Collapsed Va. condo owners remain homeless, with few options

WASHINGTON — Life was looking good for Margaret Crowley last October. Then it collapsed — literally.

The 65-year-old Fairfax County kindergarten teacher, who was planning to retire within 18 months, was at Nationals Park on Oct. 2, 2016, watching pitcher Max Scherzer go for his 20th win of the year against the Miami Marlins.

“I got an alert from the Fairfax County Fire Department that they were evacuating a building, and I realized it was mine,” said Crowley. “I rushed home.”

Crowley lives in River Towers Condominium, at 6631 Wakefield Drive, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

Last October, residents in 32 units of the eight-story condominium were displaced after one wing of the building dropped and shifted several inches due to years of water damage.

Almost six months later, Crowley and other residents in the front wing of the T-shaped building still have no idea when they can move back into their homes, and are undergoing extreme financial hardship and inconvenience.

“I’m still paying my mortgage and condo fee for a place I can’t live,” said Crowley, in a WTOP interview.

Crowley said she’s luckier than many, who have had to find and pay for temporary housing.

“I’m staying with my sister-in-law — actually, she’s my ex-sister-in-law,” said Crowley. “We stayed friends, and she has a big house.”

Structural engineers hired by the condo board association are still trying to determine the scope of damage, and reasons for the partial collapse.

Which leaves Crowley and other residents in the lurch.

“I have homeowners insurance, but they haven’t paid ‘loss of use,’ because they’re still waiting on a report of the exact cause of the collapse,” said Crowley. “It’s long overdue — it was originally due Dec. 2.”

“There seems to be no urgency to address the situation,” said Crowley’s niece, Emily Fagan.

The inaction leaves Crowley with few choices.

“I’m getting ready to retire and I’m kind of stuck there, through no fault of my own,” said Crowley. “I can’t sell the place, and I can’t move someplace and continue to pay for two places to live.”

Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova empathizes with the displaced residents.

“Some folks have been concerned that when they got their tax assessment, a value has been placed on the land that River Towers sits, but the actual value of their units has been valued at zero.”

Crowley shared her tax assessment with WTOP. It shows an 83 percent loss in the total value of her property, with her condo having no value.

“Unfortunately, when someone’s trying to sell their unit, it would indicate the value of the unit itself is zero,” said Bulova. “Obviously, that would be remedied when the work is done and people are able to move back into their units.”

Jay Doshi, Fairfax County’s director of tax administration, said the situation at River Towers is similar to when a home is destroyed by fire.

“From the time the 32 condos were declared uninhabitable, we reduced the assessment for the remainder of the year, and it will continue until they can move back in,” said Doshi.

On the River Towers website, the condo association acknowledges it is having problems with its insurance carrier.

“We remain optimistic that Travelers will make the correct decision and provide coverage for the loss, but if not, the Association may need to engage in litigation,” according to the website.

Since River Towers is a private building, with a condo association, the county is limited in what it can to do to help.

“There’s a lot that has to happen among these private entities,” said Bulova. “We’re very much involved in making sure the work is being done correctly, and the county will facilitate inspections, once the building owner and insurance companies are ready for that to be done.”

While the condo board works to protect its own interests, residents still have no guidance on when they will be able to return home.

The River Towers condo association has not responded to approximately a dozen requests from WTOP for comment since Oct. 2. A representative was not available for comment early Monday.

“It’s very devastating,” said Crowley. “I had hoped to live in my condo for the rest of my life.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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