Despite mice and shootings, Tyler House is still a place called home

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 16, 2013

The nurses’ assistants, janitors and other low-wage workers who live in the subsidized apartments at Tyler House north of Union Station suffer many hardships:

●Regular infestations of mice and roaches.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

●Security so tight that one resident likened it to living in a prison.

●Thirteen people wounded in a drive-by shooting directly outside the front door early Monday morning.

But talk to tenants in one of their plain, gray-walled units, where a peek out the window reveals nine cranes erecting new buildings in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and you find that their biggest worry is not rodents or crime. No. They’re scared they might be forced to leave.

“That’s our first concern, is being driven out,” said Venus Little, president of the Tyler House Tenants Association. “We are really scared for ourselves, that we might be homeless, if our owner doesn’t live up to his word.”

The landlord, Israel Roizman, whose company is headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., plans to start gutting Tyler House later this year for an overdue renovation. Tenants of the 284-unit building on North Capitol Street will be displaced at least temporarily. He has promised to let them return and to preserve the building as a federally subsidized living place.

Nevertheless, residents fear the worst. They remember what happened to their neighbors who had similar subsidized apartments at Temple Courts a few blocks south. More than 200 families had to leave when the aged, crime-ridden complex was razed. Many are still waiting to return to the community, if and when affordable housing opens up as promised.

(Roizman’s secretary said Friday that he wasn’t available to comment.)

The dramatic shootings outside Tyler House have focused public attention on the culture clash between longtime residents of the community, who are mostly lower-income, and newcomers piling into upscale apartments just a block to the east.

Both groups decry the violence. Both urge a crackdown on a pair of large nightclubs nearby, whose patrons are widely suspected of contributing to crime in the area. The shootings took place shortly after one of the clubs, Fur, let out.

But only the poorer residents have the additional headache of wondering whether they’ll be able to live long-term in the community. They see a new fitness center and a Harris Teeter grocery store springing up and question whether they’ll fit in.

“A lot of us who live in the building are kind of rough. They feel that if they can get us out, they won’t have to worry about violence and things like that,” said a single mother who works as a hotel barista. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared alienating the landlord.

The barista and others know they can’t pay the $2,000 to $3,000 monthly rents now being charged in the new buildings in the area known as NoMa, for “North of Massachusetts Avenue.” At Tyler House, with the federal subsidy, one resident pays $200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment that would fetch $1,900 on the open market.

Some aspects of the new prosperity benefit everyone. Tyler House residents welcome free, outdoor movies offered in the summer by the NoMa Business Improvement District.

But the disparities can be discouraging.

“You see these multimillion-dollar condos when you walk outside, and you’ll never be able to afford them. That creates a deep sense of frustration, of alienation,” said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, senior pastor at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, which is three blocks from Tyler House.

Edmonds, who has led the church for 21 years, said the construction companies active in the area don’t do enough to hire local youths who need jobs. He wished the local fitness clubs offered low-cost programs for those in the community. He and others were aghast that a local Boys and Girls Club, considered a safe haven for young people, was about to close for lack of funding.

“Smart growth is more than just bicycles. Smart growth is investment in human potential,” Edmonds said.

Let’s do what we can to stop the shootings, by all means. But let’s keep in mind that even the many who can’t afford a gym membership want to keep their homes.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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