Pr. George’s begins to address ways to preserve affordable housing


Blanca Genis, center, and her children have been living for years with a gas leak in her apartment in Hyattsville. She said she has called the rental office several times but it hasn’t been repaired. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
July 24, 2013

Blanca Genis’s oven has not worked for four years, and the smell of gas often fills her tiny kitchen. Her neighbor Ana Ramirez says the electricity often cuts off as she tries to cool her two-bedroom unit with fans and a window air conditioner.

Alicia Silva says it sometimes gets so hot in the Bedford Station, Newbury Square and Victoria Station apartment complexes in Langley Park that residents sleep outside, as they did Friday.

“We are in America. We have rights,” said Silva, as she pointed to leaky faucets, broken pipes, rusting bathtubs and a window that had fallen on a resident who was taking a shower.

The complexes, which contain about 1,000 apartments, were sold last spring and turned over to a new management company, Newport Property Ventures, owned by New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez.

Residents, who have filed hundreds of complaints with the county alleging serious problems with rodent infestations, mold, crumbling floors and ceilings, say the firm has not responded.

A spokeswoman for Newport Property Ventures, in Coral Gables, Fla., declined to comment.

Prince George’s County Council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) had hoped she could help tenants such as those in Langley Park with a bill giving the county an opportunity to buy, or help find buyers for, moderately priced rental complexes when they come up for sale.

Lehman’s original bill would give the county government, or nonprofit groups it designated, several weeks to find the money to purchase moderately priced apartment complexes that have 20 or more units. Lehman had hoped that her measure would help the county find buyers who would be willing to rehab moderately priced units, which are often run down, and keep rents affordable.

But the legislation, which was debated for two hours Wednesday by a divided council, was weakened before it was unanimously approved by the council — so much so that Lehman feared it had been rendered “ineffective.”

An amendment by council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) would give the county until next July to determine where it wants the county government to try to buy and preserve affordable housing. He said his plan is a way to give the county “a broader look” at the issue of preserving affordable housing.

The amendment was approved 6 to 3, with Lehman, Eric Olson (D-College Park) and Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) opposed.

But Lehman and others who backed her proposal say that could lead to economic segregation. The amendment would create zones for affordable housing, which critics fear would create enclaves in some parts of the county and not in others.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) backed Lehman’s original proposal, which his council lobbyist Kerry Watson reiterated several times during the debate. Afterward, the county’s housing director, Eric C. Brown, said he was still trying to sort through what impact the amended bill would have.

Affordable housing advocates such as Maryann Dillon, executive director of Housing Initiative Partnership in Hyattsville, said she feared that Franklin’s amendment could lead to the perpetuation of low- and moderate-income enclaves and the establishment of new ones. Much of the county’s affordable housing is inside the Capital Beltway.

“We are very concerned about economic integration in the region,” Dillon said, pointing to studies that show that low-income students perform better in schools in mixed-income communities.

Zorayda Moreira-Smith of CASA of Maryland, who has been working with the Langley Park tenants, said she was disappointed with Franklin’s amendment but still pleased that the bill had been approved.

“This is one tool that the county really needs,” she said. “The next priority should be inclusionary zoning.”

That would put Prince George’s on a footing with neighboring Montgomery County, which requires new developments to include moderate-priced units, although it often has allowed them to waive the requirement by paying extra fees.

Meanwhile, the Langley Park tenants are awaiting word from the county about conditions in their apartments. While many of the more than 1,500 code violations cited by the county have been addressed, problems persist, they said.

“It is very hot. We are miserable,” said Ramirez, who said the wiring is unsafe and should be updated so that tenants could use more air conditioners.

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