From Renters to Owners

A District law helped tenants at the Norwood take charge of their homes

October 12, 2012

The Norwood Cooperative’s Silvia Salazar, second from right, sits among young residents, from left, Edwin Marcelo, Nizar Ghoumari, Alex Lopez and Anai Marcelo.

Silvia Salazar didn’t expect tenant organizing to change her life. She just wanted to rid her decaying apartment complex of bedbugs, black mold and rats. The 36-year-old ended up empowering her neighbors to advocate for themselves and, ultimately, become proud owners of their own building.

For years, Salazar’s calls and letters to the management company of her 1930s-era Logan Circle building went unanswered. In October 2005, she decided to take action. She met with a handful of renters in the laundry room to discuss their home’s flaws.

Over the next six years, the group formed a tenant association and waged a legal battle to purchase their seven-story, 84-unit building, now the Norwood Cooperative (1417 N St. NW).

Salazar and her neighbors were able to buy their homes because of D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA.

The hardest part of the TOPA process, says Salazar, now co-president of Norwood’s cooperative board, was persuading the tenants to organize. Even communication was a hurdle in a building whose residents speak English, Spanish, a native Guatemalan dialect and Arabic.

By purchasing the building in July 2011, she says, Norwood helped preserve affordable housing in a neighborhood where luxury apartments are becoming the norm.

“When a building goes up for sale in D.C., there’s a risk and an opportunity,” says Farah Fossé of the Latino Economic Development Center, who helps tenants through the TOPA process. “If tenants do nothing, the new owner could try to get rid of affordability.”

TOPA gives tenants the right to turn their building into a resident-owned cooperative or condo. Or tenants could partner with a third-party management firm to become partial owners and keep the building as a rental, or work with that firm to convert it to a co-op or condo. A third option: Tenants can choose a third-party firm to buy the building and rent it to them with a contract stipulating improvements and stable rent.

The Norwood tenants chose the first option but couldn’t afford the building’s $9.7 million price tag, so they got a loan from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

Today, conditions are improving. The cooperative has hired an exterminator, nicknamed “The King Rat Killer.” They’ve contracted with an architectural firm to deal with fixing water leaks and upgrading the 80-year-old elevator. They’re also raising $4 million to rehabilitate the building and add a child care center.

Across town at Capitol Park Towers (301 G St. SW), which went up for sale in March, tenants are in the midst of their own TOPA process.

Arlena Chaney, president of the New Capitol Park Towers Tenant Association, describes the process as “exhilarating and exhausting.” A major challenge is the strict time frames tenant associations must abide by to register with the city.

Despite the challenges, Chaney says TOPA offers the “opportunity of a lifetime to purchase your own building or to have a say-so in the direction of your building.”

Likewise, Salazar says that if Norwood can succeed with the TOPA process, anyone can. “In a building that has had as many maintenance issues as us, where we speak many languages, the fact that we could organize and get around to doing it shows that it’s possible in any building in D.C.” REBECCA KERN (FOR EXPRESS)

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