The last of the tenants at the Salisbury Heights Apartments in Oxon Hill moved out yesterday, two years after Prince George's County inspectors said the 771-unit complex was unfit for people to inhabit.
The tenants straggled out from the silent rows of boarded apartments lining the hillsides of Deale Drive and Audrey Lane, weaving their way through muddy courtyards strewn with a month of unmoved garbage.
At 5103 Deale Dr., Charles Marsh had finished packing a small rental truck with the last of his family's belongings. Like the 90 families still living in the complex at the beginning of May, he was given only four weeks' notice to be out by today and told that his security deposit would not be returned. He is still angry.
He said he had spent $125 on application fees at six other apartment complexes, only to be turned down, he felt, "because I lived in Salisbury Heights." His wife and three children will stay with a sister in Charles County while he moves in with a sister in Oxon Hill. His major belongings will go into storage.
"I make $23,000 a year and I can't even rent an apartment," said Marsh, a postal worker. In frustration he pulled $700 in a roll of $20 and $50 bills from his pants pocket that he said he had ready to put down on an apartment, if he could find one. County housing officials who cited 1,000 violations at Salisbury Heights between 1979 and 1982, kept the privately owned complex open, they said, because of the shrinking number of affordable apartments for the families that lived there.
"We didn't move to have [the residents] out of there [even though] the units were occupied contrary to law," said Joseph Healy, chief of property standards for the county department of licenses and permits. "We don't like to put people out on the street--the media would kill us."
Now officials have no choice but to close the complex. Pepco and Washington Gas Light, owed more than $825,000 in utility bills, said they would no longer work with the county or with the apartment management to keep Salisbury going. Gas, electricity and water are to be cut off today.
There are more than 96,000 apartment units in Prince George's County, more than in any other area jurisdiction outside the District of Columbia, and almost as many as in Fairfax and Montgomery counties combined. Prince George's apartments used to have a reputation for being inexpensive and available, but decay, mismanagement and poor construction of units put up fast in the late 1960s turned several large complexes into suburban slums. As a result, the demand for decent low-income apartments far exceeds the supply, county officials said.
No figures are available on how many apartments in the county are now priced for people like those moving from Salisbury Heights. Only about 7,500 apartments are built with some kind of government subsidy, county officials said. There are also about 1,300 certificates issued by HUD entitling families to pay only 30 percent of their income for rent, with the federal government paying any further amount due.
The average rent for a two-bedroom unit in the county, according to a survey done last spring by the housing authority, is $406 a month, excluding utilities. Salisbury tenants paid $325, including utilities, for a two-bedroom apartment.
When vacant, Salisbury will join at least six other complexes in the county that have been partially or wholly boarded up over the last three years. These other complexes, after expensive renovation with funds raised by the county housing authority, are now returning to the county housing stock under promising new names. The once infamous Pumpkin Hill in Laurel, for example, is now called Villages At Montpelier.
In the housing inspectors' ranking from A to E, these complexes are on the E list, the worst in the county. They will remain on the list until the renovations are completed and their license to operate is returned.
When Montgomery contractor Michael Feld agreed to take control of the already ailing Salisbury Heights complex in November 1981, he planned to perform a government-backed reclamation before the utilities closed in, according to housing records. Feld would not return a reporter's telephone calls. He was the third owner of the apartments in 11 years.
Salisbury, originally known as Eastover Apartments, was built with brick and steel in the late 1940s and opened in 1950. When the Chicago-based Wisconsin Real Estate Investment Trust bought the buildings for $4.9 million in 1969, the sprawling low-rise complex, cut into the terraced hillside above Indian Head Highway, was well tended. But between 1978 and 1980, the number of housing code violations increased almost sevenfold, from 105 to 708, according to housing inspection records.
Violations included leaky ceilings, rodent and roach infestation, leaking pipes and heating problems. During this period, in October 1978, the apartments were sold to Salisbury Heights Associates, a limited partnership owned by Robert and Edward Cantor of Richmond. Neither the Cantor brothers nor officials from Wisconsin REIT could be reached for comment.
County housing inspectors denied Salisbury's license renewal application in September 1979, but returned it in October of that year. By October 1980, 53 units had been declared unfit for human habitation and could not legally be reoccupied.
Many violations were corrected by May 1981, but another 454 violations were found by the end of the year. The operating license for the property expired on Oct. 19, 1981, and county authorities put the decision to renew on hold, pending compliance with promises to correct the violations. Without a license, the owners could not legally move new tenants into the project.
"They would hire 50 people to fix things up, then as soon as we'd give them their license back they'd fire 50 people," Healy said of the Cantor brothers' firm.
In November 1981, Feld entered into a contract to acquire and manage Salisbury. But according to lawyer Louis Pohoryles, who is still trying to help Feld secure HUD-backed financing for renovation, the problems at the project were already near terminal. "When you only have 150 units occupied and you're maintaining 700 it's not hard to imagine what happened," said Pohoryles.
Healy agreed in part, saying Salisbury's problems began with the lack of tenant screening during the early 1970s, when Wisconsin REIT owned it. "They were advertising a free TV when you move in and the 13th-month rent for free," Healy said. "They were literally taking people in off the street."
Housing inspection files on Salisbury from 1981 to the present show a number of pleas: from tenants wanting service and relief from poor living conditions, from housing inspector Lee Johnsen who followed up their requests with citations, and from Feld, asking permission to reoccupy some buildings in order to provide cash flow. During that period Feld was represented by prominent Republican lawyer Charles Dukes, now chairman of the county planning commission.
Dukes was successful in persuading Healy to allow Feld to consolidate some of the remaining tenants in secure buildings that still had heat during the winter of 1982, but then Republican county executive Lawrence J. Hogan refused to allow Feld to reoccupy more buildings.
"Mr. Hogan was very down on apartments," Dukes said. "He didn't mind seeing some of the bad ones destroyed."
Feld was close to getting a HUD commitment for $15 million in county housing authority bonds to pay for renovations last September, according to Pohoryles. But county housing authorities balked, saying they wanted a developer with stronger financial backing and more managerial expertise than Feld had, according to Max Campos, who heads the housing authority bond program.
Pohoryles said that Feld was close to satisfying the housing authority objections last month. But another group of local investors who have been involved with ailing county properties in the past is purchasing the mortgage on the property from New York's Chase Manhattan Bank, according to Pohoryles and housing officials.
In addition, Wisconsin REIT is suing Salisbury Heights Associates (the Cantor brothers entity) because Salisbury Heights Associates have not, according to county records, recorded a deed to the property, clouding even the question of legal ownership.
This week, Healy will begin to plan a strategy to force the mortgage holder, the owners, the creditors and all their lawyers to come to terms so a new developer can take over the complex. Ninety-three writs for eviction have been signed for tenants who try to remain.
In the meantime, Marion Young, 48, is trying to figure out how she will wedge herself, her husband and three of her nine children into a one-bedroom house she found last Friday. It will be better than living with the water that was running freely from her ceiling into a tiny, fetid bathroom.
"At least I won't be setting out in the street," she said.