This May, Prince George’s County used its Right of First Refusal (ROFR) program to protect affordable housing at Bedford and Victoria Stations, a troubled housing complex in Langley Park. In the short term, this will help the property’s tenants, who have lived through a decade of their landlord’s disinvestment and malfeasance. But tenants worry about their long-term future on the property.
The ROFR statute, which passed in 2013, is designed to protect affordable housing by giving the county the right to refuse sales of multi-family housing serving low- and moderate-income families. If the county decides to refuse a sale, it transfers the right of purchase to an approved developer who promises to keep 75% of units affordable for 15 years.
In most ROFR cases, developers are required to set rents that are affordable for people making 80% of the area median income. Under the county’s definition, this means total housing costs, including utilities, should not exceed 30 percent of a household’s gross income. The county sweetens the deal by offering approved developers various forms of assistance, from low-interest loans to tax abatements. Prince George’s County median income is $86,994.
The program was rarely used until the Department of Housing and Community Development overhauled it this past June. When Bedford and Victoria Stations went under contract earlier this winter, the county refused the sale and granted the purchase rights to Jair Lynch and Nuveen Real Estate. They completed the purchase in May and paid $100 million, according to DHCD. Under the ROFR program, 440 of the complex’s 587 units must be affordable to households making less than $69,595 per year.
Langley Park is an ideal place for the county to use ROFR. In 2020, the neighborhood’s median income — $63,789 — was $23,000 less than the county’s. More than four out of five of the area’s residents are Latino, and 61.6% of residents are foreign born, many of whom are undocumented. Finally, the overwhelming majority of residents rent — 75% in 2020.
Bedford and Victoria Stations were also in desperate need of a new landlord. It’s not a stretch to say the complex’s prior landlords — two LLCs operated by one of the largest real estate investment trusts in the country — were slumlords. In 2021 the tenants association sued them for deliberate neglect at the property, alleging that their negligence created dangerous, unsanitary living conditions for tenants.
During prior visits to the property, I’ve seen multiple code violations in residents’ apartments. Tenants showed me active water leaks, holes in their ceilings, broken appliances, mold, rodent infestations, and piles of garbage at the community’s dumpsters. Many tenants told me the AC was out in the summer and heat was sporadic in winter. In one apartment, a tenant told me the landlord’s repairman ‘fixed’ the smoke alarm in his hallway ceiling by putting a replacement on his kitchen table, without the part to attach it to the ceiling. Tenants also told me it was hard to get in touch with the property manager to request repairs, and they only made superficial repairs when they did respond, like patching a ceiling instead of fixing the leak that caused it.
When I asked Jair Lynch what they were going to do for tenants, their spokesperson provided a list of planned repairs. Their first priority is to upgrade the complex’s electrical system. Then, they plan to install new windows, smart thermostats, LED lighting, and enhanced security systems in each building. They also replaced the management company, which pleased residents.
Yet tenants are still worried about their future at the complex, for two reasons. The first is the Purple Line, which is slated to start operation in fall 2026. Bedford and Victoria Stations lie between two proposed Purple Line stations — Takoma Langley and Riggs Road, potentially making the area attractive to higher-income renters. It’s a reasonable concern. Jair Lynch and Nuveen have been consolidating property in the area for several years. In 2020 they bought an adjacent complex called the Villas at Langley and now own nearly 50 acres of contiguous property in the neighborhood.
For some tenants, this suggests that they aren’t part of the new landlords’ long-term plans. What had been a relative safe space for Latinos, where they can speak Spanish, shop in Latin grocery stores, and eat at restaurants that serve familiar food, will turn into a place where they no longer feel at home.
Secondly, tenants who’ve been at the property for years know it is in bad shape. The complex’s 35 buildings are over 70 years old. The typical problems aging buildings face — decaying joists, cracking foundations, old pipes, low electrical voltage — have been compounded by a decade of neglect. The new landlord might find it cheaper in the long run to tear down the complex and rebuild from scratch. As one tenant of 25 years, Juan, told me: With a rebuild, “they will cater to people at the University of Maryland, not us.”
Indeed, this is tenants’ primary worry. “The only way to fix the building is to tear them down, they’re in such bad shape,” Juan said. If Jair Lynch and Naveen tear down even some units, tenants will have to scramble to find new places to live — no mean feat given the county’s limited supply of affordable housing. Tenants also worry that if there were a teardown, they would have no right to return once a new building was put up. Juan said he thinks once new buildings go up, the rents will too. “Most of us couldn’t afford them, and they will have higher requirements for applications — credit history, legal documents a lot of us don’t have.”
A spokesperson for Jair Lynch declined to say whether they were considering tear downs on the property. I asked the same question of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which runs the ROFR program. “The ROFR program assumes the preservation of existing structures,” Department’s director, Aspasia Xypolia, told me via email. She also explained that ROFR uses covenants, or legal restrictions placed on property deeds, to guarantee affordability. “Tearing down buildings that alters the number of the committed affordable housing units will result in violation of the land covenants.”
Unfortunately, the county’s assurances won’t allay many tenants’ fears. Words like “assume” lack legal heft. It seems that a tear down only violates ROFR rules if demolition would put the number of affordable units below the promised level of 75% of those that currently exist. That means Jair Lynch/Naveen could tear down about a quarter of its buildings and still meet its obligations under the affordability covenant.
That’s bad news for the tenants who may be forced to leave, and it isn’t a good sign for those remaining. Many worry that Jair Lynch and Nuveen will do what the former landlords did: Milk the property while making bare bones repairs until they can take advantage of the Purple Line and new residents. As Juan explained: “They didn’t buy these buildings to help us. They’re investing for the future.”
The new ROFR program is a major improvement. Prince George’s County says it has used ROFR to protect over 1,213 affordable units just since the program was overhauled in 2020. But the statute has to grapple with sometimes competing interests. On one hand, it needs to bring investment into severely disinvested places. On the other, it needs to protect the tenants whose homes may be beyond repair.
At Bedford and Victoria Stations, this means protecting affordability won’t be enough. The county also needs to protect the complex’s existing tenants. The prior landlords were able to get away with severe disinvestment because these tenants were easy to exploit and because the county failed to enforce repeated housing code violations on the property.
At the very least, the county must prevent displacement in the 25% of ROFR buildings not covered by affordability requirements. It should also rigorously track ROFR developers’ compliance with the law over time. My experience covering right of first refusal laws in D.C. suggests that landlords and developers are happy to break the rules if they can get away with it. Finally, it should consider ways to keep affordability requirements in place beyond 15 years.
Bedford and Victoria Stations’ tenants experienced the disinvestment of their homes and neighborhood firsthand. Now they should have a chance to experience some reinvestment.
Carolyn Gallaher is a geographer and associate professor at American University.