Eight red-brick apartment buildings in Alexandria have become the focus of a Texas congressman's ire over the Reagan administration's effort to cut federal housing programs.
When Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), the chairman of the House subcommittee on housing and community development, heard that a federally chartered developer was likely to displace more than 90 percent of the Abingdon Apartments tenants in a renovation project, he was so furious that he summoned the developers to a hearing.
What angered Gonzalez was that the Washington-based National Corp. for Housing Partnerships was going to transform most of the one-bedroom units that rent for $375 a month into ones that would lease for $625.
"The NHP is supposed to house the low-income, not displace them," the congressman said in an interview last week.
"It's pathetic," Gonzalez angrily told the developers at the Feb. 21 hearing. The congressman said that he also was upset that the National Corp. for Housing Partnerships, a private investment group mandated to provide low- and moderate-income housing, was planning to use tax-exempt bonds from the city of Alexandria to finance the work.
The corporation withdrew from the Alexandria project four days after the hearing, to the surprise of city officials.
Those officials had approved the project in early January, saying that the group offered the best prospect for preserving the 242-unit Abingdon as affordable rental housing.
The buildings are located two miles south of National Airport, off the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Gonzalez said last week that he still is troubled by the proposal and probably will ask for a General Accounting Office audit of the group.
"By their charter, it has an aura of sanction, like the Boy Scouts," he said.
William D. Comings, the organization's executive vice president of development, defended the Abingdon project and cited the high cost of renovation and the lack of federal assistance.
While the group's goal since 1968 has been to house the less advantaged, he said in an interview, the task has never been as difficult as it is now.
"We can only do what is economically feasible," Comings said. "Without the federal funds, there is no way we can meet the needs of the low income."
Gonzalez agreed with Comings that the repeated slicing of federal assistance during the past six years has created alarming shortages in affordable rental housing.
The Abingdon, both have said, is a painful example of how, without federal funding, a city such as Alexandria cannot rescue what is one of its last low-income complexes.
The Reagan administration has proposed that the federal government spend $499 million on housing for low- and moderate-income people in fiscal 1986. The request represents a 98 percent cut from the more than $26 billion that former president Carter had budgeted for subsidized housing in fiscal 1980.
"The national housing situation is explosive," said Gonzalez, estimating that about a third of the nation's people live in inadequate housing, a figure, he said, that rivals figures from the Great Depression.
"We're seeing a rise in the homeless and the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of families in dwellings," Gonzalez said.
A few days after the hearing, the developer dropped its approved bid to buy the apartments, citing adverse publicity and the seller's failure to abide by a clause in the contract.
Because it had received tax-exempt bonds from the city, the group would have had to reserve 20 percent of the Abingdon's 242 units for low- and moderate-income tenants.
But most of the current tenants said that even such subsidized rents as $536 for a two-bedroom apartment would be too high.
Now that the Abingdon is back on the selling block, Mayor Charles E. Beatley has said he is worried that other developers will demand even higher rents or convert the buildings into condominiums.
Tenants such as Margaret Cavanaugh, 66, hope the publicity that caused the developer to rescind its plan will deter other bidders until the residents can gather enough resources to buy the building themselves.
Gonzalez and his housing committee staff, who visited the Abingdon Apartments last week, are referring the tenants to other neighborhood groups that have organized their own cooperatives.
Still, without money from the Reagan administration or the city, it will not be easy, said Bonnie Caldwell, a subcommittee staff member.
"We're trying everything," said Magda Gotts, one of the Abingdon residents who is organizing the tenants. "We're even going to go up to Capitol Hill and talk to the senators and congressmen."
Gotts and other longtime tenants say they dread leaving the area, but that finding another affordable home in Alexandria where the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent is about as likely as finding crisp $20 bills outside the Abingdon's office on West Abingdon Drive.
"Sometimes I feel like crying," Gotts said, "There is just no place for us to go."
Cavanaugh, who has lived at the Abingdon the longest and is a retired payroll clerk from Fort Belvoir, said that she can recall being 24 years old and walking excitedly into her new two-bedroom apartment on a cold November day in 1942.
"Sixty-three dollars and fifty cents was all I paid then," she said. "All my memories are here and my friends. I don't want to move, but who can afford these new rents?"