By Derrick Perkins
Hunting Towers resident Jim Mercury learned of the building’s potential sale not from a phone call or letter, but after picking up a flier slipped beneath his apartment door.
That the cluster of towers and terraces nestled between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Potomac were on the market did not come as a surprise. The Virginia Department of Transportation told residents it was gauging the private sector’s interest in the buildings during a meeting in the spring.
But despite assurances to the contrary from department representatives, Mercury and his neighbors were kept in the dark about the looming sale until last week.
“It’s a very vague note. They referred to a selected buyer so, presumably, it’s part of the process that began in the spring. We have no idea who the new owner might be,” Mercury said. “It’s par for the course. [Lack of communication] has been VDOT’s instinct from the beginning.”
The state transportation department did not respond to media requests for more information.
VDOT bought the buildings in 2001 for the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Officials demolished one tower and three terrace units during the project, evicting about 300 residents in the process.
Though profitable for the state — VDOT hauled in nearly $20 million as landlord between 2001 and 2008 — the remaining buildings comprise one of the city’s last bastions of natural affordable housing. Rents have risen, Mercury said, but there’s a fear that new owners will renovate the buildings and price out residents.
And the prospective loss of so much affordable housing has city officials concerned as well. They learned about the sale only after residents and reporters alerted them. Though the state confirmed it had selected a buyer Tuesday, VDOT will not disclose the potential owner’s identity, said Assistant City Manager Mark Jenks.
VDOT kept City Hall — like the building’s residents — out of the loop, he said.
“This is the first we’ve heard of [a potential sale],” Jenks said. “VDOT had promised a meeting with the residents and … they did not hold that meeting. As a result, this is the first we’ve heard of it. The housing staff, this past August, asked VDOT where they were in the process. VDOT basically was silent on the matter. [Tuesday] was the first time they were willing to say anything, and it was very little.”
When state officials opened up bidding on the building, they received interest from nearly a dozen companies, Jenks said. A few approached the city to discuss the property, but most did not.
The note Mercury received also outlined the days when the prospective buyer’s inspectors would sweep through the building, assessing the potential investment. If all goes well, the state agency and buyer could settle as early as next month, Jenks said.
Once the deal is done it becomes public record. But city officials want to uncover the prospective buyer before that point.
“Our interest will be finding out who the buyer is and sitting down and talking to them about their long-term plans and seeing if there are any potential affordable housing plans,” he said.
While state law requires a new owner to honor existing leases, they can raise rent as soon as the contract expires. And that’s the likely outcome, Jenks said.
“It’s unlikely that 100 percent of the building can be kept affordable — that’s probably not likely at all,” he said. “Clearly keeping some units affordable would be [our] goal.”
While increased rents seem nearly certain, redevelopment of the area is far less likely. City regulations confine any developer to the building’s footprint and scale, said Barbara Ross, deputy planning director.
“There are a series of restrictions that would make somebody stop and think, ‘Do I want to tear this building down and start new?’” she said. “You can’t build it any bigger, you can’t change the footprint and you have to rebuild what you have. So if you have a sizable building, given the cost of demolition and construction, you may not want to go through that.”
In the meantime, residents like Chuck Benagh want more information from the state. And they want to be kept up to speed.
“Seriously, I think many of the residents have been here a long time and they deserve a little better,” he said. “At least follow through on the promises. We [as taxpayers] are owners of this building; we own the building.”