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Catholic Archdiocese of Washington helps house seniors in Hyattsville

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This summer, Carolyn Williams walked around in her Hyattsville apartment in the dark with sweat dripping from her brow as temperatures soared into the triple digits.

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"I paid my rent and bought my food -- after that I didn't have much more," the 68-year-old said of her inability to pay her electric bill. When she called Prince George's County social services for help, she was asked to come down to complete an application. But numerous strokes prevented her from making the trip, she said.

These days, Williams says she won't have to worry about Pepco shutting off her service.

Williams is one of dozens of people who recently moved into Victory Crest, a new housing complex for very low-income seniors in Hyattsville.

The mid-rise, brick building is part of a decades-long effort by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to offer residential units to those who struggle to pay for rent and other life essentials.

Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the 60-unit complex, said it is the church's mission to help meet the desperate need for affordable housing in the Washington region.

"The goal is simply to offer the best housing for those in need," Wuerl said.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that Prince George's County needed 2,478 units of affordable housing for very low-income elderly residents. By 2005, the need had jumped to 3,555.

Meanwhile, only 446 units have been produced, according to HUD.

Victory Crest, a public-private venture that includes a library, an arts and crafts room and a multipurpose room, offers units for those who are 62 or older and have incomes of no more than $35,950 for one person or $41,100 for a two-person household.

John D. Spencer, senior vice president of Victory Housing, the nonprofit housing development arm of the Archdiocese of Washington, said many of the residents have incomes that are half of the maximum thresholds.

The rent is 30 percent of the household's adjusted income, and all of the apartments are currently occupied, according to Victory Housing officials. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Victory Housing normally keeps a waiting list for its apartments.

Wuerl said community, local, state and federal officials collaborated on the complex. HUD provided $7.1 million in capital grants for construction and for rental subsidies. The Prince George's County Department of Housing and Community Development gave $1.3 million in low-interest HUD loan funds.

A bouquet of silk flowers sits on a round table in the lobby, where comfortable chairs, plush carpeting and a massive aquarium greet residents.

"It's nice to be the first in a place," said Ethel Dickens, 86, who moved from another apartment complex to the senior facility. "I like it. . . . It's affordable."

Linda Ragin, 68, said she and her husband will save about $200 a month from what they paid at their last apartment. "It will help out a great deal," she said.

Williams finished eating her refreshments before taking a friend on a tour after the ceremony. She said it was her way of returning a favor. A friend told her about Victory Crest. It was only right that she do the same.

"It was word of mouth; I prayed and I did my homework," Williams said.

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