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Sursum Corda's Troubling Choice

Sursum Corda board members Shiv Newaldass, left, and Beverly Estes talk with a man who is skeptical of both offers for the six-acre development.
Sursum Corda board members Shiv Newaldass, left, and Beverly Estes talk with a man who is skeptical of both offers for the six-acre development. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

After 36 years at Sursum Corda -- after raising four kids, after faithfully paying rent every month, after watching the drug dealers take over and then move on -- Wesley Washington figures he has earned his stake.

In 1992, he and his neighbors formed a cooperative and bought the dismal concrete housing complex north of the U.S. Capitol for $10. Now it is the focus of a bidding war between developers who say it is worth millions. When it is sold, Washington, a retired groundskeeper at Howard University, wants more than a paltry payoff, more than a relocation check.

At 76, he wants a new home. And he wants the deed.

"If I could get it where it's in my name, and I could leave it to my beneficiaries -- free and clear -- that sounds good to me," he said.

Washington favors the second of two competing offers for Sursum Corda, a nearly six-acre warren of townhouses in the rapidly developing area near New York Avenue and North Capitol Street NW. In the next two weeks, he and 168 other families who live in Sursum Corda must make complex personal calculations to choose between the offers. Which of the deals should they trust? Are the promises too good to be true? And are they getting what they deserve for a very valuable piece of land?

The first offer came from developer KSI Services Inc., which saved the community this year from foreclosure, fixed its homes and now promises to raze them and build townhouses and condominiums in their place. Under the agreement, each Sursum family would be guaranteed a minimum payment of $50,000, which could be used to buy a new home on the site at a reduced price, as well as a small share of the profits from additional homes built for more affluent people.

The new offer is from the nonprofit organization Manna Inc. and a group of developers assembled by Rob Stewart of JBG Cos. They say Sursum Corda is worth far more than the $25 million package that KSI has laid on the table -- perhaps as much as $50 million. The group is proposing to swap the site for title to new condominiums, each worth as much as $235,000, which Sursum residents would be free to sell. Or they could opt out of the arrangement for a minimum payment of $100,000.

Real estate experts could debate for days the merits of the proposals. In the concrete courtyards of Sursum Corda -- where retirees, single mothers and disabled people live on as little as $500 a month -- that debate is hampered by a lack of expertise, a lack of information and the pervasive sense that, whatever happens, poor black people will be forced out just as surely as they have been driven from dozens of public and subsidized developments across the city.

After they voted 126 to 1 in September to accept KSI's offer, some Sursum residents stopped paying attention, although the agreement gives them until Oct. 30 to find a better deal. When the Manna offer emerged about a week ago, supporters passed out a 10-page document detailing the proposal. But the Manna team provided fewer than two dozen copies, and there was no cash to print more. They quickly ran out.

Now, information is spreading mainly by word of mouth, on street corners, townhouse stoops and along the chain-link fence near Sursum's rental office, where men gather nightly. On a recent evening, Beverly Estes and Shiv Newaldass, members of the co-op's board of directors who are promoting the new deal, strolled through the complex, urging people to consider Manna's offer of a home with no mortgage payments -- equity in one of the hottest real-estate markets in the nation.

A 44-year-old man in a hooded sweat shirt and camouflage pants was skeptical. The man, who declined to give his name, said he lives off Branch Avenue but comes to Sursum Corda to look after an elderly aunt. Number one, he said, who, anywhere in this country, has ever gotten a free house? Number two, he said, whichever deal goes through, the developer is going to hand out that cash and make sure everybody leaves.

"You actually think they're investing in this [place] so you can keep it?" the man asked. "I guarantee, once they get you out of here, you won't come back."

Estes speared him with an indignant glance. "Yes, we will," she said. "I don't know why it's so hard for people to understand that we have that option."

Even the best-informed residents, the ones who attend community meetings and read the papers, have an imperfect understanding of the proposals. Many are wary of abandoning KSI, one of the region's largest residential developers, which has inspired trust by producing results that people can see and feel.

Since June, KSI has forestalled foreclosure by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by pouring nearly $3 million into Sursum Corda, painting walls, installing new appliances and making other repairs, some for the first time in years. KSI hired Nation of Islam security guards, and it has courted residents with new curtains and Venetian blinds, interior cleaning crews and plastic toy footballs that say, "Go Team. KSI."

Jean Brown, 67, is one of the faithful. Brown, a retired teacher's aide raising four young grandchildren, has lived at Sursum Corda for 11 years. Most of her relatives live in the suburbs, so when her house is torn down, she will be ready to move on.

But that doesn't make Manna's $100,000 any more appealing, she said. Brown said she trusts KSI to produce the $50,000 it has promised. And she believes its pledge that she will get another $50,000 check from profit-sharing, though that is hardly guaranteed.

"I'm going to stick with KSI because, in 11 years, we never had a street this clean," Brown said. "Let's tell the truth: KSI came here and they've done wonders. They've done wonders for us. And I believe what KSI says."

Brown also thinks the Manna deal sounds too good to be true, mainly because she misunderstands the offer to be $100,000 plus a free house. "Nobody's going to give me $100,000 and a house," she said. "Where you're going to only pay electric, gas and water? No."

Rickie Gall said she believes it, but she doesn't want the burden of homeownership.

"I'm not taking no house, no condo, no nothing from these people. Because it's not worth it," she said. "Maybe your mortgage is free, but you still have to pay taxes and electricity. And at the end of the year, those taxes are going to eat your checks up."

Gall, 56, lives on disability checks. She wants to go with Manna. She wants the $100,000. She wants to move out. "It's more money," she said simply. "And I know how to budget money."

Wesley Washington doesn't understand such talk. "Where are people going to go for $100,000? With housing prices like they are?" He shook his head.

Washington said he would jump at the chance to own a house. And he would leave it to his daughters, he said, grown women with good jobs who, in these crazy times, still can't afford a place to call their own.

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