The housing inspector posted an orange notice outside the two-story, brick Kennedy Woods garden apartment in Seat Pleasant yesterday. Then he stepped inside, walked up a few stairs and began knocking on doors.
"Hi, my name is Inspector Pullman, I'm from Prince George's County housing. This project is being closed down."
The woman standing by the door, wearing curlers and a bathrobe, stared at the housing inspector. She had one question.
"Does that mean," she asked, "that I have to move?"
The housing inspector said yes -- by July 31 -- and Catherine Carroll walked outside to share the bad news with her neighbors.
For more than a year, the 200 or so tenants of Kennedy Woods have known their complex was full of housing code violations. But when the housing inspector finally made his rounds yesterday with the news, most of the residents were not prepared to hear they had to move.
County officials say they decided to post the "Unfit for Human Habitation" notices because the complex's owner, John Watson, did not correct the numerous housing code violations despite repeated warnings and visits from housing inspectors.
The officials say they chose yesterday to notify tenants of the 80-unit complex because "kids are out of school now so we figured this would be a better time for the people to move," according to Joseph Healy of the Department of Licenses and Permits, which conducts building inspections.
Kennedy Woods is the worst of about 30 garden apartment complexes in the county that have chronic housing code violations. Most of the 650 garden complexes in the county were built in the 1960s, but despite their relatively recent construction many have fallen into disrepair.
The Kennedy Woods is the fifth complex in the county declared condemned during the past several years. During the last year, county officials have stopped new tenants from moving into 21 of the garden apartment comlexes because of housing code violations.
As a result of these closings, the tenants displaced from Kennedy Woods -- and from other garden apartments with housing code violations -- may have trouble finding new homes.
"We're getting rid of housing for the poor," complained James O'Sullivan, chairman of the county's Landlord Tenant Commission. "The social problems that evolve from this are tremendous. Families are going to have to double up. We're creating more ghettos and ghetto problems."
The problems were not missed by the residents of the Kennedy Woods apartments. Although the housing inspectors handed them lists of other apartments where they might move, many of the residents, particularly those who are unemployed, are worried about finding new places to live.
"How," asked Terry Scott, 23, "do they expect me to find an apartment in a month's time?
Scott, who shares her apartment with her 6-year-old daughter, moved to Kennedy Woods two years ago after the apartment complex she had lived in, Gregory Estates, also in Seat Pleasant, was condemned.
During her stay at Kennedy Woods, she listened to rats gnaw at her walls at night , and she watched mice pop out from behind her stove. The outside door of her building had been torn off, and there were no panes in the building's windows. The grass outside was sometimes as high as her knees.
But it was home.
"I don't want to move, said Scott. "You know how you're used to being somewhere and all of a sudden, bam, you gotta get up and go again."
When Kennedy Woods opened in 1969, the tenants were middle-income families, many of them government workers and teachers. But as the buildings became older, the middle class moved to other apartments or their own homes. Currently about a quarter of the tenants receive rent subsidies and about 12 other families are on the waiting list.
The current owner, Watson, has owned the apartments for about a year, according to county officials, and has applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a guarantee on a $1 million loan to rehabilitate the buildings.
County officials say Watson owes more than $100,000 in back taxes on the complex. Watson could not be reached for comment yesterday.