The Shirley-Duke and Regina apartments, which housed more than 1,200 families before closing last year, are as empty and bleak as a ghost town.
There is no record of where the tenants have gone. But several families who moved to housing in the Alexandria area and could be traced, related similiar stories about their problems in trying to find new places to live at a cost they could afford. The median income of the families living at Shirley Duke-Regina was $7,354 and a large percentage of the families received public assistance.
The Shirley Duke-Regina apartments represented nearly 30 percent of low-cost housing in Alexandria.
Jerry Johnson, director of the Alexandria Citizen's Assistance Office, said about 50 percent of the residents had to move out of the city to find low-cost housing.
"We just don't have a large percentage of low-income housing in Alexandria," he said. "Within the resources we had we tried to assist those low-income people in finding new places."
Johnson and other city officials said the low-cost housing market was particularly tight for former Shirley-Duke residents because many apartments in Alexandria were being converted to condominimuns and new construction was mostly for those in the middle- and upper-income brackets.
For some who were evicted, leaving Shirley-Duke was a bitter experience. They discovered their belongings stolen, after the former management set their clothes and funiture on sidewalks and bolted the tenants' doors because they were behind in rent.
In other cases, former residents say that when they tried to move to new apartments, the mention of their previous residence at Shirley-Duke caused raised eyebrows from prospective landlords, who would then refuse to consider them as tenants.
When they did find housing and their mail caught up with them, some tenants received notices from the Shirley-Duke management company threatening court action if they did not repay hundreds of dollars in back rent.
The new owners of Shirley-Duke plan to convert the apartments into a middle-class development with seven swimming pools and seven tennis courts. The new owners, Morton Sarubin and Brian Gordon, plan to renovate the old two-story apartments by adding balconies and converting two-bedroom apartments to one-bedroom units, and one-bedrooms to efficiencies. The work will begin as soon as they receive approval for a federally insured, low-interest loan of $54.4 million.
Meanwhile, some former tenants say they cannot afford to live in their new apartments and homes because monthly rent payments are eating up their welfare checks.
A 28-year-old welfare mother with six children, who lives in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, said she already is behind in rent payments for her three-bedroom house and is borrowing money from friends to meet the monthly payments. The woman asked not to be identified because she had not told her landlord where she had lived before or how many children she had.
Her case is "particularly sad case," according to Jane E. Byerly of the Alexandria Landlord and Tenant Commission, who explained that the woman had been notified only a day after she signed her rental contract for the Del Ray home that she had been granted a federal rent subsidy. However, Byerly said, because the woman had signed the lease, she was no longer eligible for the subsidy program.
"I'm trying to find a cheaper place," the mother said, "but they don't take people with children and I can't afford to live in the places where they do take them."
As she talked, her children huddled around the worn sofa in the cramped living room. The mother complained of rats and roaches in the house and said she was certain she was "no better off than when I was at Shirley-Duke."
She said she did not pay her last month's rent at Shirley-Duke after she was notified she would have to leave. She said the Landlord-Tenant Commission helped her find the Del Ray home after she spent three months unsuccessfully looking for a place she could afford.
"I used the last month's rent check at Shirley-Duke as a security deposit and I moved into the Del Ray home with my six kids," she said. She also said she had received a notice from the former management company of Shirley-Duke threatening to take her to court to force her to pay the back rent.
"With the $421 that I get from social services, how can I move into another place? The rent for three- and four-bedroom apartments is between $400 and $500 . . . my income isn't that much." The welfare mother says she is currently paying $235 in rent.
Another former Shirley-Duke resident, 24-year-old Evelyn Thompson, who now lives in Harbor Terrace, said she still is not happy, although she moved out of Shirley-Duke before most tenants. "I'm still trying to move because Harbor Terrace seems too much like Shirley-Duke . . . Too many people have moved here from Shirley-Duke and I was trying to get away from those people."
For 16-year-old Lisa Chatman and her family, things did not work out so well. She said the management set her family's belongings on the sidewalk.
"It was terrible. They were setting people out all over Shirley-Duke.
"They warned us that we were behind in rent, and then they just put my mother's funiture and all our clothes and appliances out in the street. We got half the clothes before people came around and stole everything else."
Chatman said she and her family had to move in with her aunt for three months before they found an apartment in Del Ray.
Her sister, Debbie Jackson, who said she now lives in an apartment near Old Town Alexandria and lived at Shirley-Duke for two years, explained: "I done forgot, Shirley-Duke." She and her sister were reluctant at first to even admit they had onced lived at the apartment complex.
Patricia Lucas, a 39-year-old former Shirley-Duke resident who lived there for nearly two years, said it took her three months to find a place.
"Me and my husband searched everywhere. We looked a long time. There just weren't that many places we could afford.
Two former Shirley-Duke mothers, who each have two children, discovered the only way they could afford to live in a small, three-bedroom house near downtown Alexandria, was to move in together and pool their welfare checks.
When Lucas and her husband finally found their $200-a-month apartment at Harbor Terrace, she said she didn't see that much difference in the apartments, although the rent was higher.
The only problem with that, according to one of the mothers, who is in her early 30s, is that "I'm stuck here."
She said she cannot afford day care for her children and feels she could not move out of the house even if she finds a job, since her friend could not afford the rent alone.
"I just don't know what to do. I have looked for jobs, but if I find one I don't know what it will mean."
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Shirley-Duke and Regina apartments were home to middle-class families. Beginning in the 1970s they were gradually replaced by lower-income minority families, according to a federal environmental impact report on the project.
In 1975, the crime rate at the two complexes was the highest in Alexandria. The problem of crime was exacerbated by a policy at the Regina apartments that permitted transient tenants. The Regina apartment closed in 1977 and many of the tenants moved into Shirley-Duke, city officials said.
Vola Lawson, coordinator for the Alexandria Community Block Grant program, said the city spent about $60,000 to aid former Shirley-Duke tenants in finding new places to live.
Not all the people who moved out of Shirley-Duke ended up in worse situations, according to Byerly, the coordinator of the Landlord-Tenant Commission. Byerly said she knew of one instance where a woman moved to Herndon, found a better apartment and has been able to get help from the school system in training her disabled child.