Tenant representatives from the Chillum Heights Apartments met yesterday with church leaders, legal aid lawyers and Prince George's County government officials in Upper Marlboro to try to arrange new living accommodations for dozens of residents of the troubled apartment complex who were notified that they will be evicted this week.
One tenant leader said the evictions were made to get rid of lease violators and those who have refused to pay rent because of housing code violations. The complex's owner did not return a reporter's phone calls yesterday.
Until this spring, the 953-unit apartment community housed upwards of 3,000 tenants, many of them recent immigrants and others who could only afford the relatively reasonable rents. In the past two years it has been the site of a series of incidents and disturbances, ranging from rapes to drug-related shootings.
But since April, the county has not allowed the owner to sign new leases because of code violations they say they have found there. County officials said that Joseph Ratner, the project's New York-based owner, recently has been seeking a buyer.
The company believed to be the prime candidate is the Montgomery County-based Artery Organization, and county officials, anticipating a possible purchase, have already rushed through an application for $42 million in tax-exempt financing on Artery's behalf.
County officials said yesterday that they hope to find housing for the 140 families who will be forced to leave. But Jocelyn Williamson, the president of the newly formed Chillum Heights Apartments Tenant's Committee, said she is uncertain about what is in store for people who live at the complex.
"I believe that this is the beginning of a phase-out of disgruntled tenants who don't feel they should pay rent because they're not getting services," Williamson said.
She also said that some families were being evicted because there were more persons living in their one- and two-bedroom units than were allowed under the leases.
But one participant in yesterday's meeting, Tim Ayers, a spokesman for County Executive Parris Glendening, said that because tenants occupy apartments on month-to-month leases, the owners could evict them at will.
"They're not being evicted for nonpayment of rent," Ayers said. "They're being evicted simply because the owners want them out."
Chillum Heights manager Pat DeLuca did not return phone calls yesterday, and a representative of the Artery Organization said he could not comment on the status of the negotiations.
Ayers said the county hopes to work with the project's new owners to provide relocation benefits for residents in need. County Council member Anthony Cicoria, whose district includes the apartment site, said that he hopes the new owner will agree to gradually phase in any rent increases imposed because of renovations made at the sprawling complex.
Last week, Glendening asked the County Council to authorize the tax-exempt financing for Artery by adding the Chillum Heights project to the county's Housing Development Program. Yesterday the council approved the resolution authorizing the bond sale.
"It was an extraordinary move to do the bond issue before the deal [to sell the project] was cut," Ayers said. "But we did it that way because we wanted to signal both sides" that the county wants to see the project rescued, he said.