STAKING THEIR CLAIM The Long Road Ahead
A Crash Course in Responsibility
Friday, December 16, 2005
For a victory party, the mood was dismal.
A few dozen residents of Capital Manor gathered under a neon-green "Congratulations!!" banner on a January evening in 2003 to toast their achievement: Nearly three-quarters of the people who lived in the low-income complex had signed reservation agreements and put down deposits to buy their apartments. They had staved off the gentrification sweeping the U Street corridor and hung on to three century-old buildings in the 1400 block of W Street.
But the complex they now owned was falling apart. Renovations had to be done and paid for. Vandalism had to stop. As home-baked cakes sat untouched at the front of the room, Deborah Thomas, the woman who had spearheaded the purchase effort, lectured her neighbors about taking responsibility.
"If you see your neighbor's kids hitting on the walls or breaking windows or dragging trash through the halls, don't forget that money to fix those things is coming out of your pocket," she said. "We can no longer call the owner to say, 'This is broke, that's broke. . . . We are the owner. We're going to have to come up with the money to have it fixed."
Hands flew up. It's not so easy, one woman said in Spanish. Boys from down the block roamed the hallways of her building, smoking marijuana. They trailed residents into the building and slipped pennies into the door frame, jamming the lock so they could leave and reenter at will.
Call the police, urged Thomas, prompting an older man near the back to shake his head. He'd done that, he said, only to have the cops show up and let slip to the youths the apartment number from which the 911 call was made.
"The next day, I've got a problem," the man said.
Then Aaron O'Toole, the residents' young attorney, stood to remind them to save for their down payments, which would be due when renovations began. The payments -- $2,300 for a one-bedroom, $3,200 for a two-bedroom -- were cheap for the neighborhood but daunting for those in the room.
"I'm going to be eating a whole lot of hot dogs," sighed Michelle Craig, a single mother who worked for Marriott Corp.
"Hey," said the woman next to her, nodding. "Peanut butter and jelly."
The members of the newly named Capital Manor Cooperative were beginning to understand that entry into the ownership society also carries burdens.
The next 18 months were bleak. Renovations of the 102-unit complex, scheduled to start in September, were put on indefinite hold because the $8.1 million construction loan was delayed. With the operating budget already cut to the bone, basic repairs went undone. In one building, the boiler's pilot light kept going out, and co-op association Treasurer Peggy Fitzgerald got up twice each night to relight it.