Black, Asian residents unite to save low-income building near Chinatown

Saving their D.C. apartment building seemed impossible, but the tenants association president resolved that he would try. So Kevin Rogers and fellow board member Vera Watson set out on a Saturday to knock on every door in the egg-yolk-colored halls of Museum Square.

The problem: More than 70 percent of their neighbors were Chinese. Most were elderly and spoke little English. Rogers and Watson needed to convey the urgency of the matter, a complicated confluence of community development, tenant rights and city law.

In June, Museum Square residents received notices that the building’s owners would stop accepting the government subsidy to house low-income residents. Residents would receive Section 8 vouchers to use someplace else, their homes slated to be replaced with multifamily housing and apartments they could not afford. The demolition would disperse the building’s 291 households, which include nearly half of the Chinese immigrant population left in and around Chinatown.

But there was a chance to stop it. City law mandates that the residents and the District each get a chance to make a reasonable offer to buy the building.

The owner’s asking price for the 36-year-old, starburst-shaped structure: $250 million.

The price seemed astronomical to residents, but the stakes could be just as high for the city: If the building’s owner can set the price so far out of reach to redevelop the land, it could pave the way for other property owners to do the same.

The struggle at Fourth and K streets NW illustrates how increasingly difficult it can be to preserve low-income housing, even in a city desperate for it. Also at risk is the fraying of the community that came to define Chinatown.

Rogers, who is black and has lived in the building for 24 years, enlisted the help of nonprofit housing lawyers and found interpreters to relay community concerns. At minimum, he thought, residents could find a way to slow the process so they wouldn’t be evicted during the winter. But first, the Museum Square tenant leaders needed to show that residents had an interest in purchasing the property.

Watson, also black and a longtime resident, raced from door to door, boiling down the particulars to a simple question: “Do you want to stay here?” Watson asked neighbor after neighbor. “Yes? You have to sign!”

Rogers and Watson got signatures from 202 of the occupied units.

Comfort zone

Chuan Xiu Ye signed. Ye, 74, was among the last members of her family to remain in China. Ten years ago, she moved to the United States to be closer to her grandchildren.

While attending the Chinese Community Church, worshipers told her about Museum Square in the adjacent Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood. The building was increasingly populated with people who had left China after retirement and struggled to learn English.

Tenants practiced key phrases, took bus trips to Chinese grocery stores in the suburbs and taught each other about the United States.

“If I were 30, I would be able to pick up the language, but now when I learn words in the day, I forget them by that night,” said Ye, who, with other Chinese residents in this story, spoke through an interpreter. “But in Chinatown, there are stores with signs we can read and people who can help us. It has been a place where we’ve found a lot of hope and happiness.”

When she heard about the demolition, she panicked. She vaguely knew about the region’s intense competition for low-
income housing
. How could she or her neighbors persuade a property manager to choose them when they could not speak the language?

“If I moved to another neighborhood, I would not leave my house,” said Xinnong Yi, 82, a retired literature teacher who has lived in the United States for 16 years. “I would be too scared, and no one would know how to help me.”

Museum Square tenants have formed a coalition of African Americans, native Washingtonians and Asian immigrants. What used to be a limited exchange of greetings in the elevator has turned into fighting for a cause.

“I’m so grateful to this country and what it has done for me and my family,” Ye said. “But now, when I think of what is happening, I get a different feeling about America, a feeling of terror. I just hope someone can help us.”

An unusual case

The city has set up laws to help. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act has existed since 1980, mandating that tenants get first rights to purchase a property before a deal is made that could kick them out.

In most cases, a building is put up for sale, or a developer makes an offer to purchase it. Tenants, working either on their own or with another developer, get a chance to make a counter-offer at a similar price. Since 2002, according to studies and a city review, that law has been used to preserve at least 50 buildings and about 1,500 units of housing.

Museum Square’s case exposes a “new glitch in the law,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). In this case, there is no sale — the property owners just want to repurpose their land. They are pricing it for its potential, in a changing neighborhood catering to more affluent residents. There is no surefire way to judge whether that pricing is reasonable.

The two-acre Museum Square property is assessed at $36 million, records show. Around the Mount Vernon Square and Chinatown areas, real estate listings show houses and luxury condos being sold at about $500,000. The company’s asking price at Museum Square would amount to about $830,000 per existing unit.

As neighborhoods transform, Catania is worried Museum Square’s property owners would set a precedent for others to value their land at out-of-reach prices for existing tenants, and simply demolish rather than sell.

This, Catania said, would derail the intent of the law.

“I don’t see any evidence to suggest that this [$250 million] number wasn’t just picked from the sky,” said Catania, who is running for mayor. After reading about the situation in the Washington City Paper, Catania began pushing for the D.C. Council to explore ways of lowering the price tag. “If we don’t do something to prevent this situation, demolishing a property could terminate any real right tenants have to purchase.”

Michele Ball, treasurer of the Virginia-based Bush Construction Corp., which co-owns the property, thinks the criticism is unfair.

Ball said the vision includes increasing housing density on the property, which the city is evaluating. She said the company “went through lots of calculations to determine how valuable the property was to us, and $250 million seemed very reasonable.”

The building sits on a street that was once lined with prostitutes but now boasts al fresco dining and sparkling luxury condos.

“We’re trying to maximize the value of the property,” Ball said. “We’ve had the building there for 30-plus years, and we think the building has run its course of usefulness. And everyone who lives there is getting vouchers, so we don’t think of it as displacement.”

For residents such as 33-year-old Khea Chambers, there was pride that the building was a stalwart as a revitalized Convention Center and the Verizon Center transformed their neighborhood.

“And now that the place is nice, that’s when we’re asked to leave?” Chambers said at a small tenants association board meeting, sitting on a couch in Rogers’s apartment.

Rogers said he was terrified about the prospect of ending up without an affordable place to live.

On Monday evening, Rogers received a phone call. It was from Zenobia Lai, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, which had been working with the tenants. The property owners had sent a letter to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development saying they would slow the process — residents in Museum Square could stay for another year, with a longer period to make their case.

“Our strategy to develop the property remains intact,” Ball told the Post. “However, there has been much controversy and we thought it best to give everyone adequate time to respond.”

The idea of saving the housing project seemed a little more possible.

“Staying in the building for another year is the good news,” Rogers said. “But the bad news is one day we might still be kicked out. So we’re going to keep on fighting.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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