Escape Clause

Escape Clause

Bill would help elderly, disabled residents caught in the midst of a condo conversion.

Arthur Wentowski and his wife moved into Hunting Towers in 1971 — shortly before he was deployed to Vietnam as a chief warrant officer. At that time, the towers seemed like a glamorous place where fresh flowers filled the lobby with a faintly sweet scent and an eager concierge responded to every whim of tenants. Wentowski says that airline pilots and stewardesses used to add color to the buildings.

"This was a regular passion pit," he said, seated at his kitchen table. "They used to have wild parties on the roof."

Yet the mood these days in Hunting Towers — now known as Hunting Point — is decidedly more subdued. Wentowski, 86, doesn't know what he would do if he were forced to move. His wife died several years ago, and he lives on a fixed income. He spends most of his life visiting with his neighbors in the building, who have grown closer over the years dealing with the uncertainly of living in a sort of limbo.

"I'm worried about being forced to move. I don't want to move," said Wentowski. "The next move I want to make is up to Arlington Cemetery."

The Virginia Department of Transportation currently owns the building, the result of a complicated agreement between state, local and federal officials forged when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was designed. Giuseppe Cecchi, the famed developer who build Watergate in the 1960s, tried to buy the building last year but transportation officials pulled the property off the market when negotiations over the price fizzled. For now, Wentowski continues to send his rental check to VDOT — a temporary situation that makes him wonder about his future. He lives on a fixed income, and the thought of being forced into a buy-or-move situation is frightening to him.

"I've been out of the housing market for so long, I don't even know what that kind of conversion would cost," he said. "I guess it all depends on what the price is."

THAT'S WHY Del. David Englin (D-45) will be introducing a measure in the upcoming legislative session in Richmond.. Englin said that one of his major legislative goals for this General Assembly is to give certain tenants who find themselves in the midst of a condo conversion the ability to assign their right to purchase the unit to a third party — specifically, a government agency, housing authority or nonprofit housing corporation. After the third-party has successfully purchased the property, it would then rent the unit back to the renter whose affordable housing had been threatened. Under Englin's bill, those who are eligible must be disabled or elderly (62 or older) and qualify for a three-year lease.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody," said Englin. "The developer gets make a quick sale at the market rate and city gets to preserve affordable housing."

In Alexandria, one organization is poised to take the lead in making these kind of third-party purchases: the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation. Created in 2003 by Mayor Bill Euille and former Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. Alexandria Housing Director Mildrilyn Davis and then-City Manager Phil Sunderland put together a working model for the new non-profit housing corporation to address needs in the city. The plan anticipated that the corporation would avoid direct city oversight — creating a sense of independence for the quasi-public agency.

“This organization should by no means be considered the entire answer to all of the affordable housing questions,” said then-Mayor Kerry Donley when the City Council voted to create the corporation in December 2002. “It is one vehicle that can be used to facilitate certain projects.”

Since that time, the City Council approved a $12.8 million allocation to the housing corporation for the acquisition of Gunston Hall Apartments, one of the few remaining low-cost rental units in the city. The government-created corporation plans to keep about 80 percent of the property affordable to households at 60 percent of the area median income. But — just like the Hunting Point — the plan was put on hold after negotiations failed. In the meantime, Englin said that the corporation should have additional authority to meet housing demands.

"I think one of the problems with preserving affordable housing in Alexandria is that the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation doesn't have enough authority to accomplish its mission," said Englin. "That's why this bill is so important."

FOR ENGLIN, this is an issue that's taken a prolonged effort. Last year — in one of the first bills he filed as a freshman — Englin supported a measure that was designed to help renters caught in a condo conversion. It had been originally proposed by the city’s Landlord-Tenet Relations Board, and Englin took it to Richmond as one of the major goals of his first session as a legislator.

"This bill gives older residents and the handicapped an opportunity to stay in our community," he said before heading to Richmond last year.

But the bill faltered in the House of Delegates when the Housing Subcommittee asked questions about how the process would work. Then the committee sent HB 393 to the Virginia Housing Commission. Now, as a result of the commission's findings, Englin has modified the bill with a narrower definition of what kind of third-party can receive the purchasing rights. In the new version of the bill, which has been cleared by the

Virginia Division of Legislative Services, housing nonprofit organizations must receive special certification before receiving purchasing rights from participating tenets.

"It's a measure of protection that would prevent some fly-by-night agency from sweeping in the buying the property," said Englin. "It's certainly a better bill than it was last year."

Although Alexandria Legislative Director Bernard Caton said that the bill faces virtually no opposition, some are questioning the limited nature of those who can qualify for the program. Michelle L'Heureux, a former Hunting Terrace resident who has become an advocate for affordable housing at Hunting Point, said that she'd like to see a broader bill that would protect renters who are not elderly or disabled.

"While it's a good start, I would definitely prefer that it be extended to all renters," said L'Heureux. "In my mind our biggest problem is the diminishing stock of affordable rentals. There are plenty of folks who believe that their units should remain affordable for not just them, but also those future generations of Alexandrians that follow."