4 years after D.C. fire, ex-tenants and Mount Pleasant area face frustration

Four years after that horrific night, Yasmin Romero-Castillo wants to return to where she lived for nearly a dozen years, the place where she could count on familiar faces and lively banter greeting her when she arrived home to the front stoop.

The stoop is still there on the main commercial corridor that runs through the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. But a raging midnight fire in 2008 destroyed most of the Deauville, an 85-unit apartment building at the center of the neighborhood.

Where once there were dozens of apartments occupied by mostly poor and working-class Latino families is a rubble-strewn crater. Steel beams prop up the building’s yellow brick facade. A black chain-link fence topped by barbed wire surrounds the property’s perimeter.

Civic leaders and politicians still talk of ensuring that many of the Deauville’s 200 former residents return to a new building at their old address, 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW, a block west of 16th Street.

But no one can say when the rebuilding will begin, frustrating neighborhood residents and business owners as well as the building’s former tenants, many of whom received financial aid from the District to relocate — monthly subsidies that have or are about to expire.

“This is really, really hard,” said Romero-Castillo, a waitress at a nearby restaurant and the head of the building’s tenants association, which still meets every month. “We ask when can we can go back. We don’t know when. But we know we will. So we wait.”

Two years ago, the tenants association bought the Deauville property with a $4 million loan from the D.C. government. The plan is to build low-income rental housing. But the tenants association still needs $10 million to begin construction, part of which may become available from the District this year.

Mount Pleasant residents have long since lost their patience for the crater at the center of their neighborhood. “Four years, and what do we have to show for it?” asked Terry Lynch, a longtime Mount Pleasant activist, gazing through the fence at the crater. “Look at all the rubble. You’d think you were in Dresden after the war.”

Jackie Flanagan, who moved Nana, her clothing boutique, from U Street to Mount Pleasant last year, said the hole is a reminder of the “sadness of that day.”

“Half the neighborhood was out there trying to help,” said Flanagan, who has lived in Mount Pleasant nearly five years. “And now it’s just languishing. It feels unsettling.”

Council member Jim Graham (D), whose Ward 1 district includes Mount Pleasant, said the recession and the difficulties of funding low-income housing complexes have conspired to slow development on the site. But he said the District remains committed to the project and preserving Mount Pleasant’s economic diversity by building subsidized housing. “No one is more anxious to see this developed than us,” he said. “It’s not going to happen at the snap of a finger because of the complexities of getting the money.”

But progress has been made, Graham said. He said he thinks the community won a victory in 2010 when the tenants association purchased the property from NWJ, a Philadelphia-based real estate company under whose ownership the building had amassed more than 7,000 code violations. At the time of the fire, the tenants were suing the landlord over the building’s conditions.

“We’ve run half the distance by getting the building out of [their] hands,” Graham said, referring to the previous owner. “The magnitude cannot be overstated.”

A gentrifying community

Just to the north of Adams Morgan and west of Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant has long been a mix of professionals and blue-collar whites, blacks and Latinos. Along with a number of Washington neighborhoods, Mount Pleasant became increasingly affluent over the past 15 years as developers turned rental apartments into condominiums and waves of professionals bought up elegant rowhouses.

A handful of cafes and restaurants catering to the new crowd cropped up among the carryouts, groceries, and hardware and liquor stores, an evolution that gave neighborhood leaders hope that Mount Pleasant Street was experiencing a renaissance. Whatever momentum had built along the corridor stalled as the economy slowed and commercial development in Columbia Heights exploded with the building of DC USA several blocks away on 14th Street, the mall that includes a number of national chain stores, including Target.

A week after Target opened in March 2008, the fire — the first five-alarm blaze in the District in nearly 30 years — destroyed the Deauville. No residents were killed or seriously injured, even as many had to climb out windows, hang onto ladders raised by firefighters or scramble down stairwells thick with smoke. The flames engulfed the neighboring Meridian Hill Baptist Church, causing the roof to collapse and shattering stained-glass windows.

From one day to the next, an otherwise prominent, bustling spot on Mount Pleasant Street became shrouded in darkness.

The District tried to help the tenants relocate to apartments nearby, but many eventually moved away, some of them to Virginia and Maryland. Others returned to El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.

In the days after the fire, Romero-Castillo said she felt an overwhelming sense of loss. Her computer was destroyed. She lost her clothing, photographs, passport, birth certificate and other important documents. Every year on March 13, the anniversary of the fire, she attends a vigil in front of the building’s entrance. “They want to come back,” she said of many of the building’s former tenants. “We are like family. We know the place. We know the people.”

Waiting to come home

Every month, the tenants association meets with its attorney to learn the status of the project. The tenants are working with a developer, the National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corp., a nonprofit organization that has built low-income housing complexes across the country. On Mount Pleasant Street, NHT plans 61 affordable units, with the apartments available to a family of four earning no more than $64,500.

What the tenants association still needs from the District government is $3 million to build the project. Additional funding would come in the form of “Low Income Housing Tax Credits,” which NHT and the tenants association would sell to corporate investors to raise $7 million. The next opportunity for NHT to apply for the tax credits will probably be spring, according to a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

A more immediate concern for the Deauville’s former residents is their loss of rental subsidies, which the District provided to many of the households since 2008 because then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wanted to ensure that the displaced residents could remain in the area.

Fenty pledged $275,000 in city funds to help the tenants pay their first month’s rent and security deposit and to cover, in subsequent months, the difference between what they had been paying at the Deauville and their new apartments. The subsidies, which have totaled almost $1.8 million, were to end when the tenants returned to Mount Pleasant Street.

At least twice, the District has extended the subsidies beyond their expiration date. In July, the city ended the subsidies to 22 of the 36 households still receiving them. Seven of the remaining 14 households will lose their subsidies at the end of this month. The rest are to be cut off June 30.

Romero-Castillo, 46, said she just lost the subsidy — about $500 a month — that she needs to afford the one-bedroom apartment she rents for $1,130 a month a few blocks from her former home.

Now she says she will look for someone to split the rent and move into the living room.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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