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Stafford building to house students

The Stafford Apartments, an elegant Mount Vernon landmark with a troubled recent past, is to be converted from low-income housing to dorms for Peabody Institute's music students by next fall, the building's owner says.

"That's our schedule," said Patti Shwayder, senior vice president of Denver-based AIMCO Inc. "Of course, anything can happen, but it seems to be proceeding along."

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The news has elicited cheers from some neighbors and business leaders. They say drugs and crimes linked to the Stafford have tarnished Mount Vernon Place, often called one of the prettiest urban squares in the nation.

But some longtime residents say they feel they are being evicted from a choice spot because of a few unsavory characters, even as added security has reduced problems.

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In February, the 143 residents were told they had one year to find somewhere else to live. By law, AIMCO must help them relocate, and all residents will receive Section 8 housing vouchers to aid their search.

A clearer picture of the Stafford's likely overhaul is emerging a year after Congress -- spurred by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings -- took the unusual step of lifting a rule that the Stafford remain subsidized housing until 2016.

The 11-story Stafford was built in 1896 as a honeymoon hotel a block from the Washington Monument and was briefly home to author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since 1970 it has been low-income housing -- and would have remained so through 2016 because a previous owner had received a loan through a federal housing program.

"I'm delighted with AIMCO's response that they're proceeding and hope to see the project happen," said Rebecca Gagalis, who asked the congressional delegation for help in her role as executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp.

Many issues remain to be resolved. Shwayder said AIMCO has not decided whether to keep or sell the building. And the Johns Hopkins University, Peabody's parent, has yet to receive the company's plan for student housing, said university spokesman Glenn Small.

But having told residents they must leave, AIMCO has a major incentive to get the Stafford ready for students next September. And Peabody has long eyed the property; about 180 of its 630 students live in its dormitory at St. Paul and Centre streets.

So a budding violinist or cellist may soon take up residence in the one-bedroom apartment where 61-year-old Isaac Cook has lived for nearly a decade. For about $150 a month, Cook enjoys stunning views of Mount Vernon Place, with its flowers and statuary and fine architecture. He does not work because of disabilities stemming from a robbery and beating he suffered years ago.

"When I first heard we had to move, that got me, because I've been here so many years and was not prepared to move," Cook said in a raspy voice caused by stab wounds to his throat. "I was devastated. I was truly petrified. Slowly I got it together: I've got to look for someplace else."

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Cook said a nonprofit group and a social worker helped him find a place he could afford on his $600 monthly subsidy. But he does not like the rundown area around Preston Street and Greenmount Avenue.

"I think it is the rich over the poor," complained another resident, Alonzo Carlton, 56, who has lived at the Stafford for nine years. "When people don't meet their criteria, they find ways to get rid of you. I think that's basically what's happening."

Carlton said there is drug use -- he has seen crack vials in the hall -- but, like Cook, he maintains the Stafford has made strides. AIMCO says it has installed security cameras and set aside space for a Baltimore police substation. Most police calls nowadays involve domestic violence, Shwayder said.

In 1970, the Stafford's owner converted it to federally subsidized housing primarily for the elderly and disabled. Complaints about crime grew in the late 1980s, when the federal Department of Housing and Community Development ruled that "disabled" residents could include recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.

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

Neighbors of the Stafford agree there has been progress. One neighbor said firetrucks stopped appearing constantly after an arsonist in the building was caught or simply stopped. No longer does one hear periodic gunshots, said another neighbor, Steve Johnson.

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"But there are still problems," said Johnson, who owns a co-op next door at 700 Washington Place. Units in his gracious building, which has doubled as a Parisian backdrop in movies, have sold for about $200,000.

Johnson, the president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said the Stafford is "no place to raise a family."

Demetria Watkins, a 27-year-old mother of three who lives at the Stafford, does not disagree. She said the small park across the street is a poor play space for children. "You have dogs everywhere," she said.

Gagalis, the development corporation director, said she expects Stafford residents will find better family conditions elsewhere -- a debatable point given the limited options for holders of Section 8 vouchers.

"Everyone wants it to be handled delicately so it's as painless as possible for residents there," she said.

Gagalis represents businesses along Charles Street, and the Stafford's woes have hurt area businesses, restaurants and museums.

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"If we're trying to attract people to the Mount Vernon Cultural District, it makes it tough," she said. "It just puts a handicap on the effort to enhance the district as a tourist destination."

To Isaac Cook, though, the area is his neighborhood, not a tourist destination. "It's quite like home," he said, watching the street life on a drizzly day, "quite like home."


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