WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is your landlord?
No locks on front and back exterior apartment house doors.
Vacant apartments used by loiterers and drinkers.
Air conditioners that haven't worked for up to five years.
Blocks and blocks of window-shattered vacant buildings that have been vacant so long that vines are growing inside on the top floors.
A shopping center that looks like it has been bombed. Only two small stores are there but the people need them and are fighting -- and losing -- in their bid to keep them open.
A beautiful swimming pool that is the only recreation for kids in the area. It is permanently shut.
Piles and piles of garbage on your project's perimeter.
This is what you can expect if you live in the 396-unit Congress Park apartments in far Southeast Washington. The 22-year-old complex that contains town houses, apartments and a shopping center currently is home for many moderate-income families.
HUD became their landlord in a foreclosure action and started trying to sell Congress Park in late 1976, striking fear in the hearts of the tenants as to what might happen to the project. This was about the time far Southeast was enjoying a revival in single-family home ownership after almost 30 years as a dumping ground for apartments built for low- and moderate-income families by both the government and private developers.
A sale finally was arranged to a three-member group made up of the National Housing Partnership, Anacostia Economic Development Corp. and the NAACP Housing Corp. But an unfunny thing happened on the way to the bank. The prospective purchasers fell victim to the economy. Financing to build or renovate rental housing came to a standstill, and government-guaranteed financing dried up.
If the group eventually was financing, it still has plans to rehabilitate many of the apartments in the project and has prepared an elaborate plan to relocate the tenants while the construction is proceding. But Congress Park in the meantime has grown increasingly unhabitable.
The tenants are caught in the middle. They are trapped between the intricate red tape and their lack of education, between the good intentions of the new partnership and their suspicisions that if the homes are rehabilitated they will be priced out; between broke promises and weariness in fighting the promisers.
The partnership plans to renovate the project and charge most renters only 25 percent of their income, but because of the long history of broken promises of affordable housing, there is a widespread fear that renovation means removal.
The final decision on the sale has been put off at least until this fall, when government-guaranteed financing at 7 1/2 percent may be available again. HUD has announced recent cutbacks and it is unclear what effect, if any, this will have on Congress Park or any other Washington area projects.
Meanwhile, the tenants, who have been dangling nervously on the string for four years, are still having their emotions jerked around while they suffer from a real lack of security for their lives and property.
Gloria Dugar and her family have a comfortable four-bedroom apartment at a rent of $198 a month. "That's why you would hate to lose it," she said last week. "You can't beat it. I don't mind if the rent goes up. Where can you get that much space?"
Leaving Dugar's apartment on a recent tour of the complex located between Alabama Avenue, Mississippi Avenue and Wheeler Road SE, I saw that the erosion of Dugar's front yard had made the sidewalk a mini-mudslide. I saw firsthand the doors without locks -- some opening onto a major artery, Alabama Avenue; I saw the blocks of abandoned, boarded-up buildings without windows; I talked to the owner of one of the two business in the near-abandoned shopping center.
For several months, the members of the Congress Park Civic Association tried to get a respresentative of HUD to take that tour. Finally, on May 7, HUD's S. Daniel Raley came out to talk about the tenant's concerns over such health and safety considerations as security, air condititioning and sanitation. Some of those who attended the meeting said Raley told them that budget-pinched HUD found it more cost effective to pay the cost of vandalism than to provide security, that HUD was obliged to protect the physical property, not the tenants, notwithstanding increased crime; that swimming pool repair cost too much and that the stores were being closed because of the loiterers.
"I was appalled," said Rich Fowler of the Southeast Vicariate Cluster, "at the coldness and callousness of Mr. Raley's responses."
HUD agreed to replace the locks and investigate the problems. But when I toured earlier this week, nothing had changed. In other words, even though the sale of the property is uncertain, HUD is doing little to maintain or repair what is already there.
Raley as out of town when I called to see what he had been able to do to respond to the people's hopes for a better life through such basic requests as locks on the doors, open stores and a pool to cool off their kids during the summer.
Is it asking too much for government not to be a slumlord?