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Tenants Organize, Demand Rights From VDOT

Multi-million Dollar Lawsuit Filed

Beleaguered residents at Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace are still waiting for the Virginia Department of Transportation to respond to their request for rent relief and building improvements.

VDOT purchased the Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace buildings in December. The demolition, which was scheduled to begin in June, will now happen in August. In the meantime, residents of the remaining buildings are living in a construction site and seeing their rents increased.

Ardith Dentzer, president of the newly created Hunting Towers Hunting Terrace Tenants Association, expressed the tenants’ concerns and demands in a May 16, letter to Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, VDOT’s Woodrow Wilson Bridge project manager. Among the 14 issues Dentzer addressed were: rent rollback to December, 2000 levels; reimbursement of rent overpayments since that time and rent freeze for the duration of the construction; disability access to the first floors of the terrace buildings and in the lobbies and front entrances of Tower buildings; and health, safety and environmental protection and monitoring during the entire construction project.

OTHER ISSUES highlighted by Dentzer included VDOT’s recognition of the impact of the already begun construction on residents; restoration of services, e.g. package service, management and maintenance services, with the addition of recycling bins in garbage collecting areas. An inventory of necessary repairs and maintenance in each apartment unit by residents with follow-up to ensure that work is done was another issue raised. Reclamation and recycling of fixtures and appliances from buildings scheduled for demolition were a concern as was the preservation of tennis courts, open land and landscaping, the relocation of plants, trees and bushes near the buildings and information pertaining to rental surveys or appraisals upon which the rent increases during 2001-2002 were based. Dentzer wanted the actual number of vacancies in both Terrace and Towers buildings since January, 2001, and rental rates for all sized apartments in both complexes, the termination of false advertising of Hunting Towers or Terrace to prospective new residents and to allow the Tenants Association to use notice boards and suggestion boxes in public areas, and allow the Tenants Association to participate in the selection of a new management company and negotiate agreements between the Tenants’ Association and VDOT.

“When friends come to visit me, they are appalled when they look out my window into a burned-out building,” said Robert Holland, a resident of Hunting Towers. “When the demolition begins, it is going to be even worse, if that is possible. And with all of this, they are raising our rents.”

DENTZER AGREED. “It is very hard to understand how they can justify raising rents when conditions have steadily gotten worse,” she said. “Regular repairs are not being made in a timely manner and we are not getting responses from either the management company or VDOT. We formed a Tenants’ Association and met in the lobby but were told that we had to move on because we couldn’t be there. We have been meeting outside since the spring, but it is very hot and many of our members are elderly and disabled. We want to work with VDOT in a constructive way but it has been very frustrating.”

The tenants have received support from state and local elected officials. “We met with VDOT and the tenants and told them, in no uncertain terms, that we wanted these issues to be resolved and resolved quickly,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham. “The tenants have some legitimate concerns and they need to be addressed.”

Councilman William D. Euille agreed. He is a member of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Task Force. “I am hopeful that we can resolve some of these issues by the end of July,” Euille said. “Part of the problem is that the tenants feel that they have received conflicting information from VDOT. The city has agreed to take a look at the issue related to who suggested the rate increases, VDOT or the management company and VDOT has agreed to resolve the other outstanding issues. I believe that VDOT is considering some rent rollbacks and will present some type of a schedule to the tenants by the end of the month. It is a very difficult situation and the demolition of the buildings is going to make it even more difficult.”

ONE TENANT has taken the matter to court. Ray Elbert Parker lives at Hunting Towers. He describes himself as “a United States citizen, lifetime Alexandrian, Korean War veteran and a septuagenarian senior citizen domiciled in the Commonwealth of Virginia for three quarters of a century and is existing on a minimal annuity as an ongoing tenant of the State-controlled Hunting Towers complex with a legally protective and tangible personal stake in the outcome of this controversy…”

Parker filed the suit on May 30, 2002, in U. S. District Court in Alexandria. The named defendants are Ronaldo Nicholson and Mark Warner. Parker alleges that the defendant's “arbitrary, capricious, surreptitious and illegal taking of The Towers, absent a public purpose, benefit, enjoyment, use, access, or necessity, is a violation of the eminent domain laws of Virginia, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia…That defendants, under the charade of the State’s police powers are masquerading the nonessential taking of the Towers…under the cloak of immunity to cover up the $96 million misuse of the public treasury, the $90 million lack of funding for VDOT projects and the ongoing denial of plaintiff’s right to relocation benefits under law…That the State’s ongoing immunity from taxation as a direct result of the alleged illegal taking of The Towers…absent public purpose and compliance with applicable due process law, deprives the city of Alexandria of tax revenue over the next several years that must be balanced by tax levied against the citizens…the defendants’ ongoing deprivation of his relocation rights as a direct result of the taking of the Towers…is in violation of the Relocation Assistance Policy Act of 1972, Code of Virginia (1950)…”

AS RELIEF, Parker is asking for “$500,000 in tax-free relocation funds…” and “$100 million in punitive damages…”

Dentzer was not familiar with the lawsuit. “I guess this is something that he has been planning,” she said. “He is not a member of the Tenants’ Association and has not come to our meetings that I am aware of,” she said. “That’s not unusual, because it’s been a little hard for us to get the word out about our meetings and the majority of the residents are not yet members or involved with us.”

Euille was skeptical of the lawsuit. “I am aware of it but don’t think it will go very far,” he said.