Juanita Griffin, bundled in a coat and sweater, pushed her possessions together on the grimy concrete floor in the living room of her home at the Gregory Estates apartments in Seat Pleasant. After she and her three children had lived for a week without running water or heat, she was preparing yesterday to move out.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," she said. "I guess I'll maybe go out and sit on the street. There's no place for me until the end of the month."
County officials said the apartment owners are trying to force Griffin and eight other families out of the complex by deliberately stopping utility payments instead of going through legal eviction proceedings. The owners, who are planning a massive federally aided renovation of Gregory Estates, blame the county.
The nine families have been told by the owners to get out of the project, which county officials call one of the worst slums in Prince George's County. But many of the families have not yet found other places to live.
In the meantime, they have been begging water from nearby homeowners and leaving the ovens on at night since the bicounty water authority cut off service Nov. 6 and left the apartments without water or heat.
County housing officials charged yesterday that the owners of the project, including former Housing and Urban Development assistant secretary H. R. Crawford, had created the predicament by failing to follow standard legal procedures for moving tenants out of the project.
Joseph P. Healy, a division chief in the county licenses and permits department, said the Bruche Realty Co. apparently halted utility payments as a way of forcing the remaining families out.
Healy said that the owners also failed to comply with a county order to restore the water and the heat.
Crawford, who now manages several housing projects in Prince George's County, said yesterday it was county officials who were really responsible for cutting off utilities to the apartments and that he and other project managers had worked for months to move tenants out in "a humane way."
"We haven't tossed anyone out in the street," Crawford said. "We haven't cut the water off. We've been more than fair. The owners have put up thousands, but there's no more money there. It was the county that cut the water off. We asked them not to do it."
Crawford conceded that he had not used standard eviction procedures to move out about 40 families who remained in the project at the end of October. But he said he thought the owners had been more than fair to the tenants by notifying them of the project's closing three months in advance and by not charging them rent for those three months.
"We have been doing everything possible to help these families find other places to live," he said.
Crawford contended that no more than three families were still living in the project yesterday. But county officials making daily rounds of the project said 17 families were there Tuesday, and nine remained yesterday.
"We should have never been in this position," said Healy, who condemned the seven buildings where families were still living Saturday, and is now making efforts to evict remaining tenants. "We wouldn't have to do this if the landlords had gotten them out through due process."
Crawford said that the owners of Gregory Estates have been working for months on a plan to renovate the complex, which is an old, federally subsidized project that has been part of a continuing controversy over substandard housing in Prince George's.
Crawford and county housing officials said yesterday that they were discussing a tentative plan under which 10 to 12 of the three-dozen buildings at Gregory Estates would be torn down, and the rest would be renovated -- at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 each -- with the help of federally insured loans.
Crawford said that the owners hoped to reopen Gregory Estates in 18 months to two years as "a viable development instead of what it is."
"You would think the owners would be willing to pay a little to keep the water on until these people could move out," said Healy. Crawford said the Gregory Estates owners owe between $4,000 and $5,000 in utility bills. $"I've been going across the street to get water and I go out in the woods to go to the bathroom," said Alphonzo Chapman, 64, who has lived with his sister at Gregory Estates for eight years and plans to move to another project in the county.
"Doesn't feel so good to leave, but we can't go on living this way here."