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Faircliff Plaza West used to be overrun with drug dealers, a crime-ridden apartment complex where residents were afraid to walk between buildings. The front door was often ripped off its hinges and mailboxes weren’t allowed in the hallways because they were used as drug drop-off points. But in 2005, Somerset Development Co. and the Faircliff tenant organization purchased the 112-unit apartment complex in Columbia Heights from the owner, who was looking to retire. They fixed up the buildings, painted the doors bright blue, and built a community center right where the open-air drug deals used to go down. Now the apartment complex offers a summer camp for kids, a computer lab, and even yoga classes once a week. “The area was much more violent,” says Santiago De Angulo, the program director of the community center. There was “a lot more unhealthy activity in the streets, more frequent shootings and fighting, but I think there has been huge work in the area.” Most importantly, though, the apartments have remained affordable. Longtime tenants weren’t forced to move in the face of increased rent or high-priced condos. Although affordable housing is arguably the top issue facing low-income people in the District, Faircliff falls outside the norm. The outcome was the result of the combined effort of the tenants, the developer, government agencies, police, and pro bono legal assistance from Arnold & Porter. “As a major urban center, the loss of affordable housing, I think, has been a critical negative for the District. A lot of the folks who live especially in the Mount Pleasant area are being forced out,” says Richard Lucas, an Arnold & Porter real estate attorney who is active in pro bono representation of tenant associations. He says that many of the tenants they work with are middle class. Some work for the government. “The few buildings that remain that are affordable are all they have to choose from.” Attorneys at the firm represented Faircliff’s tenant organization in purchasing the complex and continue to give legal advice to the community center. Blake Biles, an environmental lawyer with Arnold & Porter who helped spearhead the work with tenant groups, says that continuing the firm’s support for the project is key. Last week, for example, he helped the community center negotiate insurance coverage. “We really like it when the tenants in such a deal have strong legal advice because most of us don’t know anything about partnerships and real estate,” says Nancy Hooff, a developer at Somerset, which specializes in affordable housing developments. “It’s good for us so that we know and the tenants know that nobody is double-dealing.” Attorneys at the firm have been representing tenant organizations pro bono for about four years, with eight projects currently in the works. Their representation began in earnest with an apartment complex in Mount Pleasant called the Deauville. Several of the building’s tenants were being sued by the landlord in D.C.’s Landlord Tenant Court. To Biles, that meant he needed to take a more comprehensive approach. “We could do more good for more people, if we represented the group,” he says. So he and several other attorneys began representing the building’s tenant association in various capacities, including an attempt to buy the building, a tenant petition, and continued work with the city to improve conditions. Heather Hodges, a litigation associate, says that in the summer of 2006 the firm had to appeal to the city to alleviate the building’s conditions, which she describes as “atrocious.” The leaky roofs, mold, broken windows, and vermin infestations led the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to issue dozens of housing code violations against the landlord early this year. Hodges has been representing the tenant association since 2005, and it is her longest-standing pro bono case. “From a professional development perspective, it’s given me the opportunity to perform certain litigation tasks that would not be available to me in the regular course of my practice.” The firm’s representation of tenants spans several practice groups, with litigators, real estate attorneys, and transactional attorneys all pitching in. Biles estimates that about 20 lawyers are working on these types of cases at any given time, and he estimates that, in the past three years, the firm’s attorneys have logged 8,000 to 9,000 hours on tenant business. But because many of the tenants are Spanish speakers, the cases can often present communication challenges. “Some of our bilingual paralegals have been the most critical in our representation,” says Biles. HOUSING DIVIDED D.C. has very strong pro-tenant protections. But, as Biles says, “the challenge, of course, is for tenants being able to exercise those rights.” Compounding the issue is the loss of affordable housing in the District. As the housing market has ballooned in recent years, more and more owners have been selling off affordable housing, and developers are turning the buildings into condos. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, whose research is based on the U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the District lost more than 2,000 affordable rentals and 9,000 affordable homes between 2003 and 2004. In contrast, the District added nearly 5,000 high-end rentals and 10,800 high-value homes during the same period. “The housing boom has been pretty detrimental for our client base, which is low-income renters,” says Julie Becker, a senior housing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. She adds that though the housing market has slowed down recently, many tenants are still facing problems. “A lot of damage has been done,” she says. Arnold & Porter, which has its hand in nearly every piece of the pro bono pie, has been doing much more tenant work in recent years. Philip Horton, chairman of the firm’s pro bono committee, has noticed the change. He says the firm used to handle more family law cases than landlord-tenant disputes, but in the past few years they have had to shift focus. “This is one of the crying needs of the city,” he says.
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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