The once-deteriorating Summit Hills apartment complex in Silver Spring continues to rally under its new management's arrangement with the Montgomery County government. That arrangemnt has helped preserve -- at least in the short-term -- one of the largest enclaves of moderate-priced housing in the high-income county.
No longer the festering slum is once was, Summit Hills has changed vastly in a year and a half of new ownership under the Central Management Co., although more remains to be done.
"I give it about 50 more years before it will be just right," said Michael Paul Young Sr., a former Summit Hills maintenance man who now lives in the huge apartment complex at 16th Street and East-West Highway, just over the District line.
In a county where the average cost of a new house is more than $125,000 and where rental housing has been lost at a rapid rate to condominium conversions, Summit Hills has been a badly needed patch of moderate-cost rental housing.
When real estate entrepreneur David Hillman bought the red brick, 1950s-utlilitarian-style complex for $8 million from a group of out-of-town investors, the county was interested in seeing that it be preserved. Unlike other developers in Montgomery County and the Washington area at large, Hillman contends that rental properties can be profitable.
Since Central bought the complex, it has looped the property with a fence, edged the concrete with shrubbery and flowers, restored the swimming pool, installed playground equipment and begun the harder work of restoring the nine buildings and the 1,121 apartments to livable condition.
Central took over the building with Montgomery County's blessings and an understanding that the company, headed by Hillman, would be given breathing space to correct thousands of housing violations. Since then, tenants and county officials say, there has been steady improvement.
Larger in population than many small towns, Summitt Hills was built as a luxury apartment complex by developer Jerry Wolman. Completed in 1961, it deteriorated over the years as children ran wild and vandalism and inattention reduced many of the apartments to rubble. Older residents say they feared to walk out of their doors. But some of the original tenants, many of them elderly and Jewish, remained as the apartment city changed around them.
The complex posed several problems for the county: Someone would have to take over from the owners who had defaulted on mortgage payments, and would have to improve the complex without displacing the moderate-income families who lived there.
"Anyone who pays their rent and doesn't destroy the property can stay," Hillman promised in March 1979 when he agreed to buy Summit Hills.
"We've done everything we said we were going to do," Hillman said. "We've done all the structural and mechanical work and we haven't raised the rents any higher that we said we would." About 75 vacant apartments -- out of about 280 that were in such bad conditions that they were not rentable -- still need rehabilitation. "We've been renting as fast as we finish them," he said.
Tenants complain that management has been slower to correct deficiencies inside individual apartments, concentrating more on outside appearances and building-wide problems. But complaints are tempered with compliments.
"Right now, as far as the management and the building is going, everthing is much better," said William Boyd, who had lived in Summitt Hills for four years. "It just took the right people and time."
"Outside everything is looking good," he said, and tenants have more pride in the complex. "It used to be people were afraid to come in here. Now adults speak out and tell kids if they throw litter to pick it up."
"It's much better. It's clean and has beautiful flowers," said Margaret Bick, who has lived in the complex for 16 years.
Some tenants and others who live in the neighborhood complain about the fence that encircles the 30-acre property.Between 7:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., only a central gate into the property is open. Children have hurt themselves trying to climb over the fence and it cuts off paths used by people outside the complex to reach public transportation, neighbors said.
Recently Summit Hills management took over a former synagogue-turned recreation center in a shopping center on the property from the county, redecorated the building and hired a full-time employe to direct recreation activities.
Central didn't raise rents in 1979, although it began charging higher rents to new occupants in some cases. In 1980, the company applied for an extraordinary rent increase of 15 percent which the county approved because of the cost of improvements that the company has put into the complex. Rents charged new tenants range from $270 for an efficiency to $470 for a four-bedroom apartment. Rates paid by tenants who have been there all along range from about $200 to about $430.
Rent increases for approximately 55 percent of the units are controlled -- that is, monitored to make sure they don't exceed a reasonable rate of return -- by the county, property manager Ronald Frank said.
"The rent structure there is not high compared to other units in Silver Spring," said Nikki McCausland, program manager in Montgomery County's office of landlord-tenant affaris.
"I think that particualr community has stabilized significantly," said Chuck Beard, of the county government's Silver Spring satellite office. Beard credited the stabilization on the approximately $1.5 million in improvements Hillman has put into the property and to "a concerted effort on his part to identify and to remove from the premises tenants who were causing problems within the complex." Hillman said he has put $5 million into the complex.
As happy as the county is with the present state of affairs in Summit Hills, it has "an on-going concern about the role that particular complex will play in the long term as a low- and moderate-income housing opportunity," he said. "I would like to see an attempt to preserve a measure of affordable housing opportunities within that complex, regardless of what direction it goes in," he said.
The major question about Summit Hills is its future. Hillman's venture is costing large amounts of capital at the outset--but the money is improving a large apartment complex in a choice location near Metro.
"We're still putting money into it. Hopefully the property is going to be profitable," Hillman said, adding that it probably would be by 1983. "We hope to break even next year on our operating costs."
Hillman said the original understanding with the county was that for at least six years the building will not be converted into condominiums. Elderly tenants have also been offered lifetime leases, although only six have accepted the offer so far.
"We really have no plans to convert, but never say never," he said.
Summit Hill manager John Luraghi says that about 60 percent of the tenants who lived in the buildings when Central took over are still there. "We've had about 40 evictions over the year," said Central property manager Frank. "Most of them involved their rental payment habits."
Frank said the racial and ethnic mix of the complex has not changed: About 40 percent of the tenants are black and about 20 percent are hispanic or oriental.
Others disagree. "Ther's been a lot of change over there," said Brenda Bushell, director of the Rosemary Hills Inerneighborhood Council. Rosemary Hills is the moderate-income complex next door to Summitt Hills.
"You see minority going and whites moving in. Thats usually happens when there is a change in the economics, if you raise the rents above a certain rate.
"It's hard to say if it's deliberate or not," she said.