Given a Choice, Desperate Tenants Take a Chance

Diane Hunter is head of the Temple Courts tenant association. The District plans to buy the struggling low-income housing complex and build a mixed-income community, to which its residents could return. Story, B4.
Diane Hunter is head of the Temple Courts tenant association. The District plans to buy the struggling low-income housing complex and build a mixed-income community, to which its residents could return. Story, B4. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Taneka Wright didn't hear the gunfire that hit three people outside her apartment building one night last week because she has given up on the place and hasn't been home in weeks.

She's taken her 5-month-old baby and her two older children and is moving around to stay with parents and friends, not because of the shootings or the drug dealing or the trash or the screaming people in the hallways but because of the chronically broken-down elevators and the rat droppings in the baby's bed.

"I live on the 10th floor, and I just couldn't keep hauling the baby and her things up all those steps," Wright says. "And I ain't going to let my baby sleep with rats, no way."

So Wright is out of Temple Courts, out of a place that the federal government spent years trying to shut down, that the owner wanted to tear down and replace with fancy condos, and that most of the 211 tenants want desperately to escape.

Temple Courts, 10 blocks north of the U.S. Capitol, is next door to the notorious Sursum Corda housing project, part of a cluster of properties that developers saw as the next chapter in the District's gentrification story but that the city is intent on saving as affordable housing.

In the next week or two, the D.C. government will pay Bush Construction, owner of Temple Courts, $22.5 million for the high-rise and townhouses, where conditions were so bad last year that the District's inspectors needed 60 pages to list the housing code violations.

Then the city will start preparing to demolish its purchase. The tenants, low-income families living on federal assistance, will get vouchers for apartments elsewhere or top priority for openings in D.C. public housing. And the city will bring in a private developer to build another of the mixed-income communities that are former mayor Anthony Williams's greatest legacy: 750 units divided equally among market-rate, workforce housing aimed at nurses, police, teachers and the like, and fully subsidized housing for Temple Courts' current residents.

It took a new mayor to make this happen. When Adrian Fenty met with tenants a few weeks ago, he surprised the crowd of angry voices and frustrated faces -- as well as his own staff -- by giving the tenants a choice. They could stay put in their roach- , rat- and bedbug-infested building while the city hired a contractor to try to fix the problems around them. Or they could move out for a year while the building was rehabbed. Or they could leave for three or four years while Temple Courts was reduced to rubble and replaced by a mixed-income community where current residents would have a guaranteed place.

Fenty said to the crowd: You've been told all your life what government is going to do to you. This time, whatever you choose, right here, right now, the District will do.

The mayor's aides had contemplated no such choice, but Fenty decided that only by giving residents the power to select their future could he win their trust and cooperation.

"Everybody was silent as he explained the options, and I thought, 'Oh gosh, they'll stay with the devil they know,' " recalls D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (Ward 6), who represents the Temple Courts area. "But they came back and said, 'We want out of here.' Maybe Adrian knew they'd make the right decision, but it was a gutsy move."

The overwhelming majority in the room said Temple Courts was unsalvageable. They would take the vouchers and count on coming back to something entirely new and different. The bureaucrats exhaled in relief.

But Wells remains outraged that the owner of the complex gets to make a profit after it permitted the buildings to deteriorate so badly. "They should not be able to get away scot-free from what they've done to these folks," Wells says. "It's just unconscionable that the city has to go in there and fix up that property because Bush won't take care of it."

Bush's regional manager, Andrew Viola, says his company did all it could to keep Temple Courts in decent shape. "We're not slumlords," he says, noting that his company fixed violations cited by city inspectors. Yes, there are roaches, but "there's a reason they've been around since prehistoric times." Yes, there are rats, but "there are issues with that all over D.C. All I know is, I'm glad I'm out here in Virginia."

Viola is glad to be getting out of Temple Courts. He agrees that mixed-income communities are the right thing to build but says his company didn't see evidence that the District was willing to provide a sufficient subsidy to make such a project feasible.

David Jannarone, director of development in the deputy mayor's office, says the city will put somewhere between $30 million and $100 million of subsidies into the mixed-income project and expects to seek a developer this summer.

And then, when Temple Courts is emptied out, a couple of hundred more families will search for a place to live in an ever-more-expensive city. It's a risk Taneka Wright is eager to take, because of the promise of a better place and because "this building needs to come down. It's New Jack City in there, and I will not have rat droppings in my baby's crib."

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