6 years after devastating fire in Mt. Pleasant, tenants set to return in fall to rebuilt home

For six years, Edilma Alvarez has waited and wondered: When would she and her family finally be able to return to their home in the bustling heart of Mount Pleasant?

On the night in 2008 before Alvarez’s baby was due, a raging fire barreled through the four-story Deauville apartment building in Northwest Washington — rendering Alvarez, her husband, Cristobal Gonzalez Hernandez, and nearly 200 people homeless.

Soon after the fire, then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty pledged that the Deauville would be rebuilt and that its mostly low- and middle-income tenants would be able to return.

The residents were provided temporary housing for almost two months as they struggled to find new places to live. Alvarez and Hernandez also had the task of caring for their new daughter.

“I felt so frustrated because we had all of the things we needed” for the newborn, Alvarez, 39, said in Spanish recently. “We lost everything.”

Now, with her baby about to finish kindergarten, Alvarez finally has an answer.

In October, her family and many other former Deauville tenants are set to return. Cranes and cement mixers and workers in hard hats began humming and hammering last summer — visible signs of progress at long last. Out front, banners affixed to the construction site declare the future home of the renamed Monsenor Romero Apartments.

That affordable housing is returning to 3145 Mount Pleasant St. is a testament to the resilience and sheer determination of the former residents in the face of bureaucratic hassles, financial shortfalls and years of uncertainty.

The tenants are “a pretty diverse group in terms of their personal interests,” said Blake Biles, a partner at Arnold & Porter who advised them pro bono before and after the fire. “But it was pretty amazing the extent to which over time they all stuck together.”

‘Had to fight for everything’

For years, tenants bemoaned their living conditions at the Deauville and their treatment at the hands of its owner, Philadelphia-based real estate company NWJ, lodging thousands of complaints with the D.C. government about bug infestations, mold, water damage, large rent increases and other issues. To better advocate for themselves, they formed a tenants association in 2002 with Yasmin Romero-Latin, then Romero-Castillo, as its president and tireless advocate.

“We have had to fight for everything, every little thing,” said Romero-Latin, 48.

By March 2008, the residents were just days from signing a legal agreement with NWJ that included promises to keep up repairs and stabilize rents.

Then, the fire, and chaos, broke out.

“It is one I will never forget,” said Edward C. Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters union, who was on duty that night. “It was huge. . . . I remember looking up, and it looked like the sun was coming up because of all the fire.”

Six days after the city’s first five-alarm fire in three decades, Alvarez gave birth to daughter Joanna. “We left the hospital and didn’t know where we would live,” said Alvarez, who works as a building cleaner at night, as does her husband.

The Fenty administration announced that the city would provide rent subsidies for up to two years to help the tenants cover the difference between rent at the Deauville and their new apartments.

The subsidies were intended to last until the tenants returned to a rebuilt building on Mount Pleasant Street. But at least two subsidy extensions and four years later, their new home had yet to materialize,

“We went from a situation that was almost clear [with the proposed agreement with the owner] to one that was completely unclear after the fire,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents Mount Pleasant and had worked with the Deauville tenants for years.

Initially, NWJ planned to rebuild the building. Then, in July 2010, the tenants association was able to buy the property from NWJ with a $4 million loan from the D.C. government.

“That was the best day of my life,” Romero-Latin said.

But while the tenants finally had control of the building, they lacked an additional $15 million for the rebuilding effort.

The tenants association continued to meet once a month and each year, on the anniversary of the fire, they gathered at the site to renew their pledge to return.

Meanwhile, Mount Pleasant, which for decades has had a vibrant Latino community, was rapidly gentrifying as young families, professionals and 20-somethings increasingly flocked to the neighborhood, which is sandwiched between Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan and has been marketed as “A Village in the City.”

Housing prices have shot up accordingly, as trendy restaurants and a market “dedicated to spreading the DIY foodie spirit” have cropped up next to the bodegas and barbershops.

After the subsidy for their Adams Morgan apartment expired in 2012, Alvarez and Hernandez moved to what they described as an inferior place and have been struggling to meet the market-rate rent since, a common plight for the former Deauville tenants.

“What I’m shocked by is how the people are paying rents, not subsidized anywhere, that for them is through the roof” while they wait to return, said Rob Richardson, the development manager for the Monsenor Romero Apartments. “Sometimes there are six people in a one-bedroom apartment who are like: ‘This is what we’re doing because it is what we have to do.’ ”

Symbolic groundbreaking

The tenants association chose to work with the National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corp., a national nonprofit organization that specializes in low-income housing, to help secure the financing and renovate the property.

To ensure that every resident who wanted to return would be able to, the tenants association needed low-income housing tax credits, said Richardson, who is employed by NHT. The tax credits would be sold by NHT and the tenants association to investors, who would receive a break on their federal taxes in exchange.

But the District had already committed its federally funded credits for three years. When the credits were finally freed up in 2013, neighborhood businesses, city residents and others submitted a stack of letters supporting the tenants’ application.

The letters cited the difficulties of finding affordable housing in Mount Pleasant as well as the complex’s historical significance as being among the first buildings erected on Mount Pleasant Street by a major developer. It was built in 1908 during a boom sparked by the arrival of the streetcar five years earlier, according to the nonprofit Historic Mount Pleasant.

The residents closed on the tax credits and other financing in July 2013 and held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony at which they renamed the building after the Salvadoran human rights leader Óscar Romero. They cut the old sign down with a flimsy saw purchased from the Dollar Star two doors down.

“Had we been willing to do a market-rate or mixed-use building, it probably would have been done three years ago,” Graham said. “But I’m glad we stuck with it because affordable housing is precious everywhere, but particularly so in Mount Pleasant.”

Work on the building is 20 percent complete, with construction workers pouring the foundation for its north tower and completing the rebuilding of its south tower.

Richardson, with help from Romero-Latin and the tenants association’s vice president, Jose Turcios, has been trying to ensure that the new building accommodates the needs of returning residents — for example, placing elderly residents on the ground floor and next door to friends who often act as caretakers.

In a remarkable feat, 40 to 45 of the 63 new units are expected to be occupied by returning residents, who will pay rents equivalent to 30 percent of their income, when the Monsenor Romero Apartments open in October. The remaining units will be available to applicants who earn 60 percent of the area median income — from $1,070 for an efficiency to $1,565 for a three-bedroom apartment.

Hernandez, 33, is looking forward to permanently reuniting with the tight-knit community. “It will be good for us because we will finally feel like we are in our own, true home,” he said.

Romero-Latin, who in the years since the fire has gotten married, received her GED and become an ANC commissioner, is overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

“It will be the absolute best day when we move in,” she said recently, her eyes lighting up. “We should have firecrackers to celebrate.”

A second later, she reconsidered. “Actually, maybe no firecrackers.”

Rachel Sadon is the local news editor for Express
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local