The Orellana family found the lawyer's letter taped to their front door early on Thanksgiving day as they headed for church. The kids were the first to notice it, pointing it out to their parents as they left their two-bedroom apartment for morning Mass.
"In the event you do not timely vacate by January 31, 2000 legal means will be instituted to have you removed from the premises as a holdover tenant."
The two-page notice was posted on every door of the Kensington Gardens apartment complex, giving about 40 families a jarring holiday surprise: Because the landlord wants to renovate the apartments, they would have to move out.
"We couldn't believe it," Sergio Orellana said in Spanish. Orellana, a native of Chile, works as a custodian and pays $650 a month for the apartment where his family has lived for the past four years. Like many of their neighbors in the working-class complex in lower Montgomery County, the Orellanas immigrated to the United States during the past decade. "This has been our home for four years, and we are being thrown out just like that?"
The news of their eviction has sent a ripple of anxiety through the residents at Kensington Gardens, an aging complex of three-story brick buildings nestled between busy University Boulevard on one side and a quiet neighborhood of small, single-family homes on the other.
The tenants fret about pulling their children out of school in the middle of the year, that friends and relatives will no longer be close by. A paramount fear is whether they will be able to find comparable, affordable housing at a time when the real estate market is forcing rents upward in communities throughout the Washington region.
"Montgomery County is no different than a lot of other jurisdictions: There are fewer and fewer [affordable] units as the market gets tighter and tighter," said Richard Nelson, vice chairman of the county's Housing Opportunities Commission.
The apartment complex is owned by Castor LLC and managed by District-based Thomas P. Brown Management Inc. Bethesda attorney Ronald G. Kane, who represents the owner and management company, said in an interview that the apartments are old and in need of renovations. The units will get new heat and air conditioning units, new windows, dishwashers and other amenities.
"It's an upgrade," Kane said, adding that the modifications are "tenant friendly." But, he said, there is no guarantee that current tenants would be able to get their apartments back, and he said he could not say what the new rents would be. Kane also apologized if people were offended by the posting of notices on Thanksgiving, saying that the date of their distribution was decided by an independent processor. "I had no control over that," he said.
No one disputes that the landlord has the right to renovate the apartments. Yet tenants and housing advocates interviewed for this story criticized the way the matter has been handled by the landlord.
Elizabeth Zapata, a housing counselor at CASA of Maryland Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides support to the immigrant community, noted that Kane's initial notice to the tenants did not include provisions for the landlord to provide relocation assistance of up to $950 for households that meet certain income guidelines, as is required by county law. After county housing officials informed Kane of county law, the landlord agreed to send out new 60-day eviction notices mentioning the assistance, which will buy tenants a little more time before they must move.
"What the tenants are looking for is what's due to them under the law," said Robert M. Short, one of two attorneys who have agreed to help the tenants without charge. "The landlord has to remember that he happens to be in a business that directly affects families and their daily lives."
Officials at the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs are looking to help residents find new apartments and possibly help out with rental assistance subsidies for those who qualify.
CASA of Maryland helped organize a tenants meeting Thursday night--the first such meeting of Kensington Gardens residents. Residents packed the living room of Edgar and Olga Bustamante's ground-floor apartment, and others were forced to watch and listen from the hallway. They formed a committee that will speak for the tenants at a meeting with the owners this month.
"For me, it's a question of being treated fairly. And I don't think we have been treated fairly," said Edgar Bustamante, a Nicaraguan immigrant who works as a house painter and pays $640 a month in rent.
Bustamante and other residents questioned why the landlord can't wait to renovate until the summer months, when children are out of school. Or why the renovations cannot be phased, instead of done all at once. Kane said the reason is that subcontractors on the renovation project have said they need to work on the entire project at one time to keep costs down.
Sergio Orellana doesn't want to pull his two young children out of their schools, where both are earning good grades and have made the honor roll. And he is worried about how much a new apartment will cost and about coming up with money for a security deposit.
"And on top of everything, Christmas is coming up," he said. "This is not the time of year when we should be worrying about these things."
CAPTION: Residents of the Kensington Gardens apartment complex in Montgomery County meet to discuss options after receiving eviction notices on Thanksgiving. Their landlord plans renovations.
CAPTION: Sergio Orellana, left, fears that he will not be able to find affordable housing for himself, his daughter, Dominique, 9, and his wife, Erica.