A group of 40 Cambodian classical dancers, who resettled in Wheaton three years ago from a refugee camp on the Thai border, are once again faced with the prospect of becoming refugees, this time in their adopted homeland. Their apartment building is about to be converted to a condominium and the struggling dance troupe has no place to go.
"You can see the hardships they face trying to maintain the culture, their jobs, and now trying to maintain their housing," said La Presse Sfeng, a native Cambodian who acts as translator, spokesman and adviser for the troupe.
The dancers are among the tenants in 250 units who will lose their homes if the Blue Ridge Manor Apartments are converted.
The mostly elderly and low-income tenants represent more than 24 nationalities, including Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese, according to a social worker's informal survey.
For the dancers, most of whom are students while others hold menial jobs in convenience stores and hotels, word of their impending eviction is the latest chapter in a story of flight and tragedy that began with the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and continued through early this year, when two members of the dance troupe were killed in an automobile accident.
The dancers and their families live cramped in several of the complex's garden apartments, sharing the rent and the food and remaining fearful of violating the rental code on overcrowding, Sfeng said.
Many receive public assistance funds, others have taken classes in auto mechanics but cannot find work, and most of them still are struggling to learn English. In the evenings, the troupe--part of the Khmer Classical Art Association--practices, with the goal of keeping alive the 1,200-year-old tradition of Khmer dance.
"They're just trying to make ends meet," Sfeng said. "They try to stay together so they can survive."
In many ways, the trials of this well-known dance troupe are indicative of the problems facing many anonymous immigrants who resettled here not knowing much English and without marketable job skills, in one of the country's most expensive housing markets, where low-income apartments are in short supply.
The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs is seeking a permanent injunction to block the conversion. A county circuit court judge has granted a temporary injunction blocking any further moves toward the conversion.
A similar temporary injunction was granted in March but was lifted after a hearing.
In seeking this latest injunction, the consumer office contends that the owner, Richard Schlesinger, whose Balbec Corp. is based in New York, violated county and state requirements that landlords must give tenants the right to buy their units before converting them to condominiums.
Schlesinger initially offered the tenants the building at a price that would come out to about $57,000 per unit, with no renovations, according to Joe Giloley of the county consumer office. The tenants, scared away by the price, never organized into an official tenants group to try to meet the offer, he said.
The same units are now being renovated and offered for sale for as low as $48,000, Giloley said.
Joyce Stern, the assistant county attorney who is handling the case for the consumer office, said in the request for an injunction that Schlesinger's initial offer was not made in good faith, but instead was a "fabricated" offer at an exceptionally high price.
Schlesinger's lawyers have said the company has complied with the law in notifying tenants of the change to condominiums.
Schlesinger initially notified tenants that he planned to turn the units into cooperatives, but last fall he decided to convert to condominiums.
In a cooperative, there is one mortgage for the entire building and tenants pay proportionately to that mortgage and own shares in the building. In a condominium, each unit is individually owned and carries a separate mortgage.
Under Maryland law, tenants can be evicted if their units are converted to cooperatives, following proper notification. But if the units are converted to condominiums, elderly and handicapped tenants are eligible for life tenancy, and low-income tenants--such as many of the Blue Ridge Manor residents--qualify for lease extensions beyond the eviction date.
The building managers have offered to let the Cambodians relocate to another part of the building while their apartments are renovated and sold.
Sfeng said the dance troupe members are suspicious of the offer. "We don't know what kind of trick that is," he said.
Tenants in 66 units at Blue Ridge were told to vacate immediately after getting the first letter about conversion, to make way for the first phase of the conversion. Almost all of them now have moved, and the managers were in the process of renovating those units when the temporary injunction was issued April 22.
The injunction also prohibits sending any more tenants notices to vacate immediately, although everyone in the building has been served a notice that their units will eventually be converted.
Many of those 66 tenants who were asked to leave went to the Wheaton Social Service Center for help. Center director Meg Riesett said she tried to explain to the tenants, many of whom were foreign, their legal rights. Riesett said it was difficult "because they come from countries where government is not as trustworthy as here."
She said she has tried to target those tenants who would be eligible, because of their income, to have their leases extended under the law and to let those tenants know that they give up their legal right to an extended lease once they move.
"There are a lot of hardship stories," she said.