By Derrick Perkins
State officials sold Hunting Point to the Laramar Group on Friday, putting the housing complex in private hands for the first time in more than a decade.
Laramar — a national property management firm with corporate offices in Chicago, Denver and San Francisco — scooped up the buildings informally known as Hunting Towers from the state Department of Transportation for $81 million. The deal had been in the works since December, said Richard Bennett, the state’s right-of-way and utilities director.
Though Richmond will receive less than $81 million — because of credits and adjustments, said Bennett, who wouldn’t disclose exactly how much less — the proceeds will help pay off the bridge project.
Laramar must honor existing leases, but the prospect of new ownership has left residents worried. Some enjoy a longstanding rent freeze granted in return for remaining in the complex during the multiyear construction project. Residents like Chuch Benagh don’t expect either the low rents or rent freeze to continue much longer.
“[There is] some anxiety because I don’t know what’s going to happen with the buildings in general,” said Benagh. “If you’re threatened with perhaps having to move or being priced out of your apartment or your living space — and your neighbors are in the same situation — it’s uncomfortable for everyone.”
While fellow resident Jim Mercury said he was surprised at the subdued reactions of his neighbors, he echoed Benagh’s concerns. The uncertainty has him worried.
“You don’t know is the thing,” Mercury said. “Certainly things are going to change. For residents who have been here since the construction, our rents have been frozen, which VDOT put into writing for as long as they owned it. Now that they don’t own it anymore … at the very least everybody’s rent is going to go up once their current lease expires. That’s not really a good thing for a lot of people who really live on the margin.”
The prospect of higher rents has city officials concerned as well. Hunting Point represents one of Alexandria’s last remaining holdouts of affordable housing. The city’s share of homes deemed affordable — obtainable by a family making less than 60 percent of the region’s median income of $106,100 — fell from 18,218 in 2000 to 5,672 in 2012.
Though they admitted low odds of keeping Hunting Point completely affordable in the future, officials hoped to meet with the potential new owners in the fall, when residents learned a prospective buyer would begin inspecting the buildings. But VDOT would not identify the interested party, which drew criticism from Mayor Bill Euille and the complex’s residents.
Bennett defended the state agency’s decision to stay mum on Laramar, which was the interested party all along. Until a deal was in place, naming a potential buyer would have been premature.
And the deal nearly fell apart on several occasions, Bennett said.
“You have a contract that somebody can back out [of] for a hundred different reasons, and so VDOT elected toward solving those [issues] and getting this into a firm contract before we provided any additional info to the tenants,” he said. “I just don’t know what they’re expecting as far as knowing anything about the sale other than the fact [that we were looking to sell]. Now that they know the name, does that make people feel more comfortable? I don’t know.”
Mildrilyn Davis, director of the city’s housing office, said officials “had an idea” Laramar was interested but only began formally speaking with company representatives after the deal went through last week.
“I think they’re willing to have discussions with us, but I think that before any of us can really feel comfortable crafting a solution, we need to understand how many people [the sale is] going to affect,” Davis said. “Not everyone who was on the VDOT rent freeze would necessarily need an affordable housing option.”
Laramar officials are assessing the complex’s needs and will focus on maintenance and general upkeep in the immediate future, she said.