Correction to This Article
A Dec. 14 map showing development projects in the neighborhood of the Capital Manor apartments labeled New Hampshire Avenue NW between 15th and 16th streets as Florida Avenue.
STAKING THEIR CLAIM A Dream on W Street

The Purchase Of a Lifetime

Over four years, the residents of Capitol Manor struggled to purchase and renovate their apartment complex, preventing it from being developed and sold at prices they could not afford.
Over four years, the residents of Capitol Manor struggled to purchase and renovate their apartment complex, preventing it from being developed and sold at prices they could not afford.
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The community room filled early that July night in 2002. The tenants of Capital Manor were about to learn how much it would cost to stay in their apartments.

Their century-old complex -- three buildings with 34 units each -- was a dilapidated eyesore in a gentrifying D.C. neighborhood. Its ceilings sagged, the window frames were cracking, the front-door intercom hadn't worked in years. In the summer, residents seeking refuge from stifling apartments shared the sidewalk with drug-dealing toughs.

Across the way was another threat -- but also proof of what could be. Refurbished Victorian rowhouses lined the north side of the 1400 block of W Street NW, reminders of the wave of wealth sweeping up from U Street and pushing out poor and working-class residents. Rents in the new, nearby luxury apartments routinely topped $2,000, compared with Capital Manor's average $663.

These black and Latino tenants knew they had to buy their complex or risk being displaced by a new generation of city dwellers, most of them white.

They had chosen a developer to guide them through the process. His colored marker now squeaked across a whiteboard at the front of the room.

$1,500 , he wrote. That's what each family would have to come up with in the next six weeks.

Looks of disbelief spread through the room. The 25 tenants gathered here were dishwashers, janitors, people on public assistance. They scrimped each summer to buy school supplies and saved for months for Christmas. To most of them, the number seemed astronomical.

"How many people do you actually think have that kind of money just sitting somewhere?" demanded tenant association President Deborah Thomas, 48, who had spearheaded the purchase effort. "We were talking about making it so we could afford to stay here."

Their developer explained that the money was needed to show potential lenders that the tenants were committed to the project, as well as to pay for engineering and architectural studies.

Then Aaron W. O'Toole, the tenants' attorney, spoke up. "If 50 people can't sign a reservation form and put down a couple of hundred dollars," he said, "it's over."

Thomas returned to her apartment with trepidation. Within the hour, her phone started to ring. In Spanish and English, the callers had the same message.

No puedo pagar.


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