The tenants of Chevy Chase Park apartments in Bethesda think they know how it feels to be the last man wounded in a war.
Their story is like many that have been told since the early rash of condominium conversions in Montgomery County grew to epidemic proportions -- but the people of Chevy Chase Park are different. They are the last of the renters who never had a chance to decide whether they wanted to buy the building themselves.
Denied what has since become a basic tenants' right in Montgomery County, they have until July 16 to buy apartments they say they can no longer afford, or to find someplace else to live.
"We've been zapped," says one tenant.
Of approximately 1,000 apartments qualified for conversion since a moratorium was lifted last fall, nearly all are being developed by the original owners, and only those at Chevy Chase Park are for sale, said Joe Douglas in the county's Office of Consumer Affairs.
Another 900 units at Parkside Apartments in Bethesda may go condo. The tenants there, however, unlike those of Chevy Chase Park, were given the right of first refusal under the county's new law and are attempting to purchase the building themselves.
Chevy Chase Park, in an area of big, old shade trees near Little Falls Parkway, is a red brick building with Georgian accents. It was built shortly after World War II. The apartments were relatively inexpensive, although, say some of the residents who have been there 15 years or more, one did not always get prompt service when the roof leaked.
The building is convenient to several supermarkets; a good deli and a health food store are a short walk away, and the recreation center in back provides running room for joggers.
It was the kind of place somebody who made $16,000 a year could afford, and still have room in the kitchen to move both elbows.
The residents did not learn until last November, when they read about it in the newspapers, that the building had been sold.
Approximately nine months earlier, in February, County Council member Elizabeth Scull introduced a resolution that would have required owners to give tenants the first opportunity to buy the buildings in which they live. After public debate, the measure was defeated May 21. According to the county attorney's office, the Chevy Chase Park sales contract had been signed 10 days earlier, on May 11, 1979.
It was on May 11, says Assistant County Attorney Ralph Hall, that the Chevy Chase Park's original owner, Paul Knowllman, collected a $25,000 deposit on the $1.1 million sale from the Bethesda development firm, Landau and Burka Management Co.
"It wasn't that I was forced to sell or particularly wanted to sell," said Knowllman, a business officer in the dental practices department of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "I'd been getting several offers a year for the past five years and decided maybe it was a good time to get out . . . I never even thought about it (offering the sale to the tenants). It would be kind of hard to cope with, long distance."
Not until July did a measure similar to Schull's pass the council -- too late, apparently, for Chevy Chase Park residents.
Even then, however, title to the property had not changed hands. In the midst of a 120-day condo conversion moratorium declared by the council July 13, the contract on Chevy Chase Park was amended. The county attorney's office, in a letter dated Oct. 10, told the attorney for Landau and Burka that the county resolution giving tenants first right of refusal did not apply to contracts signed before July 26, the date the measure was passed.
Scheduled to expire in September, the contract was extended and the deal was settled in November, after the moratorium was lifted.
"If there's a villain in this, it really isn't Landau and Burka," said tenant association president Christopher May, a former CIA operations officer now working in a small printing company. "Landau and Burka are operating like good capitalists. But why isn't the county fighting this with us?"
"The county has looked at all the necessary agreements to decide whether the right of first refusal should have been given," said Hall. "We decided there's no legal obligation on the present owners to do so."
The people of Chevy Chase Park are bitter.
"I think people are wrong to buy condominiums," said Paul Iadarola, a University of Maryland student who lives in an apartment with this 5-year-old son. "I think the whole concept stinks. Because people buy condos, people make condos. And what for?"
Unlike many tenants who were forced to leave their apartments when buildings went condo, those at Chevy Chase Park say they could have afforded the building if it had been offered them at the original price. At $1.1 million, the units would have sold for approximately $30,000. Landau and Burka, however, will redecorate and are asking $65,000 and up -- out of the range of most people who live there.
"Our people could have bought, and would have bought," said May, "if they could have bought from Knowllman."
A few of the tenants, many of them single parents, others in their 70s and 80s, have already moved out of the 38-unit building. More than 20, however, remain in the tenants association, wondering whether to take a stand or throw in the lease. Their attorney, Patrick J. Clancy, would like to test in court the question of whether property changes hands when the sales contract is signed, or when the deed is recorded.
Clancy and the tenants agree, however, that they face superior forces.
"It would be like putting a local high school team against the Philadelphia 76ers," said Titus. "The smarts are all on the side of the developers and the builders. We're totally outgunned."
"What you've got," said Clancy, "is a 20-member tenants association. How much clout do they have? Even if the council came back and tried to remedy the situation by amending the law, it just wouldn't affect that many people."
"We should have played dirty from the beginning," said another tenant, who asked not to be named. "You can't be a nice guy in today's world."
Even if the group decided to go to court, said Clancy, it would face the possibility of a countersuit. And by the time they got their first hearing, the tenants would probably be living somewhere else.
Landau and Burka have already started accepting deposits on the empty apartments.