About 100 people, nearly half of them elderly and most of them angry or frightened, gathered in an Arlington community center this week to hear a developer spell out his plans for converting their 35-year-old apartment complex to condominiums.
The tenants, some of whom have lived in the Walter Reed Gardens apartments for 20 or 30 years, have taken court action against the developer, GLM of Arlington, seeking to block the conversion.
Many say they cannot afford to buy their apartments, even with the discount offered tenants, and fear they also cannot pay rents charged elsewhere.
Others are like Charlotte Toth, in her mid-70s, who asked, "How can you expect the elderly to look forward to a 30-year mortgage when they're in their 70s?"
"I came here from the Fairlington to get away from the condo idea. Now I'm on the run again," she added.
Nearly half the tenants of the Walter Reed Gardens have incomes low enough to qualify for federal Section 8 rental assistance, according to Sam Collicchio, who works on a committee formed by the tenants' association to oppose the conversion. Rents range from $300 monthly for long-time occupants to $360 for new renters for one-bedroom apartments, and from $360 to $410 for two-bedroom units, he said.
Tenants who want to buy apartments will get discounts of $6,000, according to William Dietch, who represented the developers, GLM Corp., at the meeting. Prices to the tenants range from $47,000 to $52,000 for one-bedroom apartments, and $56,000 to $65,000 for two-bedroom units.
Tenants who decide not to stay are entitled to four months' notice and a relocation allowance under Virginia law. That law also requires condominium converters to reserve 20 percent of the units for leasing to elderly and handicapped residents unless the building must have substantial renovation. Dietch said the Walter Reed Gardens must have major rehabilitation, exempting the owners from this provision. Dietch said his company will try to sell some units to investors who would, in turn, rent the units to the elderly tenants. He said, however, that the rents on these investor-owned apartments may be too high for many residents.
The meeting this week brought out two members of the Arlington County Board, Dorothy Grotos and newly elected Mary Margaret Whipple.
Whipple, who supported unsuccessful efforts last month to create a county housing authority through state legislation, said the county board "is concerned about the balance of housing in the community."
Arlington County "has lost 25 percent of its rental housing to condominium coversions in less than 10 years," she said. The county board has few means at its disposal to turn back this trend because "there's nothing you can do to prevent conversions in Virginia."
The tenants' efforts to halt conversion plans began at the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). Because the aging Walter Reed Gardens apartments no longer conformed to all the county building codes, the developers were required to get a variance, or special permission to proceed with their plans. The BZA granted the variance and the tenants' association went to court.
William Dietch of GLM angered most of the tenants at the meeting when he called the suit "frivolous" and said it was "filed to delay us . . . and has no basis."
"It is too bad that the tenants association didn't behave in a responsible, forthright way that other tenants have in other condominium conversions and work things out for the interests of the tenants," he said.
Whipple countered that the tenants' court action "is perfectly appropriate. I think it is a legitimate suit . . . to question the bases on which the BZA grants variances."
Dietch's remarks "were unfortunate," she added.
Dietch said in an interview later that the developers do not plan to delay work on the Walter Reed Gardens while the suit is undecided. "We are proceeding on advice that the suit is without merit," he said.
Del. James F. Almand, a Democrat and leading proponent of the proposed housing authority, is representing the tenant association. Almand said past appeals in condominium cases have not resulted in decisions favorable to tenants, and have been dropped or settled. An appeal has never been carried to the state Supreme Court, however, and Almand clearly would like to see the Walter Reed case go to that body.
Collicchio said that beyond the immediate hardships for Walter Reed Gardens residents, he is concerned about other conversions: "I want to know what Arlington's plan is for the future for low- and middle-income people, people who can't afford condominiums and are not elderly."