Photo by PoPville flickr user Pablo Raw
After three and a half years together, my boyfriend and I recently started looking for an apartment – our first shared space! – around Lanier Heights to build a home in for the medium term. We were very charmed by a one-bedroom unit at the Argonne, a recently renovated interwar building at 1629 Columbia Road NW, listed on both third-party websites and management company CIM Urban Real Asset’s own site at $2198. After a showing during which the agent consistently repeated this same amount, we decided to move ahead with the application process.
$340 in fees later, a surprise came buried in some pre-lease documentation which CIM is required by law to provide: the official rent for the unit was recorded at $3267, a grand and change more than the number which had been represented to us. I did a little digging to find out what might be lurking here: fortunately, owing to an excellent set of online resources and firsthand accounts from people who have been taken advantage of (including a 2015 PoP post) I didn’t have to search long.
The rent discount/concession scam has gotten enough press in the last few years that I imagined CIM might show some flexibility if we ask specific, informed questions that showed we had no illusions about what was going on. Instead, we were met with dishonesty and misdirection. The agent told us that the $3267 was a “maximum rent” level supplied by the city, characterizing it is as a bureaucratic or bookkeeping device out of the company’s hands. The lease we were forwarded made it clear this was not the case: $3267 was, on any plain reading of the main lease and “Lease Addendum for Rent Concession or Other Rent Discount,” in fact the official rent for the unit, modified by a $1069 “discount” offered by the company as a discretionary “consideration for agreement to remain in your dwelling and fulfill lease obligations.”
Being neither rich nor stupid, and having read about the nightmares of others who’d lost money and homes to the concession scam, we made our case carefully.
The lease said clearly that no verbal or written understanding between tenants and an agent would be of any relevance to the contract itself. So: could CIM assure us formally, in the lease itself that the $2198 advertised, rather than the “maximum rent,” would be used to calculate the 2% plus CPI increase allowed per year under DC rent stabilization laws? Could they also guarantee us that the “rent discount” would be honored every month after the initial lease ended?
These were simple questions. The agent gave simple answers: the lease could not be modified, and the concessions provision was “very standard in buildings that are rent controlled and there is nothing to be wary about.”
Of course there is something to be wary about: the long, well-documented history of big landlords violating the spirit of DC rent control laws with this kind of sleight of hand (see here for more.) Had we signed this lease, twelve months from now our leasing company would have had the legal right to 1) hike our rent based on a figure 50% larger than our monthly payments and 2) leverage the threats of revoking a $1,000-plus monthly “discount” to get whatever they wanted from us in negotiations. And we would have given them both freely, in a way that was legally incontestable.
We would have appreciated a heads-up on CIM Urban Real Assets’ shady practices before we committed time and money to an application. We imagine most prospective DC tenants would as well. Contrary to what the agent told us, there are a great many rent-stabilized buildings in Lanier Heights alone run by decent, honest companies glad to tell us in writing that their leases are concession-free. We’ll be taking our outstanding credit scores and employment history to them instead.
Council is considering legislation that would put and end to this kind of behavior. Another concession abuser, Equity Residential, is tied up in a lawsuit with the DC attorney general. Until a policy fix comes in for this, the best is we can do is to share these stories and try to steer prospective tenants away from dishonest companies.”