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Fort Chaplin Park Associates v. District of Columbia Rental Housing Com'n

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


November 10, 1994

FORT CHAPLIN PARK ASSOCIATES, PETITIONER
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA RENTAL HOUSING COMMISSION, RESPONDENT, AND FORT CHAPLIN TENANTS ASSOCIATION, INTERVENOR

Appeal from the Final Decision of the Commissioner, Rental Housing Commission of the District of Columbia

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, *fn1 Sullivan, Associate Judge, and Kern, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan

SULLIVAN, Associate Judge: Fort Chaplin Park Associates (housing provider) seeks review of the Decision and Order of the District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission (the Commission) which dismissed the housing provider's capital improvement petition pursuant to D.C. Code § 45-2520 (1990). The Petitioner contends that the Commission erred by reversing the Decision and Order dated April 27, 1990, of a Rental Accommodations and Conversion Division (RACD) hearing examiner (the examiner), which found that the proposed capital improvements would protect or enhance the health, safety, and security of the tenants and the habitability of the housing accommodation. We agree. Accordingly, we reverse the Commission's order reversing the hearing examiner and dismissing the housing provider's capital improvement petition.

I.

Factual and Procedural Background

Fort Chaplin Park (Fort Chaplin) is a multi-building rental housing accommodation consisting of 549 residential units. *fn2 The complex is owned by Fort Chaplin Park Associates and managed by the Charles E. Smith Management Company. On June 28, 1989, the housing provider filed a capital improvement petition (the petition) with RACD and sought a rent increase to cover the costs of proposed capital improvements *fn3 to the rental units. The proposed improvements included:

(1) Kitchens: the removal of existing features in each kitchen, which were generally 25 years old, and the installation in lieu thereof of new cabinetry and counters, new appliances, upgrade of electrical services, new flooring;

(2) Bathroom: the removal of existing wall-mounted sinks, medicine cabinets, and light fixtures, which were generally 25 years old, and replacement thereof with new cultured marble vanity tops with integrated sink bowl, addition of vanities, installation of new medicine cabinets, upgrade of electrical lighting, replacement of plumbing fixtures;

(3) General: the installation of mini blinds on each window throughout the apartment; and

(4) Smoke Detectors and Emergency Lights: the installation of smoke detectors and emergency battery lights in common areas of housing accommodation. *fn4

The total cost of the proposed improvements was $2,793,348.97. The proposed increase to the tenants' rent ceilings was $71 per month.

Hearing Examiner's Decision and Order

The examiner held a hearing on the petition and granted the housing provider's petition in its entirety for the proposed capital improvements, along with a $69 per month rent increase. *fn5 The examiner found that the proposed improvements would protect or enhance the health, safety, and security of the tenants, and the habitability of the housing accommodation. In support of his ruling, the examiner found that the "the proposed improvements will add, in all apartments, features which do not currently exist. In addition, the replacement of existing appliances, most of which are over 25 years old, will at least protect, if not enhance the habitability of the premises."

Rental Housing Commission Decision and Order

As a result of the examiner's decision, the tenants *fn6 appealed pursuant to D.C. Code § 45-2526 (h) (1990) *fn7 to the Commission. The Commission determined that the central issue was whether the housing provider had carried its burden of proof that the proposed improvements would protect or enhance the health, safety and security of the tenants or the habitability of the housing accommodation.

The Commission defined the phrase to "enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation" to mean improvements which not only insure the lack of [District of Columbia] housing code *fn8 (housing code) violations, but also, those improvements may be better than the item it replaces." For the items mentioned in the housing code, the Commission concluded that the examiner's decision on these items was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Moreover, the Commission noted, items not mentioned in the housing code, nor already existing in the rental unit, *fn9 could not be considered to enhance or protect the habitability of the housing accommodation. As a result, the petition was dismissed in its entirety by the Commission.

II.

Standard of Review

Our standard of review of agency decisions is well established. D.C. Code § 1-1510 requires this court to determine whether substantial evidence *fn10 exists in the record to support the decision, or whether the decision is arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion. *fn11 D.C. Code §§ 1-1509 (e), 1-1510 (a)(3)(A), (E); see also Oubre v. District of Columbia, 630 A.2d 699, 702 (D.C. 1993) ("We will not disturb the agency's decision if it flows rationally from the facts which are supported by substantial evidence in the record.") (quoting Kramer v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 484 A.2d 550 (D.C. 1984)); Allen v. District of Columbia Hous. Comm'n, 538 A.2d 752, 753 (D.C. 1988) ("Both statute and case law require findings of an administrative agency to be supported by substantial evidence on the record considered as a whole.").

We will accord great deference to "an agency's interpretation of its own regulations or of the statute which it administers . . . ." Columbia Realty Venture v. Rental Hous. Comm'n., 590 A.2d 1043, 1047 (D.C. 1991) (citations omitted). An agency's decision, however, which is inconsistent with the applicable statute is afforded less deference by this court. See also Saah v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 433 A.2d 1114, 1116 (D.C. 1981) (when an agency's decision "rests on a question of law, the reviewing court has the greater expertise, and the agency decision is therefore accorded less deference") (citations omitted).

This court's role is not to "weigh the testimony and substitute ourselves for the trier of fact who heard the conflicting testimony, observed the adversary witnesses, and determined the weight to be accorded their testimony." Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO v. District of Columbia Comm'n on Human Rights, 367 A.2d 149, 152 (D.C. 1976); see also Pendleton v. District of Columbia Bd. of Elections & Ethics, 449 A.2d 301, 307 (D.C. 1982) ("On appeal, we do not review the record of an administrative proceeding de novo . . . .").

III.

Habitability of the Housing Accommodation

The gravamen of the tenants' claim and the Commission's decision is that the proposed improvements will not protect or enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation pursuant to D.C. Code § 45-2520. *fn12 The tenants concurred with the Commission's use of the housing code and the lease as an objective standard by which to measure habitability. Under the Commission's approach only items which are mentioned in the housing code, or already existing in the rental unit, may enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation.

On the other hand, the housing provider argued that the record does not support the Commission's substitution of its findings for those of the hearing examiner. Our review of the record supports the housing provider's position that substantial evidence existed in the record to support the hearing examiner's rejected findings that the proposed items would enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation. See generally American Univ. v. District of Columbia Comm'n on Human Rights, 598 A.2d 416 (D.C. 1991).

This court will defer to an agency's interpretation of a statute which the agency administers provided that the agency's interpretation is reasonable. Guerra v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 501 A.2d 786, 790 (D.C. 1985); see also McCulloch v. Rental Hous. Comm'n, 584 A.2d 1244, 1248 (D.C. 1991) ("we must defer to an agency's interpretation of the statute it administers, as long as that interpretation is reasonable and not plainly wrong or inconsistent with its legislative purpose").

The interpretation of a statute must begin with the language itself. See McDonald v. United States, 496 A.2d 274, 276 (D.C. 1985) ("in interpreting a statute, we first look to the language of the act."). This court on numerous occasions has concluded that if the statute's language is clear and unambiguous, the statute will be given its plain meaning. See, e.g., Neighbors United for a Safer Community v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, No. 91-AA-1009, slip op. at 9 (D.C. Sept. 26, 1994) ("We will not look beyond the statute's plain meaning when the language is unambiguous and does not produce an absurd result."); Collins v. United States, 631 A.2d 48, 50 (D.C. 1993) ("In the absence of any ambiguity in the statute, we must give effect to the statute's clearly intended meaning.").

D.C. Code § 45-2520 requires that the improvement protect or enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation. (Emphasis added.) In this case, the phrase at issue is "enhance the habitability." *fn13 (Emphasis added.) Neither enhance nor habitability are ambiguous terms. Enhance means to increase. WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY 753 (1971). Habitability is defined as "capable of being inhabitated; reasonably fit for occupation by a tenant of the class for which it was let or of the class ordinarily occupying such a dwelling." Id. at 1017. Hence, the statute will be given its plain meaning. The plain meaning of § 45-2520, simply put, requires that all proposed improvements increase the habitability of the housing accommodation. We are satisfied that substantial evidence existed in the record to support the examiner's decision that each of the proposed improvements would enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation.

The Commission defined habitability as being limited to items (1) specifically mentioned in the housing code, or (2) already existing in the rental unit at the time of leasing. *fn14 We decline to accept the Commission's definition of habitability because its definition contradicts the ordinary and plain meaning of the language set forth in the statute. Moreover, in the absence of a statement by the District of Columbia Council that the Council intended for the term habitability to be defined in such a restrictive manner, we decline to adopt this definition over the ordinary meaning of habitability. In fact, the term habitability is conspicuously absent from D.C. Code § 45-2503 (1990), which provides definitions for terms used throughout the Act. The Council was surely in a better position than this court to determine what the Council meant by the term habitability. If the Council intended any meaning other than the ordinary meaning, the Council could have indicated as much within the Act.

We caution, however, that the determination of whether a particular improvement enhances the habitability of the housing accommodation should not be made in a vacuum. This determination should be made within the context of the Rental Housing Act and its stated purposes. *fn15

We emphasize that all improvements proposed in connection with a capital improvement petition should not automatically be approved merely because the improvements are newer than those that they replace, or because the proposed improvements will add new features in the housing accommodation which do not presently exist. As § 45-2502 (5) demonstrates, inherent in the determination of whether a proposed improvement enhances the habitability of the housing accommodation is the requirement to balance the need for moderately priced housing against the housing provider's desire to realize a return on their investment. Id. The delicacy of this balancing process can not be overstated.

We recognize that where the proper balance lies on any particular item does not lend itself to an easy calculation. *fn16 The analysis must include, not only, a determination that the proposed item would increase the value or worth of the habitability of the housing accommodation, but also whether the proposed improvement would singularly, or in conjunction with other proposed improvements, serve to erode the availability of moderately-priced housing.

IV.

Conclusion

We are satisfied that substantial evidence existed in the record to support the hearing examiner's decision that the improvements would protect or enhance the habitability of the housing accommodation. Therefore, we hold that the Commission's replacement of its findings for those of the hearing examiner's was arbitrary and capricious and must be set aside. Accordingly, the hearing examiner's findings are reinstated and the decision of the District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission is reversed.

So ordered.


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