The wave of condominium conversions that has swept across the District, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County in the last few years, has spilled over into Prince George's County, striking the 606-unit Westchester Park apartment complex in College Park.
Unlike their counterparts in the other jurisdictions, the 1,500 residents of Westchester Park found that no county laws guaranteed their right to buy at a discount nor give the many senior citizens in the building the right to continue renting.
Under the state law, the owners need only give tenants 180 days notice before converting the building.
The tenants decided to fight the conversion anyway. About 300 angry residents attending a meeting last week decided to form a tenants' organization and to seek legal counsel.
"Tenants in other buildings in the Washington area have found recourse," said Frances Abelitis, a seven-year resident. "Anyway, if people can change the Constitution of the United States, why can't they change the laws of Prince George's County?"
Moving will not inflict economic hardship on many residents of the high-rent Westchester Park but others, particularly the elderly, say they cannot afford to buy their present apartments and fear they cannot find similar rental units for comparable prices.
The changeover of the two-tower high-rise is the largest on record to date in Prince George's, where there have been few condo conversions.
The Racquet Club Towers in Adelphi is the only other high-rise condominium in Prince George's, according to county housing authority officials. It has 199 units and was converted from a rental building nearly three years ago.
"I'm shocked," said Audrey Manila, who sold her house 10 years ago and moved into the luxurious Westchester Park Apartments, a haven for upper-income apartment dwellers in Prince George's County. Rents range from $400 to $600 per month.
"It's ruined my Christmas and I know that it's been bad on just about everybody in the building. It just makes me sick to have to leave," said Manila.
Manila and the other tenants received notices in the mail about two weeks ago that their building would go condominium next May and they would have until Feb. 15 to buy their units at a discount.
While some of the residents say they will take advantage of the offer, many others, especially senior citizens, have said that they will have to find new homes.
"It's going to be almost impossible to find housing as nice as this in Prince George's County," said Elizabeth Steeley, an elderly resident who moved into the 18-story building when it first opened 11 years ago.
"Prince George's County has really let its senior citizens down," said Steeley. "No one would have imagined that there were no laws protecting us in situations like this. I can't afford the mortgage and the condominium fee they'll be asking for, and I don't know many other senior citizens in this building who could."
Spokemen for Westchester Park Associates, owners of the apartments, say that they will offer discounts on the units to the present tenants although no definite figures have been agreed on yet.
"We haven't had a chance to talk in final terms about what we plan to offer senior citizens," said G. V. Brenneman, a consultant to Westchester Park Associates and president of Brenneman Associates Inc., co-op and condo management specialists. "We will look at the problems on a case-by-case basis and react with sensitivity."
Last week, the 300 angry tenants packed the lobby of one of the high-rise towers to seek common ground from which to deal with management. Brenneman and the project manager spoke at the meeting while the sometimes hostile and often confused crowd asked questions.
"Don't you think this meeting is premature?" a woman sitting on the floor near the front of the crowd shouted at the two representatives. "It doesn't seem to me that you know too much."
Jim Herl, an aide to County Council member Frank Casual, who represents the district where the apartments are located, said Casula plans to introduce legislation in the next council session that would allow citizens and the handicapped to rent for an additional year after the 180-day limit ends.
According to Herl, Montgomery County has a law similar to the one that Casula plans to introduce.
"We'll be monitoring the present situation as it develops. If additional protection is needed, we may do more," Herl added.
But not everyone in Westchester Park apartments viewed the conversion as a disaster.
"I don't have enough information yet, but I'm strongly inclined to buy," said Jerry Moore. "Of course, I had planned to invest my money in something else, but I think buying my apartment would probably be smarter."
"I expected it at some point down the line," said Al Harper, who has lived at the Westchester for five years. "I don't think people should get upset too quickly. We may be able to get a pretty good deal out of this thing yet." t
However, Ilse Harper, Al's wife, added, "Whenever I live in a place for four weeks, I grow roots. There are probably a lot of people who do the same, especially the senior citizens. They'll be the ones who feel the real hardship."