The registered letters arrived just before Christmas, and they bore tidings of gloom. The occupants of 95 low-rent apartment units in the Glover Park area of northwest Washington were notified by their new landlord to move out by April 1.
Later the tenants learned that the landlord, William Walde, planned to tear down the cluster of aging 10 three-story brick apartment buildings and replace them with town houses, to be offered for sale.
At first, the tenants were stunned, according to one of them, Norman Lederman. Soon a few got together and decided to mobilize against the eviction and the razing of one of the last remaining pockets of low-rent housing west of Rock Creek Park.
They formed the Beecher Low-Rise Tenants Association so named because the nameless apartments are located at 41st and Beecher Streets NW and began holding membership meetings.
They retained an attorney who had been instrumental in blocking the demolition of McLean Gardens, a larger moderate-rental apartment project off Wisconsin Avenue. Both projects date from the early 1940s.
The result of the Beecher Street mobilization is a classic confrontation between a developer hoping to make a profit from his investment and tenants both anxious to stay in their familiar surroundings and uncertain what accommodations they can afford if actually forced to move.
Even some of the tenants acknowledge that they probably will not find a housing bargain like the one they have - one-bedroom units renting, according to Walde's figures, from $139 to $155 a month, utilities included. Some tenants said they would not object to a rise in rents, but to a figure less than what Walde has proposed.
The low rents and the inability under the D.C. rent control law to get them raised as costs increased was what led Clarence W. Gosnell, Inc., a Virginia realty firm, to sell the property to Walde, a Gosnell official said.
The Gosnell firm built the project in 1940 and owned it until the sale to Walde last Dec. 1 for $1.2 million. Walde began preparing eviction notices for the tenants less than two weeks later.
Walde accepted an invitation to meet with his new tenants, and the dispute between him and the tenants has tanken an unusual turn as a result.
As alternatives to the town house project, Walde offered to renovate the project in return for rents starting at $255, or to sell the project to the tennants for $1.45 million if they form a cooperative assocaition to own and manage it.
Over last weekend, the tenants rejected the terms proposed by Walde for both alternatives. They told him in a letter that they are working on a counterproposal of their own. Among other things, they said Walde's rehabilitation plans are too ambitious and costly.
"We have made a firm commitment to remain in our homes until every legal and political recourse has been exhausted," their letter said. "We are equally committed to making every effort to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement . . ."
Esther Siegel, president of the tenant group, said the buildings are sturdy and need only minimal renovation. "To do away with 95 one-bedroom apartments of low- and moderate-income rental housing in the District would be disastrous," she said.
Walde, in a telephone interviews, said he and his wife and business partner, Gay, bought the apartments with the idea of replacing them with perhaps 60 town houses, all with offstreet parking. He scoffed at a rumor among tenants of a $200,000 price tag for the units, saying it was too early to talk of sales figure.
"I am in a squeeze here," he said. "Unlike Gosnell (the former owner), who had no mortgage on the property, I do have a mortgage. It already is costing more money than the rents are bringing in." He said the hardship provisions of the rent control law do not cover situations such as his.
"When I met with the tenants, I told them I was sympathetic with their cause," Walde continued, "but that I am not in the rent subsidy business . . . They should be thankful they had such a good deal for many years."
Walde, 38, who grew up in a neighborhood near Glover Park and now is an executive of an Arlington mortgage banking firm, disputed the tenants' contention that the project needs only minimal renovation.
If the property is going to be kept from turning into a slum, everything from the furnances to the kitchen fixtures and the wiring need replacing, he said.
Lederman, an audio engineer at a school for the deaf and the vice president of the tenant association, said he and his fellow tenants are satisfied with the kitchens substantially as they are."They're art deco," he said.
The tenants range from students and young married to retired people who have lived there for years, he said.
Among other things, they are turned in to the political establishment. They enlisted help from Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) in seeking financing for a cooperative association.
Several members of the D.C. City Council have promised support, including Polly Shackleton, whose third ward includes Glover Park. "I certainly hope that disruption of a well-established neighborhood and displacement of its residents can be prevented," she said in a letter to Walde.