The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed yesterday to wait at least until September to yank subsidies from substandard housing complexes near the Washington Convention Center and to work with tenants and D.C. officials to redevelop the neighborhood without displacing its poorest residents.
Assistant Secretary John Weicher and other senior officials met for more than two hours with City Administrator Robert C. Bobb and Stanley Jackson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, to discuss the threat to hundreds of low-income families and senior citizens whose federally subsidized buildings have failed multiple inspections.
Officials said they hope to use the District's booming real estate market to find a way to turn some of the bleak areas between North Capitol and Seventh streets NW into mixed-income communities but vowed to make sure the amount of housing for residents with very low incomes is not diminished.
"Those who live there will be protected, and they must be," Bobb said. "I've seen too many places where . . . the residents who have been there . . . they're the first to go. That's not part of this program."
Just before the meeting, about 300 tenants and community activists rallied outside HUD headquarters at Seventh and D streets SW, holding printed banners that read, "Stop HUD gentrification. Save Section 8" and hand-lettered signs that said, "Please don't take my home away."
Tenant leaders took turns at a microphone to demand that HUD find a way to make building owners fix up their properties without closing the buildings and forcing residents to leave.
"We are angry, and we are determined," said Diane Hunter, president of the tenant association of Temple Courts apartments. "We will not be driven from our homes."
Temple Courts, at 33 K St. NW, is one of at least three subsidized complexes near downtown that have failed repeated HUD inspections, raising the possibility that the federal agency would stop providing funding to the building owners and launch foreclosure proceedings.
Landlords faced with foreclosure have the option of paying off their mortgages, leaving them free to redevelop their properties at market rates while tenants get vouchers to seek subsidized housing elsewhere.
The other complexes where that situation has developed are Sursum Corda, a tenant-owned cooperative just off North Capitol Street that depends on the Section 8 subsidy to pay its mortgage each month, and Kelsey Gardens, a rental complex on Seventh Street NW.
Residents of each complex had been told in recent months that their homes were at risk, setting off a flurry of phone calls and letters to city and HUD officials. Tenant groups are working with the Washington Interfaith Network and Manna CDC, advocacy groups for the poor. They reached Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) wrote to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson to set up yesterday's meeting.
Weicher and his staff agreed at the meeting to sit down soon with tenant leaders. Weicher said buildings must be brought up to code, and he pledged technical and financial assistance to the District for redevelopment plans.
"Our goal in this is to preserve affordable housing for the people in these developments," Weicher said. "We will not be starting foreclosure proceedings for at least 90 days, and in the meantime, we will be working with the city and the residents and the owners."
A total of 121 residential complexes in the District, with more than 15,000 units, are under contract with HUD to receive subsidies from the Section 8 program, agency officials said. Two-thirds of those contracts will be up for renewal this year and next, raising the possibility that large numbers of low-income apartments could be lost.
A HUD spokesman said 18 of the District's 121 Section 8 buildings have failed an inspection recently. But the spokesman said he could not say how many of those were repeat failing scores or have been resolved.
Of the three complexes currently facing the threat of foreclosure, tenants and advocates said Kelsey Gardens is at the most immediate risk. The landlord recently announced plans to join with new development partners and build a mostly market-rate high-rise building in place of the 54-unit, townhouse-style complex. Tenants, working with Manna, filed papers saying they wanted to match the purchase price for the building and buy it themselves, which they have the right to do under D.C. law.
But the property manager for the complex, former D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford, is contesting that effort, saying he got a majority of the tenants to sign away their rights to purchase the building before the tenants began to organize. Leaders of the tenants' association say those signatures -- given in exchange for a $1,000 check -- were coerced.
"He lied about a lot of stuff," said Pat Gaston, secretary of the tenants' association, whose husband signed over their rights at Crawford's request. "He promised him a housing voucher, promised him moving expenses, and he told us HUD had declined to renew our Section 8 contract, so we had no choice."
Crawford denied any misrepresentations and said the signatures will prove valid. He recently announced that 54 of the 220 units in the proposed apartment building would be set aside at below-market rates for Kelsey Gardens residents.
But tenants said they don't know what the price of those units would be or whether the building would accept their housing vouchers.
"We would like to buy our building and renovate it," said tenant association President Selma Providence. "I'm a D.C. resident. I was born and raised here. I want to stay here."