At Each Hurdle, Stronger Resolve

To win over public and private lenders, the tenants of Capitol Manor had to raise money and demonstrate their commitment to their goal of homeownership.
To win over public and private lenders, the tenants of Capitol Manor had to raise money and demonstrate their commitment to their goal of homeownership.
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

The message D.C. housing officials delivered to developer Jair K. Lynch was clear. His plan to keep Capital Manor Apartments affordable by selling one of its three buildings was a no-go. Mayor Anthony A. Williams would not fund a project that would eliminate some low-cost apartments, even in the interest of saving others.

The time was September 2002, the mayor was running for reelection and real estate prices were exploding. Critics were blasting Williams for doing too little to prevent the displacement of the poor from newly posh neighborhoods. The city had set $25 million aside for housing assistance, and Lynch was applying for $2 million to help the tenants of Capital Manor buy their complex, 102 crumbling apartments just off the trendy U Street corridor in Northwest.

The proposal relied on selling one building at market rate and using the profits to help renovate the others, which would become a low-income cooperative. Now that plan would have to change, Lynch told the five officers of the tenants association board. To improve their chances of winning city funds, all three buildings had to go co-op and remain affordable. Nobody would be able to cash in at market rates for at least a decade.

Worse, Lynch made it clear that even with these changes, the District could still turn Capital Manor down. Competition for city money was fierce, and because of the high-priced neighborhood, their project required a higher city subsidy per apartment than other proposals. The decision would not come until December -- and an outside buyer was waiting to snap up the complex if the tenants did not close on their purchase by Jan. 15.

The news brought treasurer Kim Mitchell to her feet. "We're chasing and grabbing at something that we have no chance of getting," she snapped, her arms folded tight across her chest. "We keep meeting and we keep meeting, and we're not getting anywhere."

Resident manager Osmin Rodriguez was shaking his head, too. Revising the plan "doesn't work for me," he said flatly. He said he'd rather save for a home in an inexpensive suburb than continue fighting a losing battle, and he suspected other young Latinos in the complex might feel the same.

But the three others at the table were not willing to give up their dream. Association President Deborah Thomas, Treasurer Peggy Fitzgerald and Secretary Milagro Posada were older women, with deep roots in the neighborhood and few illusions about upward mobility. Their lives had been mostly scraping and struggling. They had never been comfortable with the idea of replacing one-third of their neighbors with rich newcomers, and they intended to leave their apartments to their children, not to sell them.

"I don't know about you, but I'm fighting for something," Thomas said. "When we started this, we had not one penny. And guess what -- we've been into this almost one year, and we're not outdoors yet. So that's enough for me to keep going. If we do nothing, we're going to end up with nothing."

Ultimately, the decision was up to the entire tenants association, which gathered in the basement community room a week later. Thomas, a former welfare recipient who now worked getting other women off the dole, stood in front.

"I thought we started this struggle to make sure we had a place to live," she thundered. "I've lived on this block for 30 years, and I'm not interested in being anywhere else."

Most of the tenants, including Mitchell's mother, were on limited or fixed incomes. They all knew of nearby apartment buildings that had been emptied and turned into condos none of them could afford. Changing the proposal was fine, one tenant after another said, if that would help keep their corner of the 1400 block of W Street populated by working-class families.

"A lot of people have worked really hard for this," tenant Danilo Nuez said in Spanish. "Let's get behind them."

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