Stafford Apartments could get new life as student residences

Bush signs bill canceling subsidized housing status

August 10, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

It took an act of Congress, but the crime-troubled Stafford Apartments building in the heart of Mount Vernon may be in for a long-awaited makeover.

Under legislation signed this month by President Bush, the Stafford can be transformed from subsidized housing for about 100 low-income people into student residences, possibly for the nearby Peabody Institute's budding musicians.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, inserted language referring to the Stafford in a spending bill. That clause in the $28.9 billion bill canceled a federal requirement to maintain the high-rise as public housing until 2016 so that the 106-year-old Stafford can be sold for student housing.

"Gosh, that's wonderful," said Kemp Byrnes, a real estate broker who has chafed at drug dealing and other criminal activity around the apartment tower.

Byrnes, president of the Historic Charles Street Association, met over a year ago with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings to ask for help.

The 11-story Stafford, at 716 Washington Place, occupies prime real estate. It overlooks a grassy park steps from the Washington Monument and restaurants on Charles Street.

However, recurring problems there have hurt Mount Vernon, Byrnes said, discouraging people from walking through the area at night and adding to perceptions that the neighborhood of cultural landmarks and old townhouses is dangerous.

In a two-year span during the late 1990s, police received 559 calls about the Stafford, police records show. They included 82 reports of assault, 106 of disorderly people, seven of narcotics violations, eight of fires and 38 of domestic disturbances.

Byrnes said that the situation at the Stafford has improved but that the building is hardly trouble-free.

Two years ago, after the landlord assured the federal government that steps had been taken stop illegal behavior, police charged a Stafford resident with running a prostitution business from her apartment involving girls as young as age 14.

Mikulski's office said she used her muscle to help the area.

"Saving neighborhoods and strengthening communities is one of Senator Mikulski's top priorities," said spokeswoman Liz Lubow.

Mikulski worked with fellow Maryland Democrats Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Cummings, of the 7th District, on this issue, Lubow said.

It is unclear when, or if, the Stafford will be sold and overhauled.

Because the change will be allowed does not mean it will happen, said developer C. William Struever, whose staff has talked with the building's owner, AIMCO of Denver.

AIMCO representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday.

If such a conversion went ahead, current residents would be displaced.

Mikulski has included in a report that accompanies the spending bill a demand that federal housing officials first find suitable replacement housing.

But the mere possibility of change, after years of putting up with the Stafford's woes, has cheered many in Mount Vernon.

"I have no opposition to properly managed [subsidized] housing," said Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody, part of the Johns Hopkins University. "But we felt that place was becoming a center for drug traffic and other illegal behavior."

Sirota said Peabody had long eyed the Stafford for student housing but knew that the restrictions did not allow it.

In 1992, a previous owner of the building received a $420,000 loan through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a condition, the owner promised to keep the units for low-income residents through 2016.

Under the rules, a family of four must earn $53,000 or less to live at the Stafford; rent equals 30 percent of a tenant's income.

An HUD spokesman said yesterday that only Congress could have voided the restrictions.

"Now that the door has been opened," Sirota said, "I'm sure we will be engaged in conversations" with the building's owner.

About 180 of Peabody's 630 students live in its dormitory at St. Paul and Centre streets, with the rest spread out around the neighborhood and city.

Sirota stressed that no deals have been made and said the building might be attractive to other colleges in the city. Yet he imagined creating a musician-friendly environment with practice rooms - and affordable rent.

"If we don't make sure housing at reasonable market rates is available to students, we are going to have a problem keeping students in the area," he said.

Sirota said Peabody would likely be a partner with a developer rather than buy the building outright if it pursued the Stafford. Struever said his office has talked with AIMCO about revamping the building, but he called talks "preliminary."

Built in 1896 as a luxury honeymoon hotel, the Stafford was home to author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1935 while his wife, Zelda, was being treated for mental illness at the Johns Hopkins Phipps Clinic.

In 1970, its owners converted it to federally subsidized housing primarily for the elderly and disabled. Complaints about crime grew in the late 1980s, when HUD ruled that "disabled" residents could include former drug addicts and alcoholics.

During the 1990s, complaints increased and area business people began looking for help. The reason Mikulski added the language to the spending bill is that she chairs the subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee over HUD, said her spokeswoman.

Byrnes called the legislation a fitting solution: "That's Congress' job - to straighten out problems within government agencies."

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