The lottery that Montgomery County housing officials quickly planned when 612 people applied to purchase 12 low-priced Bethesda townhouses seemed to have been an unqualified success. Twelve houses, 12 winners and everybody had their chance.
But, several weeks later, it seems, there's been a hitch. Some of the winners won't get their houses after all.
Four of the houses have "disappeared," gabbed off by a second county housing agency with its own clientele of moderate-income people. And while all the officials concerned have expressed their regrets, some of the "winners" are now, for the moment, "losers."
The 12 homes became available under a Montgomery County law which orders builders of developments of 50 or more units to set aside 15 percent of the units as moderately priced dwelling units. Located in the new Bethesda Court development on Westlake Drive near Montgomery Mall, the 12 townhouses were obtained by the county Office of Housing for pricing and distribution.
But, it turned out, under the same law the Housing Opportunities Commission, which oversees public housing and subsidy programs in the county, can take up to a third of those units. And after the lottery was over, they did.
"We're charged with serving the lowest-income people," said commission head Bernie Tetrault, "people who wouldn't get these houses through the moderately priced dwelling unit program. Many people have been on our waiting list four, five, six years."
The commission has taken a portion of every group of moderately priced units offered over the past four years. "All the previous offerings never attracted so much interest," Tetrault said.
The commission legally has 90 days after the time the moderately priced units are first offered to decided whether or not to take them.Their decision, coming after the lottery, upset not only the housing office but also the two people who were promptly bumped off the list of people picked through the lottery for chances to buy $26,135 one-bedroom houses and $35,490 three-bedroom houses. (Two of the 12 winners had withdrawn already for personal reason.)
One of the people who lost his chance was 25-year-old Johann Englehart, a former Radio Shack salesman in the county, who filed suit against the county. "I was told in the beginning there were 12 units available," said Englehart. "When I was picked as a winner and then a week later I was told some of the houses were being taken back, I decided I wanted to sue. They should have taken their units before the lottery."
Tetrault disgreed. "We could have been more sensitive and acted sonner," he said. "But that's not an apology. It should have been assumed we would have exercised our option."
Eugene Sieminski, director of the Office of Housing and initiator of the lottery, commented reflectively, "He's right. We should have taken four houses off before the lottery. Then if the Housing Opportunities Commission didn't take their units, we could have given chances to purchase those four to the lottery runner-ups."
Sieminski, upset by what happened, called the two people who lost their chances to apologize, and says he will see if the unlucky two could possibly be given some priority when the next offering of moderately priced houses arises.
But the lottery method has proven effective, so far as Sieminski is concerned. "We'll have a lottery again when we get the next houses," he said. In particular, the lack of problems with financing has come as a surprise of Sieminski.
"It's unbelieveble," he said. "I thought we'd lose about half of the people (who won chances), figuring their median income was $13,500 and they were going for three-bedroom houses." All the winners met the income standards set by the Office of Housing guidelines, but some were barely adequate for financing loans, Sieminski thought.
However, four of the eight winners of the lottery have gone through the application process successfully. The others are still in the process.
"They had enough income or enough of a financial statement to qualify," said C.T. Nottingham, loan originator for Capital City Savings and Loan in Washington which is handling loans for the prospective buyers. "They're young people - no one, as I recall was over 35 - they have good credit and good jobs. These people were not by any stretch low-income. They were not quote 'poor'."
Since the lottery, Sieminski has received numerous phone calls from people who allege that the winners of the lottery were far from poor, in fact.
"What's interesting is how people find out about each other. People call up and say, 'I know so and so and he has a girlfriend he's living with.' But how would you feel if someone else beats you in the lottery for a house for people with moderate incomes and then he moves in with a girlfriend and his (household) income doubles?"