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During the day’s last light, Eugene Jacquet cracks open his glass balcony door to point out an empty apartment across the Clifton Terrace courtyard where a ceiling lamp glares. Most of the tenants have moved out of the 80-year-old complex at 1308 Clifton Street, and Jacquet considers it his duty to watch over it.

He walks the property in search of needed repairs. He alerts the authorities to doors that have no locks and balcony joists that hang from a single set of nails. But the property owner, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is doing its best rendition of an absentee landlord. “They are not repairing anything,” says Jacquet, 75, president of the Clifton Terrace Tenants Association. HUD seized the structure in November 1996, after former landlord, North Carolina multimillionaire Rick Marshall, failed to maintain the complex and ensure the safety of its tenants despite receiving more than $300,000 a month in federal housing subsidies.

Now the federal agency wants to sell the 285-unit apartment building to a developer, who will either remodel or demolish it.

HUD officials would have preferred to buy out Jacquet in January. The agency wanted the tenants gone as quickly as possible to protect their safety during the planned $13.7 million remodeling project and ensure they would be no hindrance to the sale. To encourage them to depart, HUD issued the tenants Section 8 housing vouchers and paid expenses for their move into another part of the city.

But Jacquet and 24 families refused to go. “Suppose they were to take you and move you away,” he says. “You don’t know a soul. You don’t go out at night. You’re scared. You’re not known in the neighborhood. That’s bad. You’ve been here 30 years. You know just about everyone. You know a stranger when he comes into the neighborhood—that’s the thing.”

Like many of the holdouts, Jacquet, a retired dry-cleaning worker, is attached to the troubled complex. He has lived in each of its three buildings, and for many years he worked as a special policeman, patrolling the grounds. In 1996, during a period when Marshall refused to hire security guards, an assailant shot Jacquet in the stomach when he tried to defend the building’s laundry. When Jacquet returned from the hospital after the shooting, his apartment had been burglarized.

Now Jacquet hunkers down among stockpiles of books and boxes of old LPs. When management forced him to relocate from a much bigger unit two years ago, he had to jam three decades of accumulated belongings into half his former space. He says he simply can’t abide another mandate to move. “HUD never took into consideration what the tenants want,” Jacquet says. “We want homeownership. That’s what we want. The only way we’re going to get it is put up a battle for it. I don’t want the government to keep on giving to us. Then they can take it away from us.”

When Jacquet looked out his balcony door a year ago, he had plenty to look at: children playing in the courtyard, older occupants chatting on the stoops, the bustle of a housing complex at maximum capacity. But when HUD offered families money to move earlier this year, some 250 couldn’t resist the temptation. Jacquet believes that the tenants that HUD dispatched so efficiently failed to understand the implications of their departure. “They were scared out, because they didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “This is happening all over the city—HUD comes in, they relocate the people, and the people can’t move back.”

Clifton Terrace’s troubled history has certainly given tenants like Jacquet plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the federal agency’s stewardship. Once a marbled monument to dense urban living, the 1918 complex has changed into a symbol of everything wrong with federal low-income housing subsidies.

The last two landlords—Marion Barry’s former wife Mary Treadwell and Marshall—allowed the project to deteriorate while they sucked easy-come federal dollars right out of it. Both ended up in court. Treadwell was convicted in 1984 for skimming $600,000 in rental payments and other funds.

Alleging that he had taken more than $31 million in federal funding and had failed to maintain basic standards, HUD sued Marshall in 1995. At that time, Clifton Terrace had more than 100 citations from the District’s housing-code office for unsafe conditions. Tenants who had learned to tiptoe around the violence, leaky sewers, and rodent-infested hallways found a pro bono attorney to help them and demanded that they be given ownership.

The suit against Marshall forced a settlement under which he surrendered the property. The feds didn’t turn over ownership to the tenants but promised to consider their expectations and goals when disposing of it.

Would-be developers are now examining HUD specifications for redevelopment of the complex. The federal agency will provide as much as $40,000 per apartment for the renovations or rebuilding as long as the contractor guarantees that the vast majority of the units will be affordable to families whose income is no higher than 80 percent of the District’s median income. One in 10 apartments can be designated for residents whose income reaches as high as 115 percent of that median.

HUD claims it has encouraged potential developers to put together plans that meet tenant approval. Under the agency’s bid-rating system, however, all proposals will be scored on a scale of 0 to 105, and the tenants’ endorsement will count for only five points. “I don’t know if that’s fair,” says Joe Kisha, president of Castle Management, who is working with several nonprofit groups to assist the remaining residents. “But it’s the best the tenants can negotiate.”

The tenants plan to put in their own bid and negotiate with several low-income housing organizations that specialize in tenant ownership. But their numbers are dwindling. Jacquet buried another of his neighbors this month.

Terrace dwellers are not the only ones who have been working over the last few months to win control over the property. Bob Moore, the politically connected executive director of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH), has interviewed contractors as prospective partners for the building’s reconstruction. For the directors and executives of the development corporation, Clifton Terrace also has become a significant symbol—of how poverty is bad for business. DCCH developed the Nehemiah shopping center on 14th Street and would love to fill Clifton Terrace with prosperous residents who would buy goods from its shops.

The corporation has already interviewed potential financiers and construction contractors for the Clifton Terrace remodeling. “Ideally, any inner-city environment that has been neglected for years would gain from an influx of some higher-income residents to mix with the people who have lower incomes,” says Kateri Ellison, chairman of the development corporation. “We would like to see decent housing occupied by citizens of varying means.”

Jacquet frets that the development corporation could end up pricing the current tenants—most of them elderly—out of the building.

Charles Wehrwein, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing, insists that residents’ needs will take a top priority in the reconstruction. “We’re always balancing those issues related to the residents and the taxpayers’ concerns,” he says. “Clearly we would try, to the extent there is relocation, to put families in a comparable unit in the neighborhood. Former residents will have a right to come back.”

Jacquet insists that HUD’s plans for Clifton Terrace will come to nought unless the tenants win—not just the right to live in the building, but the responsibility of owning their own apartments. While disrepair has set in at the structure like a debilitating illness, Jacquet’s own home is a model of enterprise. He has transformed his single bedroom into a study and bar and installed ceiling fans and lanterns. “This is the first real chance we’ve gotten to own the property,” Jacquet says. “If people own it, they won’t tear it up.”