Gladys M. Paige lived at the Fort Chaplin Park Apartments in the late 1960s, then decided to move to a newer garden apartment complex nearby. But the tenants at her new complex started abusing the apartments, the management stopped maintaining the buildings and two years later Paige fled back to the neatness and serenity of Fort Chaplin.
"I don't think you can find another place as nice as Fort Chaplin," said Paige, standing amid her flowers on her shaded patio. "They keep it up and the tenants have a lot to do with it."
Her neighbor Adrienne Russell, standing by her side, agreed. "People here take pride in their apartments. You don't see trash in the halls. If lights are out you call and the next day they are there. In fact, a man comes every morning to check on the lights."
Fort Chaplin Park, a massive project of 549 units that flanks both sides of East Capitol Street just west of the intersection with Benning Road, was built during the garden apartment boom that hit the hillsides and valleys east of the Anacostia River 20 years ago. But unlike many other complexes there, Fort Chaplin Park has survived in good shape, the result, its managers say, of vigilant management, stable ownership and tenants who care about the place where they live.
With few exceptions, the swimming pools at the other complexes are now covered over or filled with trash and debris. Their terraces are grassless and etched with ravines hollowed out by erosion. Windows are broken, laundry rooms are only a memory and many units are boarded up.
Both swimming pools at Fort Chaplin Park are open and ringed with colorful poolside furniture. The terraces are lush green from daily watering. The white and beige tiles in the 37 entranceways gleam. The laundry rooms are spotless. Trash is collected daily. There are no vacant units.
Alan Levy, head of residential management for Charles E. Smith Companies, which manages the complex, credits the upkeep to his company, the tenants and the owners, who include members of the Smith family.
Fifty percent of the tenants have lived there more than 10 years, said Levy, and last year there were only 27 vacancies. In addition to the manager and the assistant manager, several of the maintenance men live at the project.
"We run a tight ship," said Levy sitting in his Crystal City office, at the firm's headquarters. "We don't like to see cigarette butts on the curb. We pay attention to detail."
The manager, Anna B. Smith, tours the property daily and oversees a staff of 10 janitors, two painters and three employes who care for the project's heating and cooling system. A property manager visits three times a week and there are special inspectors for the pool and grounds, said Levy, adding that the same regimen is followed at all 16,000 apartment units managed by the company.
Many District landlords blame the city's rent-control law for the decline of the city's apartment stock, especially east of the Anacostia. Levy said he, too, dislikes the law because it has held down rents while other costs, especially utilities, have increased sharply.
But the project is profitable, said Richard Kirstein, a former owner who acts as a trustee for the remaining owners. Levy added that improved efficiency has enabled management to keep up the maintenance level. In addition, Fort Chaplin was spared the burden of shouldering all of the utility costs because it was one of the first projects to individually meter apartments for electricity so that the tenants paid these costs, Levy said.
"Rent control is a burden," said Levy. "There are things we would like to do that we can't do," such as adding additional parking areas and perhaps fixing some roofs. Before rent control the company could raise the rents to cover these costs. Now they must await city approval of rent increases resulting from major improvements.
For example, in March the company asked the city's rent control office for approval to increase rents by about 50 cents a unit each month to pay for the installation of new high-intensity lights around the project at a cost of $20,009. A hearing was held in May on the request but there has been no decision.
In 1980, the complex collected $1.5 million, mostly in rents, while spending $785,792, including $255,000 in utilities and $274,239 in administrative costs, according to information the Smith company filed with the rent control office. The company also spent an additional $353,623 to pay off the mortgage.
Rents for one-bedroom units for new tenants range from $288 to $334; three-bedroom town houses rent for $463.
Richard Kirstein, president of Richmarr, a large local development company; Julius Goldstein, a prominent Washington builder and real estate broker; and members of the Charles E. Smith family built the project for several million dollars over three years beginning in 1963.
The ownership remains virtually the same today, a rarity for Southeast garden apartment projects, which are usually passed down through a series of owners more interested in the tax benefits of apartment ownership than in maintenance.
"We build for long-term ownership and not property speculation," said Kirstein.
This same group of owners built and still own Marbury Plaza at 2300 Good Hope Rd. SE, long a favorite address for young, middle-class professionals. Kirstein and the Smith family also built Oxford Manor, a 227-unit garden apartment project at 2607 Bowen Rd. SE that is surrounded by shabby, city-owned public housing and dilapidated, privately owned garden apartments.
From Oxford's grassy lawns and shimmering pool one can look over at the Ambassador Square apartments, a 525-unit apartment complex where clothes hang from the balconies. The pool was closed and filled in long ago, vacancies abound and earlier this year the insurance company holding the mortgage foreclosed.
Young black professionals flocked to Southeast garden apartments when they were new in the 1960s, preferring a new apartment in the city to the recently desegregated housing in the suburbs.
But when these tenants left they were generally replaced with families headed by single mothers with lower incomes. Fort Chaplin, on the other hand, retained many of its original tenants who were teachers and mid-level government workers.
"In the beginning we were very selective about tenants and got a marvelous group of tenants who take pride and try to keep it up . . . . The tenants felt they had a first-rate project and they are extremely helpful in keeping people out who would be destructive to them and their property," Kirstein said.
In some cases, three generations of a family live at the complex, such as Ida Cameron, a retired teacher, and her daughter. Cameron rented a two-bedroom apartment at Fort Chaplin in 1968. Today her daugther, who is now a mother, lives nextdoor in her own apartment.
"People just love it so much they seldom move out, so you don't have the turnover and that prevents a lot of problems," Levy said.
Leonard Wallace, an X-ray technician and one of the original tenants, said, "It seems to get better through the years. Management is very cooperative and it is exceptionally clean. I wouldn't live anyplace else. I'll die here."