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Residents of Building Near Construction Collapse Scramble to Find New Homes

by ARLnow.com August 31, 2011 at 1:29 pm 8,462 105 Comments

First they were forced to flee their apartments as the ground around it slid into a huge construction pit. Then they were told that the money to pay for their hotel rooms was being cut off. Now, about 30 residents of the Swansen Apartments, at 1625 N. Ode Street in Ft. Myer Heights, are being evicted from the still-condemned apartment building, as a three-way legal battle brews.

What started on Aug. 7 as a construction site mishap — the failed retaining wall, the muddy landslide, the threat that the apartment building might collapse — has gone from bad to worse for the Swansen residents, who say they were being told as late as Aug. 23 that they would be able to move back in to their Rosslyn-area apartment building.

That all changed on Aug. 26, residents say, with an email from landlord Mark Swansen.

Currently, the building has been condemned by Arlington County due to the failure of sheeting and shoring on the adjacent construction site which has damaged gas lines as well as the property on the north side of the building… You should make alternative living arrangements in light of the uncertain status of the building. No rents will be due commencing in September and we encourage you to utilize the rent monies to find new living arrangements. At this time, due to this unfortunate and unexpected turn of events, we do not have a reasonable timeline for when the building will be put back into a usable, safe and satisfactory condition, if ever. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but your safety is our primary concern. Please make arrangements to remove any belongings from the building directly through this office.

The email, obtained by ARLnow.com, was copied to three email address from the D.C.-based law firm of Braude & Margulies, which specializes in construction law. Swansen declined to comment on the email when reached by phone, and has not responded to subsequent requests for comment.

The apartment building’s gas lines must be turned back on before residents can be allowed back in, according to Arlington County Inspections Services Division Chief Shahriar Amiri, but residents say that necessary gas line work has been held up thanks to wrangling between Swansen, Clark Construction and developer JBG.

(The construction pit, located along Wilson Boulevard between Ode Street and Oak Street, will eventually transformed into JBG’s planned Sedona and Slate apartment complex.)

“The construction company told us that the building was stable; however, the gas lines for our apartment building were not holding pressure and thus it would need to be replaced,” one resident told us. “Our landlord… stalled this from happening and did not give the construction company permission to work on the building. So, from that point on, no work has been done to the building.”

“The tenants… are likely being used as pawns in their legal maneuvers,” said the relative of one resident.

Swansen residents say they’ve been given until Sept. 24 to move their belonging out of the apartment. Meanwhile, they say that developer JBG, which has been paying for hotel rooms and meals at the nearby Courtyard Marriott hotel, notified them on Friday afternoon — a day before the arrival of Hurricane Irene — that they would no longer pay for the hotel after Tuesday morning. Later, JBG sent an email saying they were pushing the checkout date back a week, to Sept. 6.

Finding a new apartment in the area at that’s as affordable at the Swansen Apartments is providing to be very difficult, residents say.

“The issue here, is that our building was super affordable, and quite a steal for the area,” one resident said. “The neighborhood of Rosslyn easily runs for $2,000 for a one bedroom, and over $1,900 for a studio. This is about $600 more than what I was paying for the apartment with Swansen.”

“Most of us are young professionals, some of us are in grad school, or applying for grad school. I love Arlington, but right now, I feel pretty helpless as to our situation,” the resident added. “It seems that there are big companies, and a certain landlord who don’t seem to care about the 30 people they just made homeless.”

Fed up with the situation, a dozen or more residents have hired local attorney Spiros Komis to represent them. Komis declined to discuss the potential case in depth, but issued a brief statement to ARLnow.com.

“The tenants of the Swansen Apartments have been permanently displaced from their homes through no fault of their own, and by what appears to be the possible negligence of their landlord and the developers of the adjoining $140 million construction project,” Komis wrote. “Fortunately, the collapse of the project’s retaining wall did not kill any of the tenants — who fled their units just as portions of the ground and parking lot sank into the project’s very deep ditch.”

  • steve

    Points out what a ripoff this area is. Nothing, i mean NOTHING justifies the rents charged in the DC area, especially arlington.

    • LP

      People paying the rent justifies it.

      Stop complaining about rent, how much it costs to live in the DC area or move on.

      • R.Griffon

        Exactly. Apparently steve hasn’t heard of a little thing called “the market.”

      • Venn Diagram

        You people are really amazing. I think what amazes me the most is that 85% of you vote exactly the same way each and every election yet you bicker toward polar extremes six ways to Sunday about most things.

    • brendan


    • G Mason

      I pay less than $1300/month to own my condo in south arlington… including everything.

      • Easy-E

        you saving up to move out of the ghetto? 🙂

        • G Mason


      • Swag

        My rent just went up to $1316 for a somewhat cramped studio at Barton House. Still a steal, considering my six block commute.

      • Josh S

        This must have been purchased some time ago?

        • G Mason


    • ArlingtonSouth


      Have you seen the Government pay scale, its generous benefits, and mostly guaranteed raises every 6 months? Do you see what government contractors and the multitude of consulting firms around here pay? Let’s not even mention the lawyers…

      Rents are a function of building costs, which are a function of commodity costs, which includes the cost of land, which is increasingly hard to acquire.

      • V Dizzle

        I work for the gov’t and would like to hear more about our 6 month raises!

        • drax

          yeah, last time I checked you guys had a pay freeze.

          • V Dizzle

            Yep, and draining performance pay at the same time (at least where I work). Could make quite a bit more in the private sector (and with better benefits), but actually believe in our mission.

    • drax

      So you’ve moved away, steve?

      • Homeless Bum

        Maybe he moved into the visitor’s dugout at the W-L girls’ softball field.

    • Ben

      I just signed a lease about 4 blocks from the Clarendon metro for a true 1br for $1060 / month plus electric. Place is on the small side (about 550 sq ft) – but perfect for one person.

      There is affordable places in Arlington – you just have to be resourceful and not just rely on Craigslist…..

      • Courthouse Res

        Where is this? What apartment building?

        • Ben

          1307 N Irving – good luck though. With only 9 units our landlord said only 1~2 become available per year. I just got lucky – the person I replaced had lived there for 6 years.

          The place has drawbacks – IE window units and no dishwasher, but is clean and well maintained. For the price I still can’t believe it.

  • Southeast Jerome

    Hopefully these former tenants get some justice. This sounds extremely unfair.

  • Lou

    Terrible situation.

    I hope the County Board will step in and ensure that these residents do not endure any further excessive harms from tightly regulated development.

    • Thes

      Indeed. It seems those building codes that are the only protection the community has against by-right development didn’t do the job, either. More regulation, please. In fact, it seems like society may have been better off if the government had “taken” this property for consolidated redevelopment like they do in other states, but which is illegal in Virginia. Then those tenants would have probably gotten an orderly payoff and many more months to find alternative housing.

      • Lou

        Was it within the County Board’s purview to require a larger setback to this excavation to ensure that any weakening of the adjacent soil would not cause excessive harms to the neighbors?

        • Thes

          This question has an answer that is more complicated than the question makes it sound, as I suspect you know. But basically, yes. The next question is whether the Board should have used set-backs as the chosen additional safety measure, or more inspections, or criminal penalties for negligent engineering, or some other regulatory technique. The first known set of written laws gave the death penalty to a builder whose work resulted in a home collapsing on someone. That’s probably not allowed in the site plan process, however.

          • Lou

            So that’s a yes. Not a complicated question at all. One word answer.

        • charlie

          yes lou, through the siteplan process the Board of Supervisors could have asked for a greater setback due to soils or site conditions.
          They could even put it on their agenda late at night and surprise folks, just like these residents who are spending their nights wondering if they will have a roof under which to put their heads.

  • BoredHouseWife

    Legal battles over the gas line = legal maneuvering to make that into a luxury condominium.

    • CW

      Why? My understanding was that that owner wanted no such thing and thus held out as all the construction started around him. I hope he takes those big guys for all their worth. This is a free country and if he wants to run a small building that he owns that is his right. I am sorry that the tenants will get stuck in the middle, but he should stand up for his right to conduct business.

      • BoredHouseWife

        I didn’t mean to imply it was the apt. owner. Corporations are psychopaths, so chances are, it’s the construction company.

        • drax

          How can corporations be psychopaths? Are they people?

          • Robert

            According to Mitt Romney, yes, corporations are people. Haven’t you heard?

          • Josh S

            It’s not just Mitt Romney. It’s the Supreme Court of the United States. Corporations are people in the eyes of the law.

            And the behavior of these “people”, in many cases, would result in them declared psychopaths.

  • brendan

    $10,000 per resident+refund of rent paid for August+ any expenses (housing, food, etc) incurred during their forced displacement+legal fees. paid for by construction company and developer.

    • JB

      yeeeah… what planet are you on? I agree they deserve to be compensated for any expenses incurred because of this, but you’re entitled to be made whole by the courts, not get a windfall because something unfortunate happened to you.

      • brendan

        the construction and development company on a multi-million dollar project were negligent and forced dozens of people to lose their homes… $10k/resident is nothing. maybe tack on an extra million in punitive damages.

        these people in their quest to make a fortune completely disrupted the lives of others and should pay for their incompetence and/or negligence.

        • Lou

          There’s plenty of money available in the construction/design team’s liability insurance. And the residents are going to get themselves some of that.

          And I agree with the punitive damages as well.

          • Aaron

            The flash mob mentality comes to Arlington!!

        • CW

          +1…I’m sure there are plenty of big boy lawyers knocking down this fellow’s door. Of course he doesn’t want to sweep it under the rug and have it patched up and let the tenants back in. Punitive damages are not out of the question. This is pretty cut and dried. You break it, you buy it.

          • madisonmanor

            Given the discussion above between Lou and Thes, it is not as cut and dried as you might think. The county could have some culpability in this as well (yay! more lawyers)
            I guess this is why in more than 20+ years in Arlington I haven’t been selected for jury duty yet – I’d give them per diem for 2 months max (which also covers the time in the Courtyard) and moving expenses. No punitive damages, since the county could have required additional setback but chose not to.

          • Lou

            If only Thes had a “z” at the end of his name, we would make a pretty good running joke.

          • CW

            You would punish the tenants for the county failing to regulate properly?

          • madisonmanor

            No – I just firmly believe that you can’t pin the blame squarely on any one entity. Our society in general tends to look for blame and $$ (suing) rather than helping to fix the problem.
            Accidents happen. Not punishing the tenants – what I propose would give them reasonable living expenses (actually quite good considering what they were paying for rent) plus moving expenses. Not a perfect solution but fixes what needs to be fixed – no more, no less – at much less cost (but the lawyers won’t be as happy).

          • Josh S

            I agree with CW – you break it, you buy it. The developer / construction company are the ones who actually dug the hole that ended up being improper. Not the county.

            If the underground storage tank at your local Shell station starts to leak, the county isn’t liable because they gave you a permit to put it in in the first place.

        • Funny

          How was the construction company negligent? Just because the retaining wall failed doesn’t mean they were negligent.

          • Josh S

            What was the cause of the failure? If it was something under the construction company’s control or ability to predict, it was negligence.

            I don’t have the facts, so I don’t know. But it doesn’t look good for them.

      • Josh S

        Yeah, this is nothing. Inconvenience, suffering, possible loss of wages, etc – $10K is nothing. As others have pointed out, most of these folks are up the creek without a paddle. Good luck finding similarly priced housing anywhere near. So they have to move what may be a substantial distance. It may mean loss of jobs, serious disruption of their lives in many possible ways. Ten grand is peanuts. Crumbs.

        Your comment might make sense if they were able to just move right back in after some period in a hotel. But that’s not the case.

    • Clarendon

      That actually sounds reasonable to me. JBG would want to be held harmless, immune (or whatever the legalese is) for any future legal action but to get away under half a million for displacing 30 people with no real prospect for being able to transfer to a similar living arrangement sounds pretty cheap. And, if they did it quickly it would be good for the residents to take it. The alternative is dragging things out and lawyers will probably make as much as the settlement money.

    • ArlingtonSouth

      Negligence requires a court date.

      One that will include an arms race of lawyers that could seal victory for the defendants who will be forced to hire less or decrease area investments. Which, in this economy doesn’t bode well. It will also cost tax payers a fortune too. But, Arlington will find a way to insert a $0.10 surcharge on gas to cover the costs while celebrating the car free diet.

      Or it could result in a victory for someone else. In which case, the developer and contractor submit the damages won to their insurer who will pay them out. In turn, insurance rates will increase for the two parties because a claim was made. And insurance rates on everything else will experience some creep in order to pay people beyond direct expenses associated with moving out of a building that I’m sure barely meets building code requirements each year.

  • Killdare77

    It’s not in Rosslyn, but Fillmore Garden Apartments is relatively close and very inexpensive. It’s short on amenties, but it’s still a deal.


    • CW

      Great deals down in Anacostia too!

    • Cate

      I checked that complex out when I was looking for apartments a little over a year ago. I liked it a lot, save for the lack of central air, which wound up being the dealbreaker.

  • Michael

    Thanks for following up on this story, I’ve wondered what happened to the residents of this building. Please keep on top of this, it sounds like both the landlord and JBG are shirking their responsibilities in this fiasco.

  • Aaron

    If their landlord had been willing to sell the property for a “reasonable” price, like all of the other owners of the crack-infested slums on that block did, then he would have gotten his money a couple years ago and this building would have been unavailable to them anyway.

    I seriously have no pity or sympathy for any young professionals evicted from this building. They had a good deal for as long as it’s lasted but it’s no more. If they haven’t been looking for a new place to live since August 7th, they’re just as much to blame for their circumstances as the landlord/developer.

    • brendan

      Exactly Correct!!!

      This reminds of the Ford Pinto stuff… all those people whining about the Pinto being a death trap got a good deal -fairly reliable and cheap car. Then all of sudden it blows up due to negligence on behalf of the manufacturer and their kid has 2nd degree burns over 60% of his body…. no sympathy there either. they had a good deal for a couple years.

      • nauckneighbor

        Awesome Response!

      • SomeGuy

        Nicely done, Brendan.

      • drax

        Nice one, Brendan.

      • Sunny617

        +1,000 Brendan

    • Lou

      4/10 for resurrecting some old account. You’ll probably score a few replies as well.

    • Aaron

      This isn’t DC or PG, there aren’t big buckets of money lying around so you can cash out when stupid stuff happens to you, especially when you put yourself in harm’s way in the first place.

      • nauckneighbor

        How about trying to make sense.

        The residents were not in harms way the entire time they were living there until Clark Construction began construction.

        Due to improper construction and design procedures the retaining wall collapsed, thus it was Clark Construction who put the tenants in harms way.

        Unfortunately, the residents have no real recourse against the developer or the landlord if they signed the typical Arlington County lease. The Landlord is the one who is rightfully going to get a windfall if anyone.

        • Southeast Jerome


    • KalashniKEV

      I don’t think “Young Professionals” lived there…

      • CW

        Why? You wouldn’t pocket the $600 a month cash differential that the resident mentioned? That’s an extra $7200 spending money a year just to live in a place with formica instead of granite. Especially if they’re just out of college – those places are probably a lot nicer than most college dorms or puke-and-beer-stained student apartments.

        • KalashniKEV

          That place is naaaaasty. All of those apartments in that part of Rosslyn (Rahill, etc) are in need of demolition.

          • R

            Disagree. I actually lived in a studio in a different Swansen property 2 blocks from this place until a month ago. It wasn’t exactly state of the art – see above re central air – but it’s in excellent shape and well-maintained. If this place was in any way similar to my building, it was just fine – you know, until it started collapsing.

          • R

            That said, not super impressed with the landlord either. When we moved in, we knew we wouldn’t be there for the full year so we asked what his policies were if we needed to move before the end of the lease. He told us that it would be no problem, we could just find someone to take over the lease. Then when the time came, he went back on that and said we needed to pay the whole next month’s rent in addition to losing our deposit – regardless of whether he found someone to move in, so basically he is getting double rent for that month. Within his rights per the lease, so we couldn’t really complain, it was our fault for not getting it in writing. But still frustrating, especially considering he apparently has a whole building full of people who would love to move into the place!

            That plus the time we came home to find our front door wide open (in an unsecured building!) due to an unscheduled, non-emergency maintenance visit… not so great. Still though, can’t beat the price.

          • KalashniKEV

            You shouldn’t sign a lease and then be surprised when it’s enforced.

          • R

            @KalashniKEV – Like I said, can’t do anything about it since we signed it. Still not a classy move on his part.

        • Cate

          Ha, seriously. In undergrad I lived with three other people in an on-campus apartment, paid an absurd amount of money for it, and hands down it was the most disgusting place I ever lived.

        • Lou

          I guess it depends on what profession they were involved in.

        • Young DB Professional

          More money to spend on my BMW lease.

    • Chouse

      So you are saying that these people are at fault because they found a good deal in this area and chose to live in a non new highrise multimillion dollar expensive complex. Hell, who are you to tell anyone that they were wrong for finding a cheap deal, if anything it sounds like you are jealous of them. It is also completely idiotic to expect them to have already found a place. You do not know their income or anything and I am sure they will look for another cheap building in an area they probably enjoy living in. Sorry this hasnt happened fast enough for you and for all you know the people have been looking. After being through the situation I am sure all residents are being alittle more cautious in their house hunting this time around.

      No I do not live in this building nor know anyone who does. However, to hear a bystander comment with little to no knowledge of the situation with such a comment baffles me. Instead of going home tonight, get kicked out to the curb and be told you have 3 weeks to find a new, probably more expensive place to live. Then comment.

      • Southeast Jerome


      • Smilla

        Well said, Chouse. Empathy (and simple human decency) are sadly lacking among a lot of ArlNow’s commentariat.

      • Reader

        Well said, yep.

  • OX4

    The residents are so upset at all the legal wrangling that they hired a lawyer.

  • Mary Ellen

    Has OSHA looked into this? Can’t believe that a world wide construction company would allow this situation to escalate to the level where it is now. $141 million dollar project and you treat these residents like this? The day before a hurricane is expected Clark Construction sends an email like that? How sad.
    Negligence from landlord’s end also. He had to know how this was going down. Shame on both parties……where is developer JBG in all this?

    • Tom

      The email was from the landlord, not the construction company.

    • Joel

      The building was deemed structurally sound well before the hurricane, the issue here is the gas line, which the developer/construction company was willing to repair/replace. The landlord is the only person in the way of these people returning to their homes because he didn’t allow the work to be done on the gas line. JBG cut off the funds for the hotel these people were staying in because the delay is now on the landlord’s hands.

      • GreaterClarendon

        Finally, a well reasoned analysis of the situation and its quirks.

        • jan


  • JamesE

    This would make an excellent building to put all the homeless into.

    • KalashniKEV

      … and then push into the hole!

      • KalashniKRAP

        Get off my lawn!

        • KalashniKEV

          Damn right!

          • Josh S

            And people got all up in arms when I referenced Dirty Harry in the Open Carry discussion. See, I knew what I was talking about!

          • KalashniKEV

            That’s Walter Kowalski.

          • Josh S

            Yup. It is.

  • charlie

    this is an example where your great liberal board should be out there with picket signs. they aren’t either: liberal or looking out for the little guy. shame shame shame.
    if this where in NYC, Bloomberg would be out there everyday making sure the little people were taking care of. If this were small town American — same thing.
    But in Arlington — no board members to be found. SAD.

  • Skeptical

    Tell me any of you wouldn’t be outraged and screaming for compensation if *anyplace* that you had budgeted to live indefinitely was yanked out from under you — and that in an incident that could have gotten you killed — and you knew that the problem involved not only apparent negligence but litigiousness and stonewalling.

    • NOVApologist

      If by “compensation” you mean a refund on the rent for August plus my deposit plus moving expenses plus accommodations for a reasonable amount of time until a new place is found, then yes, I would also demand “compensation.” If you mean the lotto-like five and six-figure payouts that some other posters are suggesting, then no.

      • Skeptical

        Maybe not six figures, but five isn’t unreasonable. Due to neglect and idiocy, the people who had planned their lives around renting at the Swansen are likely to be out well over the ten grand that someone mentioned, by the time they find a new place, move, and cope with the increased rents they’re likely to see in this area. It takes time to restructure your budget after a hit like that — which is *not* an act of God after all, but a consequence of human shabbiness and profiteering.

  • Rosslynite

    If these folks want affordable, they should look at the Nalbert and other apartments that line N. Fort Myer Drive. They were long in the tooth when I lived there 25 years ago, but they are still standing.

  • Cate

    I seriously feel for the resident quoted in the article. I’m a grad student and finding anywhere to live that was affordable and in a nice area was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with, and that includes apartment hunting for a place in Boston when I was overseas. Eventually I found an awesome place in South Arlington (which I absolutely love, I don’t get all the hate on here toward it), but it was ridiculous. It’s damn near impossible to go to school full time and work full time, and even if it were with education costs paying $2k+ in rent is just not possible.

  • Matt B

    Let’s see you are renting… you don’t own the property and the landlord is terminating your lease without a penalty and someone has been putting you up in a place to live for two weeks at no cost…

    Quit your complaining and move on… perhaps out of Arlington if you can’t afford it.

  • Tom Sinkshole

    I heard the lawyers for Clark offered the residents $1m per resident. The residents are pondering…

  • Tom Sinkshole

    Bah – i am just kidding. This sounds like a bad situation all around. Sorry to confuse. Hope it works out soon!

  • MC

    JBG is the accountable party — they can sue the construction company to reclaim compensation. JBG should buy out the remaining leases of the tenants, or pay six months equivalent rent, which ever is greater. This is chump change for them, and risk damaging their reputation in the Rosslyn BID and elsewhere in Arlington if they don’t do the right thing here.

  • I’d take the position that JBG and its contractors are ultimately responsible for the displacement and damages suffered by the residents, so why don’t they just step and and conclude some equitable final settlements to get the people back into homes? JBG literally destroyed the homes and is now trying to avoid any further liability for it. Hammer ’em in court, folks! Do it now.

  • Wilberta Lynn Jones

    Excellent! Thank you for for article.

  • Michael

    It seems that Clark Construction was also responsible for another major mishap in Rosslyn a few years ago when the roof collapsed at the Waterview project and injured 16 workers: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/08/AR2006120800494.html

    • charlie

      and who is doing the construction at 800 Glebe Road where the worker had a plate of glass fall on him and the dramatic rescue.
      btw what is the status of the worker?


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