Is There Still Room For Seniors at the New 15th and U?
Troy Johnson has mixed feelings about his balcony. His 10th-floor perch affords him scenic views of his Northwest D.C. neighborhood. But maybe too scenic. “Look up and down U Street,” he says, “It’s a gold mine up there.”
Johnson, 75, a retired Service Employees International Union organizer, lives in the Campbell Heights Apartments, a 10-story, 171-unit independent-living facility for senior citizens at 2001 15th St. NW, overlooking the hopping U Street corridor.
For years, Johnson and his fellow tenants have worried about outside developers snatching up this prime piece of real estate, converting its subsidized affordable-housing units into more lucrative condos, and thereby kicking low-income elderly tenants to the curb.
More recently, though, Johnson’s suspicions have turned to his own neighbors.
Last year, the Campbell Heights Residents Association, backed by a majority vote of its members, exercised its rights under the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) and put together a formal bid to buy the building from its landlord, Colorado-based Apartment Investment and Management Company (AIMCO). The proposed purchase totals more than $20.6 million, according to a sale contract obtained by Washington City Paper.
The deal, scheduled to close in June, is backed by D.C. developer Jair Lynch, who, according to a March 31 residents’ association newsletter, will “share equal ownership” with the tenants group, once the sale is complete.
However, a document filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides the building’s rent subsidies, indicates a much greater role on the part of the developer. Albeit listed as a “Limited Partner,” Lynch will maintain a 99.9 percent ownership interest in the project, whereas the “General Partner,” the residents’ association, will own 0.05 percent. Lynch’s company, LDP Acquisitions, LLC, will own the remaining 0.05 percent. (An organizational chart of the tenant-developer pact, also obtained by City Paper, confirms the ownership scenario.)
Tenants have been told not to worry. “Investors will provide some of the money needed for the purchase, but will have no control over running the building,” according to the residents’ association newsletter. “The plan includes keeping the Section 8 rental assistance contract, so you can be assured Campbell Heights will remain affordable senior and disabled housing for current and future residents.”
Johnson, for one, is not convinced. Theoretically, he says, the developer could let the apartments deterioriate to the point that HUD revokes the Section 8 rent subsidies. (According to a copy of the proposed sales contract, the building’s owner would need to maintain the facility in accordance with certain federal physical conditions standards in order to keep the housing assistance funds flowing.)
Adding to his misgivings, Johnson points to a February 2007 interview with real estate newsletter Bisnow on Business in which Lynch predicts “[a] big potential market for ‘non-assisted’ senior urban living.”
Lynch, a former Olympic silver medalist in gymnastics, declined to be interviewed until the sale is complete.
Standing in the developer’s corner is Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a minister, art-gallery owner, and former D.C. State Board of Education member who currently serves as president of the Campbell Heights Residents’ Association.
Butler-Truesdale has championed the pending sale as a victory for tenants’ rights. In a piece of citizen journalism published in the Washington Times last May, she writes, “The dream of ownership is slowly becoming a possibility for 171 residents at Campbell Heights.”
Butler-Truesdale’s track record in resident relations at the building is a long one. She used to work on behalf of the current landlord, AIMCO, which hired her nearly a decade ago to coordinate events and services for tenants of the building. In 2005, she quit her job to help her daughter with childcare and ultimately sued AIMCO for unemployment benefits, arguing that the landlord had changed her job duties and failed “to investigate and address incidents involving physical threats to her safety and verbal abuse” from Campbell Heights residents, court records show.
At one point, Butler-Truesdale herself took up residence in the building. But not for long. Complaining about the building’s smells and lax security, she told the Washington Informer in April 2008, “I felt I would get sick if I stayed there.”
Yet despite relocating to a less fragrant condo in Southwest D.C., she has retained her title and position with the building’s residents’ association.
Her outside residence has become a source of controversy. Annie Jones, 69, the residents’ association’s former secretary and two-year tenant of the building. points to finance reports from 2009 listing monthly $250 disbursements earmarked for “transportation,” all of which went to Butler-Truesdale, she says. “Just to come from Southwest twice a month for $250? I don’t think so,” Jones says.
This past January, Jones quit her position as the group’s secretary, citing the disbursements she questioned and concerns over the pending sale of the building. “I cannot continue this charade,” Jones wrote in an e-mail to the residents’ association board members. “I care too much for the outcome of this venture the building is going through. The Board should stop taking advantage of and confusing the Seniors.”
The disbursement also became an issue during Butler-Truesdale’s campaign for re-election as residents’ association president this past December. Her opponent, Campbell Heights tenant Eugene Prince, handed out fliers with the catchy slogan, iam a resident, i live here! i won’t need any transportation fee to come here and answer your questions.
Butler-Truesdale nonetheless won re-election. Jones says Butler-Truesdale uses her position as a reverend to sway the elderly, whose advanced age and health problems put a renewed urgency on spirituality. “When you get old, you have a tendency to lean towards the Bible,” she says.
Contacted by City Paper, Butler-Truesdale responded through her attorney, daughter Tonya Butler-Truesdale, who e-mails: “At this time she is of the opinion that her work speaks for itself, that the work of the organized leadership of Campbell Heights speaks for itself and, that the organized residence of Campbell Heights should be applauded for their refusal to be victims of expanding conglomerate interests and or governmental disinterest.”
She defends her mother’s transportation fees. “Given the price of gas and public transportation, she does not feel that the allotment is unreasonable,” the lawyer says.
She further dismissed her mother’s critics as “a few elders in the building who prefer to remain disenfranchised, property-less, pawns so that they can continue to conduct activities on the premises which would not be tolerated in an occupant owned environment.”
The residents’ association attorney, Elizabeth Elia, a master of laws candidate at Georgetown University Law Center, adds that tenants’ concerns about deteriorating conditions and losing Section 8 funding are unfounded. “[T]he HUD subsidy is an essential part of this transaction,” writes Elia via e-mail. “Additionally, the building will undergo a modest renovation after the purchase to maintain and extend the useful life of the building and improve aesthetics. Finally, and most importantly, the reason that the majority of residents at Campbell Heights voted to exercise their TOPA rights to buy the building is so that they can be sure that the building is well managed, well maintained, and well run as affordable housing for low income seniors and the disabled long into the future.”
Both attorneys declined to address the spiritual concerns.
Why would investors want to pay for the purchase and upkeep of a subsidized-housing building in an area still ripe for upscale development? A tax break. To make the building more attractive, D.C. Council passed a bill in March introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, exempting the building from real property taxes as long as it remains affordable housing.
Johnson doesn’t believe developers are motivated by charity and taxes, and he’s been out collecting signatures from fellow concerned tenants as part of a petition drive contesting the sale. “They’re not going to come upstairs, spend all this money, for people living on Social Security,” he says. CP
Ph0to by Darrow Montgomery