UIP would receive a "property management incentive fee" in the event that the buildings were sold, which would be a nice reward for their trouble. Anybody in the market for a 672-unit apartment complex?
Photo by Lydia DePillis
* CLARIFICATION, April 15: According to the Marbury Plaza tenants association bylaws, Goggans technically could no longer be president after she was evicted, but she has been allowed to serve out the remainder of her term in absentia.