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Some nicely renovated, some not. (Lydia DePillis)

A couple of months ago, we learned about how a massive tenant purchase in Columbia Heights had slowly fallen victim to city sluggishness and unrealistic expectations. In early June, Mayfair Mansions met a similar fate—it went into foreclosure, putting the tenants essentially back where they started.

We’ll begin at the beginning.

Mayfair Mansions, a 569-unit apartment complex in Ward 7’s Kenilworth neighborhood, had great expectations back in 2005. The buildings themselves are significant, being some of the first housing developed for middle-class African Americans in the 1940s, which in 1989 landed them a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

When the owner put the 17-building complex for sale, tenants decided to exercise their right under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to convert 160 of the units into affordable condominiums, while the rest remained rentals. To do so, they received a $24.1 million loan from the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, plus tax credits and bond financing from the D.C. Housing Finance Agency. And the tenants brought two non-profits to manage the conversion: The Marshall Heights Community Development Organization was to renovate the condo side, and the Community Preservation and Development Corporation came on to do the rentals.

Still with me? OK.

Everything went as planned with the rentals. CPDC broke ground in 2007 on 12 apartment buildings, and by fall 2009 they were all finished and occupied. But the condominiums didn’t go so well. Marshall Heights CDO never found construction financing, and meanwhile, tenants who were planning on buying their units as condos made no progress on qualifying for their own loans. In March of this year, DCMud reported that the condo plan had fizzled.

It would be easy to chalk up that failure to the economy, which came crashing down in 2008. That’s what Marshall Heights’ Interim CEO Doris Sarumi says happened. “By the time we reached early 2008, the market just fell out of the bottom,” Sarumi says. “And so people who at one time had qualified for a mortgage, those people were no longer qualified to purchase.”

But Rick Eisen, the tenant association’s lawyer, says that had Marshall Heights and the Department of Housing and Community Development been moving faster in the first place, it would have been much easier to get buyers set up before the market went south. As with Randolph Towers in Columbia Heights, DHCD scaled back its planned Home Purchase Assistance Program contribution from $70,000 per unit to $40,000, which discouraged some of those who had planned to buy. Meanwhile, several leadership changes at Marshall Heights slowed progress, and the tenants association was focused on getting the rental side done.

“Nothing ever made any sense,” Eisen says. “They never ended up getting enough qualified buyers because the program was so complicated and confusing that of the people who were interested and qualified, nothing was happening, so they gave up. The bad economy, frankly, was an excuse.”

When it became clear that Marshall Heights would default on its loan, CPDC—which had finished up the rental side on schedule with experienced local contractor Hamel Builders—tried to work out a deal with DHCD to complete the rest of the buildings as rentals, which would have been acceptable to the tenants association and kept the complex from going to auction.

Instead, says CPDC President Michael Pitchford, DHCD kept pushing to bring in Forrester Construction, which does a lot of business in the city, from libraries to schools to the Pentagon. When a deal failed to materialize, DHCD started to foreclose on the property, which still had an outstanding debt of $7,305,463. On June 7th, it sold at an Alex Cooper foreclosure auction for $7,300,000 to an entity owned by Dantes Partners and Forrester Construction.

Dantes Partners, whose principal Buwa Binitie formerly worked for the Department of Planning and Economic Development, has also landed quite a few District contracts lately. When reached by phone, Binitie had no comment. According to Eisen, the new team has agreed to renovate the remaining buildings in the same way that CPDC did the other side of the complex.

“Why it was necessary to bring in a whole new cast of characters to reinvent the wheel, I don’t understand,” Eisen says. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

DHCD has a rosy assessment of how the five-year process turned out.

“It’s important not to overlook the overall success story of the Mayfair Mansions community,” writes DHCD spokeswoman Angelita Colon-Francia.  “…The tenants’ commitment to preserving the historic integrity of the campus and to improving the infrastructure of the apartment complexes has resulted in a socially and physically secure community for all Mayfair Mansion residents.”

But did it have to be this way? Perhaps not. Though the economy may have ultimately killed the dream of homeownership at Mayfair Mansions, as with Randolph Towers, it still might have been saved had Marshall Heights come up with a concrete development plan and stuck to it, and had the city acted with greater urgency to help the would-be homeowners nail down needed financing.

Affordable development deals don’t happen at bureaucratic speed, and there’s little room for that kind of error.