Prince George’s to condemn Temple Hills condo complex if water is shut off

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of District Court Judge John P. Morrissey. This version has been corrected.

February 20

The thick layer of ice outside the entrance to the Lynnhill Condominiums last week was indicative of the problems residents of the Temple Hills complex say they have had to put up with from management over the years.

Inside the two seven-floor buildings, the elevators are broken, some units have no hot water, the stairwell walls are filled with cracks and graffiti, and water leaks from the top-floor ceiling.

For years this community of about 200 units, just across the District line in Prince George’s County, has struggled with debt, fire code violations and poor maintenance. Now, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, citing outstanding bills, plans to shut off water to the complex early next month, and if that occurs the county will condemn the property.

“The property will be uninhabitable,” said Gary Cunningham, deputy director of the county’s department of permitting, inspections and enforcement. “We will give people 72 hours to make arrangements.”

Last week the county sent a letter to residents and owners warning them that once the WSSC shuts off the water, the county will be required to declare the buildings “unfit for human habitation and order all property owners and tenants to vacate immediately.”

The utility said the complex has a long history of unpaid water and sewer bills. Spokesman Jerry Irvine said the complex’s account reflects a $116,949.09 balance through the end of January, and that it failed to pay installments on a plan arranged in April. The monthly water and sewer bills for the property vary, but range from $9,000 to $18,000, he said.

“We really don’t want to shut anyone’s water off,” Irvine said. The utility was scheduled to shut off service to the complex this month, but working with the county delayed the action to give residents more time. The complex nearly lost water last year because it owed the WSSC more than $90,000, but management agreed to a payment plan.

A man who answered the phone at the complex’s management office Monday declined to comment. Several other phone calls to the property management office and its attorney, Sean Suhar of Michael S. Neall & Associates, were not returned. On Tuesday, a man at the management office in the complex declined to comment and asked a reporter and photographer to leave the property.

Worsening conditions

Built in 1967, the Lynnhill Condominiums at 3103 and 3107 Good Hope Avenue are home to about 500 people. The majority are low-income and working-class tenants renting from condo owners. Residents said they moved to the complex for the location, just a block from the Naylor Road Metro station, and easy access to Suitland Parkway. They are worried about where they will go should the building be condemned, but mostly, they say, they are frustrated with the slow response from management to address problems.

“We invested everything we had to have a home we can say is ours, and now we don’t know what will happen,” said Gladys Gomez, who with her husband Jose bought a two-bedroom fixer-upper unit nine years ago for $65,000 and spent an additional $6,000 to make it move-in ready.

The couple say conditions at the complex have worsened over the years while their monthly condo fee has jumped from $381 to $640.

“Will they give us a new apartment? Are we going to get our money back?” she said, noting that their mortgage has been paid off. “We are just trusting in God and hoping for the best.”

The Gomezes and other owners who bought before the recession and foreclosure crisis paid far more than what the condos are selling for now. A two-bedroom unit sold for $9,900 in 2013.

The complex is a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom condos, and recent assessments for individual units range from $56,000 for a one-bedroom to $96,000 for a two-bedroom.

Natasha Jones, 31, and her husband, John Steele, 37, rent a one-bedroom unit for $1,100 a month. They said they moved to Lynnhill about a year ago with their two children because of the easy access to public transit and the children’s school.

They said that management has told them not to worry, but the warning they received from the county last week has made them uneasy.

“What are we supposed to do? We are not going to stay here and hope that things will turn out fine,” Jones said.

Financial trouble

County officials say there are other pressing safety concerns at the buildings, including a sprinkler system that doesn’t work and fire exits that don’t meet code.

Signs of financial trouble and neglect at the complex date back to at least the early 1980s, when owners began to complain about condo fees increasing by 50 percent and becoming higher than their mortgages.

According to reports at the time, half the owners were several years in arrears on their condo fees which meant, management said, that it did not have money for maintenance and repairs. There were problems with leaking roofs, electrical system failures and increasing crime because of cutbacks in security.

County code violations date back to at least 1998. The property’s management has been fined about 30 times over the past decade and has an active court case for failure to address fire safety concerns. Fire inspections have led to numerous citations, including four fines of $5,000 in 2011 for reckless endangerment.

According to public records, the complex filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and has a history of unpaid bills from other service providers including Pepco, Washington Gas and trash haulers.

Some residents said they are so tired of the deteriorating conditions and increasing fees that they just want out, even if it means losing their investment.

“We all want to know what they are doing with the money. They are not paying the water bill. They are not getting the ice taken care of. There’s no working elevator,” tenant Michele Williams said one recent afternoon as she transported two cases of bottled water that she later had to drag up three flights of stairs to her apartment.

Cunningham said the county has given the complex’s management plenty of time to make repairs. The property was almost shut down in 2011, when the Prince George’s state’s attorney recommended it be condemned because of the poor conditions. In June 2012, the county’s housing department began removing all its Section 8 tenants from the property because of the situation.

County officials said that social service agencies will be available for residents who need help finding housing.

“When it gets to the point that we don’t feel comfortable and we feel that it is jeopardizing the safety of the residents, then we take it to court and ask the court to address it and determine what a reasonable time to fix these problems is, and that’s what we have here,” Cunningham said.

In November, District Court Judge John P. Morrissey ordered management to install fire doors, repair holes in the seventh-floor walls and ceilings and maintain fire extinguishers and the fire alarm system. At a hearing last week, the court gave management more time to correct outstanding fire and building code violations and set another hearing for April 15. The court, however, is not addressing the WSSC debt.

“It has been an ongoing situation . . . we are once again in a situation where the payments aren’t being made,” the WSSC’s Irvine said. “We can’t provide free service. . . . It comes to a point when, after more than two years of pretty much the same situation, we just needed to take action.”

Researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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