Nearly half of the Chinese residents in the District’s Chinatown area are fighting to stay in a neighborhood now known more for upscale restaurants, the Verizon Center and pricey condos than as a hub of Chinese culture.
The owners of the Museum Square apartments want to raze the subsidized-housing complex and replace it with a massive rental development.
More than 50 residents and activists rallied Tuesday in front of the building in the 400 block of K Street NW, hoping to block the development project and preserve in-demand affordable housing in that part of the city.
The building has 302 units, with Chinese immigrant families making up about 60 percent of residents. If longtime occupants are forced out, one of the last vestiges of authentic Chinatown would leave with them.
The building’s Section 8 contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development expires in October, but residents on Tuesday vowed to fight for their homes.
“I want my children to be part of this community,” said Jenny Tang, 44, who was born in China and has lived at Museum Square for five years with her two daughters.
The fight to save Museum Square started more than a year ago when residents received notice that the building’s owners would stop receiving a government subsidy to house low-income residents and, in turn, replace the structure with a pricier one, more akin to newer, high-end condominium buildings in the neighborhood.
But under the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, residents have the right to buy their building before it can be gutted or sold to a third party. The owner of Museum Square, Virginia-based Bush Companies, told tenants the building would cost them $250 million, or about $830,000 per unit.
The residents and some city officials thought the price was arbitrary and exorbitant, prompting tenants to sue in D.C. Superior Court, alleging that Bush Companies had violated the residents’ tenant rights.
The court sided with the tenants, and an appeal by Bush Companies is pending. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The effort to save Museum Square is taking place as the city scrambles to figure out how to preserve affordable housing amid booming development and rising housing costs. Advocates say that if the owner of Museum Square can try to sell the building for that price, what stops other owners of low-income housing from doing the same?
To protect Museum Square tenants and prevent property owners from slapping high price tags on their buildings, D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s Housing Committee, introduced legislation in March with the aim of clarifying the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Her proposal states that a property owner cannot offer tenants a sale price that is based on the future value of a property — such as the value of Museum Square once it has been redeveloped — but must price the property according to its current worth. The council has previously passed similar emergency legislation, and Bush Companies has sued, arguing that Museum Square was being targeted.
“Working-class housing is akin to the heart of our city,” Bonds spokesman David Meadows said at Tuesday’s rally. “And our city can’t operate without its heart.”
While Museum Square residents have won some legal and political battles, they are unsure of their future after October.
Bush Companies gave the Department of Housing and Urban Development one year’s notice last year that it wanted to end its Section 8 contract. Under that scenario, residents would receive individual vouchers that they could use for subsidized housing, which is increasingly difficult to find in the city.
Scott Bruton, director of housing policy for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, said that most residents are likely to be eligible to stay at Museum Square for now but that if the company still wants to demolish its property, they could face eviction if they can’t meet the offer price.
“We have nowhere to go,” said Vera Watson, who has lived in the building for 33 years. “Even if we get a voucher to move somewhere else, the voucher will not help us in D.C.”