These days, Florence Smith makes sure to keep the bathroom door closed in her apartment in the Parkside Terrace complex on 9th Street SE. Lately, there’s been a plumbing backup in the complex, a rundown Anacostia monolith, and residents do everything possible to keep the stench bottled up.
Although the stench will soon pass, Smith’s other problems won’t. She lives among vermin: mice, rats, cockroaches, and criminals who lurk in the tomblike hallways. Smith stays with friends or relatives whenever possible. “I hate living here,” she says. Before she moved into Parkside, Smith lived for many years in Ridgecrest Heights, a notorious housing project that was razed last summer.
A decade of squalid living made Smith a prime target for the sales pitch of H.R. Crawford. In 1995, Crawford, a former Ward 7 D.C. councilmember, approached Smith with an opportunity to abandon her Ridgecrest digs for an outpost in a place called Walter Washington Estates. As represented in watercolor renderings, the new development was to consist of stylish, modern town houses along an Anacostia hilltop. The prospect of moving from cinderblock city into a Gaithersburgian palace overwhelmed Smith and other Ridgecrest tenants. “He even had us picking out from a book what kind of chandeliers we wanted,” says Smith, who is president of the Ridgecrest Heights Tenant Association and a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner.
The glitter of the chandeliers and the tidiness of the vinyl siding convinced Smith and her neighbors to sign on to Crawford’s plan, which projected 141 affordable town houses for a mixed-income population on the same site as their rotting complex. Crawford and public housing authorities at the time hailed the conversion as a model of public-private partnership that would boost Anacostia’s anemic 10-percent homeownership rate.
Two years later, though, Washington Estates’ model town house is as close as former Ridgecrest residents have gotten to homeownership. The new homes are priced at $100,000 and upaffordable by most standards, but out of reach for most public housing recipients.
Angry Ridgecrest Heights residents believe they have been hoodwinked. They charge that Crawford manipulated them through savvy marketing and a mastery of federal housing programs. As a result, he acquired Ridgecrest Heights on the cheap and ensured a handsome profit for himselfonly to leave most former Ridgecrest residents stuck in blighted hellholes. And he did so with the cooperation of government officials who looked the other way, eager to wish away a troublesome housing project.
Like many government-sponsored housing developments, Ridgecrest Heights had great promise that gradually slithered into a horrifying reality. The development was built in the early ’60s by Washington real estate mogul Abe Pollin with a guaranteed mortgage from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Originally named Linda Pollin Memorial Housing (named after Pollin’s daughter), the complex was part of an innovative government effort to encourage private developers to provide moderately priced urban housing for working-class families.
But after the late-’60s turmoil in the District, middle-income tenants fled, leaving mostly poor black families who received some form of government assistance. Citing management headaches, Pollin sold the buildings in the mid-’80s.
The horrors continued under the stewardship of real estate developer A. Bruce Rozet, whom residents blamed for failing to maintain the complex. Two years ago, HUD foreclosed on Rozet and took over the property. It inherited a classic public housing fiasco: At the beginning of this year, only 194 of the 331 units were occupied; drugs, it seemed, were available on every floor. The only solution was demolition.
Under a new HUD program, residents have the right of first refusal to purchase beleaguered projects like Ridgecrest Heights. The idea behind the program is to empower public housing tenants. The reality is that it leaves them vulnerable to cash-hungry developers like Crawford.
Once Smith recognized that her tenants association lacked the capital to buy Ridgecrest, she took a close look at Crawford’s plans for the developmenttown houses in Washington Estates, Crawford promised, would be priced between $70,000 and $90,000 and would feature luxurious bedrooms and kitchens in addition to chandeliers and the like.
Although few public housing tenants have the wherewithal to qualify for even small mortgages, Crawford and HUD officials agreed to allow them to use federal Section 8 housing vouchers to make their monthly payments. At Smith’s urging, Ridgecrest residents eagerly signed on.
As did HUD, which supplied a $24.5-million grant for the housing development. The D.C. Housing Finance Agency (HFA) put up $200,000 in pre-development loan funds. To secure the funding, Crawford needed Smith’s signature on his grant applications. Smith gladly complied, allowing Crawford to draft all correspondence to HUD and HFA over her signature. She also suggests that he had his lawyers draw up all the papers of the partnership with favorable terms for him.
“Crawford was running the whole show,” Smith says, admitting she blindly signed checks and documents at his request. Smith says that with her cooperation, Crawford shrewdly obtained controlling interest in both the homeowner’s association and CEMI-Ridgecrest Inc., the nonprofit set up in mid-November 1996 to carry out the development.
Crawford knows the politics of HUD grants like an insider because he was one. He served as a HUD assistant secretary under the Nixon and Ford administrations and championed just the sort of urban homesteading program offered to Ridgecrest residents. But Crawford never got to implement his programshe was fired by President Ford in 1976 for soliciting consulting jobs while in office.
In May, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, citing Crawford’s checkered past, challenged the Ridgecrest grant. Community leaders as well as Washington Post business columnist Rudolph A. Pyatt rose to his defense, criticizing the agency for “dwelling on the past and jeopardizing Southeast’s future.” HUD permitted the project to proceed but ordered an investigation, which is still open.
Cuomo may have been onto something. If HUD officials had bothered to check, they would have noticed that two properties managed by CrawfordParkside Terrace and the Roosevelt Apartments for Senior Citizenswere on the agency’s list of troubled housing projects. Roosevelt, a nursing home at 16th and W Streets NW, has come under scrutiny since the CEMI-Ridgecrest grant was approved. According to the Post, Crawford’s property management firm allegedly received roughly $3.3 million in improper payments supplied by a HUD block grant.
After the Ridgecrest tenant association approved the conversion plan, Smith saw less and less of Crawford. Three months after Crawford received the HUD grant, says Smith, he stopped returning her phone calls. “He promised to get with me for a business meeting but kept putting me off,” says Smith.
Other Ridgecrest residents felt the same way after a late-July meeting with Crawford. According to Smith, Crawford told anyone who was on welfare or unemployed not to bother applying for one of the town houses in Washington Estates. Crawford refused to comment for this story.
By the time the folks at Ridgecrest began to see the light, Crawford could be as brazen as he liked. After all, he had $24.5 million to redevelop the property, and the former Ridgecrest tenants had already scattered to other projects.
And once the former tenants saw the prices of the new town houses, they resolved to make themselves comfortable in their current abodes. Many of the Washington Estates homes that were supposed to be within reach for most of the tenants exceeded original costs by $20,000-30,000. There were few models available for under $100,000.
The inflation upset former tenants like Charles Paris. “He stole our houses away from us,” says Paris. “He didn’t say anything about us not being able to come back.”
Paris and other tenants will have to get in line behind more qualified loan applicants. “We hope to have as many former Ridgecrest tenants as possible qualify, but nothing is guaranteed,” says HFA director Milton Bailey.
Other than some allotments for elderly residents, “I can’t see how any [the former tenants] would qualify to live in Walter E. Washington,” says Bob Boulter, president of Jubilee Enterprises, a nonprofit developer that has undertaken several projects in the city. Nor can the Ridgecrest tenants: No oneincluding HUD officialshas figured out how to apply their Section 8 vouchers to a mortgage.
While Ridgecresters scrounge for down payments, Crawford is sitting on a federally financed bonanza. According to documents, Crawford will collect more than $1.5 million in developer’s fees and $400,000 for marketing and sale of the property. And over the next 15 years, he’s projected to collect $500,000 in management fees. These figures do not include the pocket change that accrues from any large development project, such as $336,780 for construction oversight, $200,000 for pre-development, $50,000 for organization and logistics, and some $25,000 in “miscellaneous” expenses.
As details of Crawford’s profits from the project have emerged, Smith and several other tenants have intensified their attacks on Crawford. “He stole our homes,” says Smith.
The anti-Crawford backlash, however, is not unanimous. “I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be [approved for a loan],” says former Ridgecrest tenant Maryann Edelin. “I have good credit and a job. That’s something Florence Smith doesn’t have.”
According to Smith, Crawford at first tried to buy her out. In late October, she claims, Crawford offered her a job and urged her to “forget all of this.” Smith says she declined the offer. (Smith says that she had actually asked Crawford for a job previously, but he turned her down, saying it would be a conflict of interest.)
Crawford has responded as any powerful man under attack would. Last Monday, he tried to remove Smith from CEMI-Ridgecrest’s board of directors, alleging that she was in violation of her lease. Smith in turn challenges the legality of the action and wants construction halted. In addition, Crawford has attempted to get Smith’s housing vouchers invalidated.
The conflict between Smith and Crawford, and the prices of Washington Estates homes, are of little concern to HUD officials, who will soon have a shining, middle-income development for their brochures. “There is a tenant group who are very active and have been working with Mr. Crawford all along,” says HUD spokesman Victor Lambert. Sure they have. They just won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of their labor.CP