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Amid public concern over the loss of affordable housing in the Chinatown neighborhood and the specter of political action, the owner of the low-income Museum Square Apartments has opted not to follow through on its plan to demolish the 302-unit building—-at least not for the time being.
The Williamsburg, Va.–based Bush Companies, which also goes by the name W. H. H. Trice & Company, had informed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Museum Square tenants last September that it did not intend to renew its Section 8 contract for the building when it expired on Oct. 1, 2014. Under the Section 8 contract, the federal government subsidizes the rent payments of the tenants, all of whom are low income and most of whom are Chinese, comprising around half of Chinatown’s dwindling Chinese population. Bush followed up with a letter to tenants in June stating that the building at 401 K St. NW would be demolished unless the tenants could come up with $250 million—-either themselves or through a third party—-to purchase the property.
That prompted an outcry from the tenants and their advocates, who found the asking price of more than $800,000 per unit arbitrary and exorbitant, and from At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who drafted emergency legislation to limit the amount developers can request from tenants in cases like these, which are governed by the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Because Catania had learned of the impending loss of affordable housing from a Washington City Paper story that was published after the deadline to submit legislation for the upcoming D.C. Council session, it required Council Chairman Phil Mendelson‘s approval to be placed on the agenda. Mendelson opted not to grant that approval, leaving the legislation to wait until the Council returns from its summer recess next month.
But the tenants now have a reprieve from a different party: the property owner itself.
On Friday, Trice president James Meade sent a brief letter to HUD notifying the agency of Trice/Bush’s decision to rescind its earlier notices stating its intention to opt out of the Section 8 contract. No further explanation was given. Bush spokeswoman Classie Williams says that the only Bush official who can speak about the property is on vacation until next week.
It’s not immediately clear how long the continued subsidy of the apartments will be guaranteed. The expiring Section 8 contract for the building had a duration of four years, but Bush’s correspondence with HUD did not stipulate whether another four-year contract or one of a different length would be triggered if Bush did not opt out of renewing its contract. At the very least, the tenants will have another year at Museum Square, since a one-year notice is required to opt out of renewing a Section 8 contract.
Still, Zenobia Lai, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center who’s worked with the tenants, is cautious about what the future holds. “What it means for the next step now is kind of interesting,” says Lai, who suspects that concerns over Bush’s failure to provide Chinese-language notifications to the tenants, many of whom speak limited English, may have put pressure on Bush to back away from its planned demolition. “It doesn’t mean that the owner won’t give another opt-out notice in September.”
She adds, “There’s a little bit more of a safeguard with the Section 8 subsidy in place.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery