Tenants at the 300-unit La Salle Park Apartments in Chillum are resisting plans to renovate their units, fearing the improvements will mean higher rents. A newly formed tenants' association is also upset that the buildings' recent sale and planned renovation is being financed by Prince George's County Housing Authority bonds.
New owners of the the 23-year-old complex plan to install new kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, landscaping and paving, exchange gas stoves for electric ranges, and convert the gas heating to electric heat pumps. The developer has promised to reduce rents to offset the increased electric bills that tenants will receive as a result of the changeover.
The changes have been financed by a county housing program designed to preserve moderately priced rental housing, even though somewhat higher rents may result. Nine apartment complexes have been purchased and refurbished under the program since it began in 1980, and as many as 50 more are likely candidates for the program over the next few years, housing officials said.
Mid-City Financial Corp., a Bethesda developer, borrowed $6 million through the county to purchase and improve La Salle Park. Mid-City promised that rents will not go up more rapidly than under the previous owner, or about 7 percent to 10 percent a year, according to Mid-City president Eugene Ford.
But leaders of the tenants' association, formed hastily after some tenants learned that the complex was being sold last February, are suspicious of Mid-City's intentions. They say that they will resist the changes until their concerns about rent and fee increases are alleviated.
Tenant leader Noris Washington said that he is awaiting a written response from Ford committing Mid-City to details agreed upon in meetings with the tenant group. If he does not receive it soon, he said, he will organize a rent strike.
"We know Ford has expenses. We will withhold his money to get his attention," Washington said.
What the tenants contend they find especially galling is that the changes at La Salle Park are financed with government funds.
Washington feels that La Salle Park has not deteriorated to the point where it qualifies for a county-financed takeover.
"There are no major repairs to be made here. It's all an illusion, just window dressing to raise the rents," said Washington, who is retired and has lived at La Salle Park for 12 years. He pays $411 per month for a three-bedroom apartment.
According to Max Campos, head of the county housing authority's bond program, the authority began using its bond power for projects such as La Salle Park in 1980, when high interest rates had brought housing activity to a standstill.
Campos said that criteria for eligibility under the program intentionally are flexible, in order to include virtually abandoned and vacant projects such as Gregory Estates in Seat Pleasant, as well as healthy complexes such as La Salle.
Last year Mid-City completed renovating Gregory Estates, now called Pleasant Homes, and housing officials regard it as the best rehabilitiation project in the county. Mid-City also recently purchased and restored the 1,000-unit Queenstown apartments in Hyattsville under a similar financing arrangement. Campos said that 80 percent of the original residents of Queenstown are still there.
Campos said that rents generally go up between 5 percent and 8 percent after such a sale and renovation. Campos said he could understand the suspicions of the tenants but felt that in the long run, "they might pay a little more rent, but you might as well have a better management company because the rents are going to go up anyway."