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Last Ineligible Tenants to Leave Fairfax Complex

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The last of about 40 families deemed too wealthy to live in Fairfax County's largest affordable-housing complex were threatened with eviction last week and are now poised to move out, county officials said yesterday.

County officials told the residents that they had until Friday to vacate their units at Wedgewood West, Wedgewood East and Wedgewood Manor, a cluster of brick apartments and townhouses in Annandale. The county also asked some of the residents to move out because of criminal records or immigration status.

Of the families that received letters a month ago warning of imminent eviction proceedings, two that are ineligible because of their wealth remain, county officials said.

One of the holdouts is Donna Cogswell, 45, who has lived at Wedgewood since 2002. She said that her four-member household has an annual income of about $95,000, which is under the limit, but that its assets probably make it ineligible. After Cogswell failed to respond to the county's requests for details about her finances, an eviction warning appeared on her door.

Most of Cogswell's belongings are boxed up, and she said she plans to leave as soon as a house she bought in a foreclosure sale is ready. She said she has enjoyed living at Wedgewood but now can't leave soon enough.

Since purchasing the property last year, the county has been insensitive to the needs of residents there, Cogswell said yesterday. The management company taped frightening notices containing the word "eviction" to the door, asked for stacks of paperwork and kicked out residents who have lived there for decades, she said.

"I was pretty adamant that I didn't want to live in Fairfax County after what was happening here at Wedgewood. It's sickening," Cogswell said.

Paula Sampson, the county's director of housing and community development, said the county has been responsive to tenants. County officials have been auditing residents since early this year, requesting pay stubs and other paperwork to prove that they were eligible to live there. Those who were not, or who failed to produce documents, received 120-day notices to vacate their apartments and a reminder a month ago. Those who complied were offered moving expenses.

The moves were necessary to fulfill Fairfax's goal of preserving affordable housing in one of the nation's costliest communities, she said. The median income is $105,000 a year, the second-highest in the nation last year, according to the Census Bureau. County figures show the average two-bedroom apartment rented for $1,244 a month in 2006.

"We really think it's a reflection of the Board of Supervisors' decision to preserve affordable housing in Fairfax County," Sampson said.

The county bought the 672-unit, $107.5 million complex as part of an effort to preserve hundreds of low-rent apartments and townhouses that might otherwise be razed by a developer. The purchase was financed with the help of a county initiative that sets aside for affordable housing one penny of every dollar taken in by the real estate tax.

The county set aside about 80 percent of the units at Wedgewood for those making less than about $60,000 a year for a family of four. The rest are for households that make less than $80,000. Existing tenants who make as much as $99,000 are permitted to stay.

County officials said the vast majority of Wedgewood's tenants fell within county income guidelines -- more, in fact, than they expected when they bought the property.

Ummul Hassan, 32, a nursing home aide, moved to the complex two weeks ago with her 6-year-old son. She said she was spending about $1,600 a month on a two-bedroom apartment in Falls Church; her Wedgewood apartment is $1,200 a month, she said.

"It's pretty nice, and it's a lot cheaper," she said.

But in making room for the eligible residents, the county had to force out some longtime residents who might struggle to find affordable rents elsewhere. Even among those whose incomes are within the limits, the evictions have created anxiety.

Mari Comer, 52, an executive assistant who works in Tysons Corner, has lived at Wedgewood for about 30 years. Her salary is well below the income limit of $70,000 for an existing individual tenant. But now she's worried, she said.

"They have scared me to death because of this income thing," she said. "I was thinking very seriously about asking my boss not to give me a raise. You really can't make anything extra."

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