Hong Chang and a dozen other people sat on bedspreads in the dusty yard outside a dilapidated building in the Chillum Heights apartment complex.
They were having an afternoon cookout, of sorts. Smoke billowed from a low grill in the center of the group; pink-and-blue chicken joints sizzled and slowly turned brown. Chang, a slim 16-year-old with guarded eyes, held a hand of playing cards close to his chest.
For the last three years, he and the four other members of his family have lived in the trouble-plagued, privately owned complex near Hyattsville. Their unit, in a building with broken windows and graffiti-marked hallways, is their first home since leaving Laos.
Now, however, after enduring several months of uncertainty about the future of Chillum Heights, the Changs, 92 other Southeast Asian refugee families and tenants of another two dozen units have been given eviction notices. Whether the sprawling 953-unit complex will eventually be closed because of Prince George's County housing code violations -- or perhaps be sold and renovated -- is uncertain.
All Chang knows is that he and his family soon must find another place to live and that it will be difficult to find anything at a comparable price. Their two-bedroom apartment at Chillum Heights rents for $365 a month, including utilities; only Chang's older sister, a waitress, has a job.
"I don't know what we will do," said Chang, a junior at Northwestern High School. "We look for another place. We don't find anything. I don't know."
Although it is unclear when the families will have to move or why they are being evicted, it is evident that some of them have already left Chillum Heights. The streets within the complex hold evidence of hasty moves -- piles of old mattresses, plaid couches with stuffing spilling out, broken bicycle frames, cardboard boxes and other debris.
Since 1979, a number of agencies have helped place Southeast Asian families at the complex. As a result, it has one of the highest concentrations of Asian refugees in the area, local refugee workers said.
"These are a lot of great people who have risked their lives to come here and live a life of freedom, and they're beginning to believe they're still refugees and their travail has not ended," said John Cooper, who works for the refugee resettlement program of the Associated Catholic Charities of Washington. Cooper's organization has just a few clients at Chillum Heights, but it has taken the lead in helping relocate all the families.
The evictions are only the latest in a series of events at the complex that have troubled residents, social workers and county officials for months and earned Chillum Heights a poor reputation relative to the approximately 700 other apartment developments in the county.
In April, the county ordered the Chillum management to stop filling vacancies -- an order that remains in effect. Officials cited the more than 200 code violations at the buildings, ranging from ancient boilers to leaking water heaters. At that time more than 3,000 people, including American-born blacks and whites, West Indians, Africans and the large group of Southeast Asians called Chillum Heights home. Less than half of the 953 units are occupied now.
County officials say that Joseph Ratner, the project's New York-based owner, has recently been seeking a buyer and that the prime candidate may be the Artery Organization in Bethesda. Anticipating a possible purchase, the County Council last month rushed through an application for $42 million in tax-exempt financing on Artery's behalf.
But nothing has been settled, and the questions continue to plague residents such as Jocelyn Williamson, who recently formed the first tenants committee at the complex.
"We not only want to get information," said Williamson, 33, a management assistant at the Department of Defense, "but we want to protect our rights.
"You can feel the anger around here," she said, "and the discomfort at having to move. And the uncertainty. The tension is terrible. Tempers flare. The kids get in fights every day."
Neither Ratner nor apartment property manager Pat DeLuca could be reached for comment about the status of the complex or the evictions.
While there have been reports that the evictions were planned because of nonpayment of rent and because of lease violations over the number of residents in one apartment, Williamson said she believes the evictions represent a gradual phase-out of residents.
Chang and several other Southeast Asians who were recently interviewed said they are being turned out despite the fact that they have always paid their rent on time and have not crowded unauthorized numbers of people in their apartments.
The evictions are possible, said Cooper, because most tenants have month-to-month leases. He would not comment directly, however, on whether the Southeast Asians were a specific target.
"The landlord has decided to exercise that month-to-month option against 119 families," he said, "and of those, 93 are Southeast Asian families. I think that speaks for itself." He said it has been impossible to keep track of how many of the former refugees have left Chillum Heights.
"It's such a constantly changing situation," he said. "People flee, believing the sheriff is going to be at their door any second, and then we try to coax them back and help them. Some have gone to friends and relatives at other apartment complexes, and they the friends and relatives are being told they're in violation of their leases for housing too many people. So there has been a ripple effect in the community."
County officials have promised to help relocate the families. "We're trying now to find out how many families are in deep trouble," Cooper said, "and we're talking to the county about county resources. We frankly see this as a large problem beyond anything Catholic Charities or any private agency can handle.
"We're hoping that churches and other concerned people will come forward to help with security deposits at new places and, if necessary, to cosign leases," he said. "Some resident managers are going to be hesitant to rent to these families because they don't meet routine credit requirements."
Meanwhile, tenants such as Joy Chang, 21 -- not a member of the same family as Hong Chang -- hope for the best. One afternoon last week, Joy Chang leaned against a red Firebird with red fake-fur seats in the Chillum Heights parking lot. He recently quit a job as a stock clerk at the Capital Centre, he said, and his sister is the only member of his family of six who has a job.
Nevertheless, he said, "We pay our rent every month on time."
What will they do if they have to leave?
He shrugged. "We have some friends," he said, "but they're in the same situation."