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Sursum Corda Residents' Faith In Developer's Vision Runs Low

By Lori Montgomery and Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 5, 2005

Of the 650 people who live in Sursum Corda, about 35 showed up for the first big meeting. Quiet as lambs, the elderly men and weary-looking women listened to lawyers and developers talk about the $80,000 each family will get and how they can use the money to buy a home. Only two people asked questions. The rest nodded, scraped back their chairs -- and walked away still baffled by the complicated deal that is supposed to change their lives.

"I was sitting there listening, and all of a sudden, the information started going over my head and I'm lost again," said a slightly panicky Gail Stewart, 45, who is unemployed, cares for four children and an ailing mother and just wants to "keep a roof over our heads."

To the outside world, it might seem that this would be a happy time for the families of Sursum Corda, the notoriously drug-ridden, low-income housing complex just north of the U.S. Capitol. It might seem that they would be basking in a deal that not only saves them from eviction but also gives each family a big pot of cash and a chance to become homeowners once the complex is razed and rebuilt.

But jubilation is not what most residents feel. Many are suspicious of the developer, KSI Services Inc.: The company is promising the moon, they say, but is it actually trying to push them out? They are confused about the money: When will they get it? How can they use it? Will it threaten their government benefits? And they are skeptical of the new life they are told awaits: How can KSI make mortgage holders out of retirees, teacher's aides and laundresses who mainly scrape by on less than $25,000 a year?

At bottom, people are fearful about what will happen to them and to the community where many have lived all their lives. Sursum Corda is Latin for "lift up your hearts." But the future, and their place in it, is weighing on all who live there.

* * *

Beverly Estes helped save Sursum Corda, but she probably won't be able to buy one of its new homes.

As president of the co-op's resident board, Estes, 52, helped engineer the deal with KSI. She pressured the developer to cooperate with District officials on a neighborhood redevelopment plan that is intended to serve as a model for saving low-income homes in areas where property values are soaring.

But even if KSI succeeds in winning government subsidies to rebuild Sursum Corda, residents are likely to need an annual income of at least $15,000 to buy one of the new $235,000 condos. And Estes has no steady income.

A tall woman with long dreadlocks who speaks with deliberation, Estes shares a townhouse with her three adult children, who all work and pay most of the bills. She could ask them to buy her a place, but Estes said she would rather push them out of the nest and find a way for them to buy homes of their own.

Although the KSI deal may leave her at least $80,000 richer, she may end up still renting. "I don't think anybody will be able to make a decision until everything is hashed out," she said.

Estes sits at a vast, new conference table on the top floor of Sursum's community center, a place transformed by KSI's money. New walls have gone up to create a spot for residents to use four new flat-screen computers. Huge whiteboards are scribbled with meeting dates at which KSI-paid consultants will give residents more information. Three stories down, KSI-paid security guards patrol the grounds.

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