- Associated Press - Sunday, July 2, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - Howard Manor was a bustling residential complex for decades, but these days it is a hulking brick edifice suffused in eerie silence, a five-story ghost building of vacant apartments near Howard University in a gentrifying area of Washington. The financially struggling school, which owns the complex, has been aggressively trying to empty the building of dozens of low- and moderate-income tenants, saying it wants to renovate the 67-year-old structure for a new population of renters.

The clearing-out effort began months ago, and now almost everybody who lived there is gone.

Almost.

Jerry Dyson, 82, a retired newspaper production worker, is the sole occupant of the fourth floor, where 14 of 15 apartments are shuttered. He likes to recite part of a Bible verse, John 14:2, in jest. Stepping off an elevator, he moseyed down the dimly lit hallway toward his door, his footfalls and mellow voice echoing in the emptiness as he passed one vacant unit after another.

“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” he muttered ruefully.

Upstairs, P.J. Green-Young, a 60-year-old substitute teacher - a petite bolt of energy who talks and walks on fast-forward - strode in the warm, stuffy air of the tiled fifth-floor hallway and pointed at long-locked doors, fondly remembering ex-neighbors: “Paul .?.?. Susan .?.?. Kurt .?.?. Professor S. .?.?. Oh, I’m telling you, we used to be so familial in here.”

Today she is alone on the floor, an adamant holdout, one of just three tenants left in a decaying complex of 70-plus apartments.

They refuse to leave, despite what Dyson and Green-Young described as high-pressure tactics by the real estate management company hired by Howard University to move people out.

The historically black university is trying to reverse years of financial troubles from lower revenue at Howard University Hospital, higher expenditures for student financial aid and a reduction in federal money.

With its financial health in question, the university continues to look to its real estate assets as sources of revenue. The university, for instance, struck a $22 million deal to convert a residence hall next to Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW into luxury rentals.

But in a city where tenants enjoy some of the strictest legal protections in the country, Dyson, Green-Young and another Howard Manor resident - a woman in her 30s who did not want to be interviewed - cannot be evicted as long as they behave properly in the building and pay their rents on time, according to their attorney, Blake A. Biles. The university disagrees, asserting that the tenants’ rental agreements are no longer valid.

So they are in a curious standoff - curious not only because Dyson and Green-Young, both African Americans of limited means, said they are content to keep living in a mausoleum-like building, but because the landlord seeking to remove them, in the name of redevelopment, is a 150-year-old university with a revered legacy in the black community.

“I would assume that any institution of higher learning, especially Howard, would feel committed to serving the people in its community as well as its students,” said Biles, a retired partner in the white-shoe law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, which is representing the three Howard Manor tenants pro bono.

Responding to Biles‘ remark, a Howard spokeswoman said in an email that “modernization efforts across our real estate portfolio are critical to advancing Howard’s mission to create an educational environment in which all students can thrive.”

Dyson, who grew up in Washington, moved to Howard Manor in 1991, after he retired. Green-Young, a native Chicagoan, has lived in the building for 16 years, starting when she was a graduate student in Howard’s School of Divinity.

Theirs is a town-and-gown dispute in an age of lucrative D.C. property values.

“Are you all right, dear?” Green-Young asked Dyson one recent morning. She was visiting him in his rent-controlled efficiency unit, for which he pays $239 a month. Dyson, shuffling across the cramped apartment, seemed anxious as he reached for his blood-pressure gauge on a shelf.

“One-ninety-four over a hundred,” he said after a moment, glancing at his friend and grimacing.

“Ooo, that’s not good,” she whispered.

“Not good,” said Dyson, sinking his lean frame into a chair. Later, he said: “They tried their damnedest to get us out. Even pushed me into a heart problem. You see me taking my blood pressure? I wasn’t doing that five months ago.”

A tide of gentrification

Gentrification in the nation’s capital, largely a downtown phenomenon in the early aughts, has spread in all directions, including toward Howard Manor, at Georgia Avenue and Girard Street NW, on the northern edge of Howard’s campus. The influx of affluent newcomers to Washington has led to skyrocketing rents and real estate values - a boon for land owners and developers of luxury apartments and condos, but a life-altering disruption for deep-rooted residents who are being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Opened in 1950, Howard Manor was long an affordable residence for people in need of inexpensive housing. The complex was filled with Howard graduate students, young faculty members and others affiliated with the school and its hospital, including nurses, technicians, clerical and blue-collar workers, and retirees.

But that was before the university’s current financial distress, and before the tide of gentrification began rolling into Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods around the campus, creating profitable real estate opportunities.

Crystal Brown, Howard’s vice president of communications, said repeatedly in recent weeks that she was trying to arrange for someone in the school’s real estate office to speak about Howard Manor. She eventually said that an interview could not be scheduled. Instead, she asked for a list of questions and responded broadly in emails.

Howard Manor needed to be modernized,” Brown wrote. “For safety reasons, it was determined that occupants needed to vacate the building during the modernization process.” No promises were made that they could move back in when the work is finished. Rather, Brown said, the university “created a comprehensive relocation program,” offering residents “payment abatement and forgiveness, counseling and relocation services as well as substantial financial assistance.”

The financial help included confidential cash payments in the low- to mid-five figures, Dyson and Green-Young said.

A property management company, Zalco Realty, headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., was hired by Howard in January 2015 to handle the work of emptying the building. Zalco’s president, Arthur N. Dubin, declined to be interviewed, referring questions to the university.

One complication that Zalco apparently faced involved the strong protections given to renters in the District by city law. Biles, the tenants’ attorney, said that in most cases, when a renter in Washington signs a lease, it can be renewed and modified but cannot be terminated unless the tenant chooses to leave or violates the rental terms.

And because it was built before 1975, Howard Manor is subject to the District’s rent-control rules, which means the university could increase rents for existing tenants only by a relatively small amount each year, based on the Labor Department’s consumer price index.

When a rent-controlled apartment is vacated, however, the landlord usually is allowed to raise the rent by as much as 30 percent for new tenants. Moreover, in the case of Howard Manor, if the complex is substantially rebuilt, the university could seek a rent-control exemption.

“Pricing has not yet been set” for the modernized building, Brown said in an email, adding that the new Howard Manor will “optimally serve University stakeholders as occupants,” including faculty members, students and staff employees.

Eerie stillness

Green-Young and Dyson said that at least two-thirds of Howard Manor’s 70-plus apartments were occupied in fall 2015, when Zalco began peppering tenants with letters and phone calls, informing them that they would have to move. Many of the tenants were left with the impression that they had no clear right to keep their apartments, Dyson and Green-Young said.

The two holdouts said they also weren’t completely aware of their tenant rights until community activists, including affordable-housing advocates, became aware of what was happening at Howard Manor, and lawyer Biles volunteered to help them. The standoff hasn’t yet shifted to a courtroom.

Zalco wasn’t legally obligated to fully explain to residents what their rights as tenants were. And the company did not do so in numerous letters and notices reviewed by The Washington Post. Instead, it offered an array of relocation services, provided updates on the rapidly advancing renovation plan, and urged residents to “contact a mortgage banker at any area bank and submit your documents to become qualified to purchase a home.”

Green-Young, whose rent for a one-bedroom is similar to Dyson‘s, said of Zalco: “They were calling our cellphones. They were calling our landlines. They came to people’s doors. If they could, they came by people’s jobs, if they worked on the campus. And they were just bombarding us with: ‘Howard is closing the building! You have to get out! So why don’t you let us assist you?’”

By the early part of this year, nearly everyone in Howard Manor had packed up and left. Dyson and Green-Young said that, like their neighbors, they were offered money in return for moving. Neither would specify the amount. “It was enough to go out and pay cash for a new Toyota, put it that way,” said Dyson, adding: “I didn’t try to persuade anyone to stay. I told them, ‘Do what’s best for you’ - that was my thing. And I also let them know that I would be the last one to leave, okay?”

Because they have been told by their attorney that under D.C. law their leases cannot be terminated as long as they abide by their rental terms, Dyson and Green-Young said, they have been dutifully mailing rent checks to Zalco each month. And Zalco has been promptly sending the checks back, uncashed.

Asked about the rent checks, Brown, the Howard spokeswoman, said in an email that “none of the remaining occupants have current license agreements,” meaning valid leases. She did not elaborate on why Howard thinks the rental agreements are no longer in force, saying only that the university “is not accepting any payments” from the tenants.

Meanwhile, in its spooky stillness, once-vibrant Howard Manor now brings to mind a low-rent version of the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

“When you start hearing ‘Redrum! Redrum!’ in the halls,” Biles quipped, “you’ll know it’s time to get out.”

Said Dyson, “Yeah, well, what you do is, you take your equalizer with you wherever you go in this place.” Stepping to a counter in his apartment, he said, “You know, your gun, your knife.” He smiled coyly. “Now, I don’t have either of those, but. .?.?.” And from the counter he lifted a set of nunchaku and waved them in the air.

Green-Young wanted to point out something in the basement, and she led the way in twilight through a warren of low-ceilinged, subterranean hallways until she arrived in the laundry room.

“See?”

She had affixed handwritten notes to a broken washing machine and a busted dryer.

One: “Saturday eve. Machine inoperable. 13 May 2017. Owes me $1.00.”

The other: “Sunday eve. 21 May 2017. Dryer not working. Owes = $1.00.”

“Two dollars total,” she said in a tone of defiance. “That’s what they owe me.”

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