2021 | Development

Housing Opportunities Commission to sell Bethesda apartment building

Westwood Tower has been part of debate about African American cemetery

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This story was updated at 9:30 p.m. on July 7, 2021, to include a statement from the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.

The Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County plans to sell a Bethesda apartment building that has been the center of a yearslong debate about a historic African American cemetery.

The commission last week approved a letter of intent to sell the Westwood Tower Apartments for about $51 million, the highest of three bids it received. The second-highest offer was $1 less, and had a longer proposed timeline to close the sale and a smaller commitment to repairs and improvements.

The new owner will be Charger Ventures LLC, a Bethesda-based investment management company established in 2018. The sale is expected to be finalized by early September.

For years, the property on Westbard Avenue has been embroiled in debate with advocates frustrated that a historically black cemetery has been buried underneath ground that was paved over to create a parking lot for the apartments.

A group battled the county for years in an attempt to keep the land undisturbed. More recently, the group has fought for historical designation of the site, and for the HOC to turn over ownership of the parking lot, so the group can memorialize the cemetery.

HOC Executive Director Stacy Spann told the HOC during a meeting in late June that all bidders are “aware” of the debate involving the Westwood Towers property. He did not say how the dispute might be handled if the property were sold.

“We’re housers, and this component is not about housing folks. It hasn’t been from the very beginning,” Spann said. “It’s unfortunate it’s distracted us from a greater focus on housing, but, nonetheless, it is what it is. We’ve made efforts and here an opportunity stands before us, and all current bidders are well aware of the situation itself.”

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition wrote that it is immoral for the commission to sell the building and it continues a “horrific history of selling Black bodies to white institutions.”

The statement said that the group was not informed of the sale before last week’s vote.

“Montgomery County did not respect our community enough to even inform us that they were about to ‘sell’ our family/church members,” the statement said. “The County has shown that it does not respect Black people either dead or alive.”

The Housing Opportunities Commission received three offers ranging from $49 million to $51 million for Westwood Tower, a property the HOC purchased in 2017.

After paying off debts associated with the property, the commission estimates it would have about $30 million to reinvest in other affordable housing projects across the county, according to Spann. That money will be placed in a “secure fund” until the commission approves a specific use.

Each bidder committed to maintaining the existing affordable housing on the property (52 units), and possibly expanding to include more.

Neither Spann nor HOC staff disclosed who submitted the other two offers to purchase the property.

“As I look forward to what this agency will accomplish, it’s rooted in housing. Anything that enhances the number of persons touched, and individuals and families housed, and does that in a way that is dignified and lifts up the entire county, is important,” Spann said. “This is exactly that.”

A presentation by the HOC staff to commissioners said the revenue could be used to build up to 1,000 new housing units, of which about 300 would be affordable housing. The commission could also purchase existing buildings.

Spann added that if, in the future, the affordable housing units are no longer available at Westwood Tower, the HOC would help the people who rent them find other arrangements “within our portfolio.”

Some commissioners said they feel it is wise to sell the property and reinvest the revenue into expanding access to affordable housing.

“Whenever we think about selling, any proceeds we have, we need to seriously consider how we use those, how we deploy them and ensure we are in fact furthering the mission, which is to ensure affordability throughout the county, and particularly in areas where it’s not available,” commissioner Rick Nelson said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com