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A Crash Course in Responsibility
With Capital Manor Reborn, Co-op Members Step Into Their New Role as Homeowners

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

O'Toole, who had shepherded the purchase effort for nearly three years, left Georgetown University's public-interest law clinic for a private firm. His boss, Michael Diamond, a stranger to most residents, took over.

Drug dealing and loitering continued outside the complex. One resident, Rafael Cruz, was robbed at gunpoint on Christmas Eve as he returned from a trip to the grocery store.

As the bad news mounted, several families announced plans to move. Cash flow withered each time one of them turned in their keys. There was no arrest in Cruz's robbery, and within a few months he left also.

"People are not seeing renovations take place. . . . People don't have heat or hot water. . . . People are frustrated," sighed Thomas, president of the cooperative association. Overwhelmed by the demands of the project, she'd given up her full-time job and was subsisting on part-time work counseling at-risk teenagers.

"What they're offering us

is a place to stay that is affordable.

A two-bedroom, two-bath

in this neighborhood --

that's a half-million dollars."

KIM MITCHELL

co-op board member

Gaining ownership did not guarantee success. Thomas constantly reminded her neighbors that what was happening at the other end of the block could happen to them, too.

She meant 1418 W Street, a building that had been condemned by the city a few years back. Thomas had lived there for decades, as had her parents. She moved to Capital Manor just six months before the city declared 1418 unlivable and charged its landlord with hundreds of housing code violations.

As part of a plea bargain, the landlord sold the building to the tenants for $1 in August 2000. Over the next three years, the former residents met endlessly with attorneys and consultants, trying to forge a renovation plan.

But condo developers kept calling, offering huge amounts to buy them out. Some resisted. But when in August 2003 a pair of developers offered $2.5 million, those people were outvoted. Each family received $114,000 -- a nice windfall, but not nearly enough to buy or rent at market rates in the neighborhood. Thomas's mother, Louise, who had voted against selling, secured an apartment at Capital Manor. Most of her former neighbors moved away.

Deborah Thomas was devastated by the loss of 1418 as a place where people of modest means could live. More than ever, she felt the importance of saving Capital Manor from a similar fate.

Longtime residents have "gone through dodging bullets and drugs and trash in the tree boxes," she said, "and then when it's all nice and clean everyone else wants to move in and push us out. Some of us are here by force. We couldn't afford to go anywhere else."

And yet, even as the residents pursued their goal, they found themselves frustrated by the project's limitations. Their pleas for fireplaces and walk-in closets were gently turned down. Jair K. Lynch, their developer, said construction funds would have to go toward the basics: sprinkler systems and new roofs, repairs to faulty wiring and worn-out heating and cooling systems. Residents pleaded for gas stoves; Lynch agreed but said they could not be individually metered. New washers and dryers would be ordered and installed -- but in the same old basement laundry room, not in each unit. Kitchens got new cabinets, refrigerators and stoves, but not dishwashers.

Most of the work, Lynch explained, would take place behind the walls -- "the heart and guts of the building that haven't been taken care of." It had to be that way, he insisted, even though "I don't know if the average person will appreciate a little sprinkler head poking out of the drywall." These homeowners could not afford major repairs down the road. They needed their buildings to be in top shape from the start.

Residents took to grousing about all the project lacked. "Amenities? What are we getting? Nothing," Sylvia Griffis said during a meeting.

No Internet connection. Not even a choice of paint color.

"What they're offering us is a place to stay that is affordable," countered Kim Mitchell. "A two-bedroom, two-bath in this neighborhood -- that's a half-million dollars. I understand where you're coming from, but unless people are ready to sacrifice or to find new resources, we're not going to have no amenities."

"We all have a dream to own something. I live here, and I don't

see myself living someplace else."

JOSE DIAZ

co-op member

Things began to improve in September 2004, after the construction loan from affiliates of the National Cooperative Bank finally came through. A year after the original start date, renovations could now begin.

To mark the occasion, a load of dirt was deposited outside the buildings one rainy afternoon. Mayor Anthony A. Williams joined Thomas, Lynch and others in donning a plastic hard hat and grabbing a shiny new shovel to plunge in.

Nerissa Phillips, now the association secretary, came to bear witness. "The only way we can lose it now is if we mess up," she said approvingly. "We cannot be booted from the neighborhood, no matter how high the property values get."

Of the 102 households living at Capital Manor when it was put up for sale three years earlier, about 70 remained. Some families had never expressed interest in buying; others grew tired of waiting and left. Five senior citizens took advantage of a D.C. law allowing them to stay on as renters, and the board extended that same option to a developmentally disabled man. A few residents who failed to deliver their down payments had to be threatened with eviction before they agreed to leave.

The departures were unsettling, but there was a bright side: remaining members would not have to move away during construction. Those who lived in one building could relocate into empty units in the others while the work was being done.

The first round of moving was chaotic, with furniture broken and belongings lost. Renovations took longer than expected. But by mid-March of this year, 1436 W Street was reborn, with new windows, a working front-door intercom and fresh, brightly lit corridors. Every apartment had fresh off-white paint, new carpeting and a redone kitchen. Small sprinkler heads poked from the ceilings like sentries.

Once again, there were glitches. Peggy Fitzgerald's toilet overflowed all over her cream-colored carpet because a contractor had forgotten to flush out the pipes. The laundry machines didn't arrive on time, so Thomas, deluged with complaints, had the old machines temporarily reinstalled.

At the same time, there was a palpable sense of excitement.

Ingrid Campbell, the relocation manager, buzzed from apartment to apartment, hovering over residents as they packed up the temporary quarters and prepared to go home.

"I want you to vacuum out everything," she instructed Jose Diaz, 27. "And I want the refrigerator sparkling."

"It already is," Diaz countered, grinning. "You want to see?"

When Diaz mentioned that he would no longer have room for a pair of upholstered chairs, Campbell sifted through her mental list of residents and suggested offering it to a family on the third floor. "They don't hardly have furniture," she said.

Diaz had lived at Capital Manor almost exclusively since immigrating from El Salvador in 1995, first with his mother and sister, later with an uncle, Rafael Cruz, the victim of the armed robbery on Christmas Eve 2003. More recently, his girlfriend and her young son had moved in. It was a tight squeeze in his one-bedroom apartment, he acknowledged, but he would feel good knowing the space belonged to him.

"We all have a dream to own something," Diaz said. "I live here, and I don't see myself living someplace else."

With the first building completed, the second was emptied. This time, construction progressed more quickly, but some were not satisfied. Board Vice President Osmin Rodriguez, for one, complained that the floor of his apartment sagged just as it had before the renovations. Contractors said the building's foundation had sunk, but Rodriguez was not convinced.

"It hasn't gone half the way I wanted it to go. But . . . it's all right," he said shortly before moving back into his old apartment in mid-July. "It's still great, but it's not as great as I thought it would be."

"It's two worlds that certainly

can come together. It didn't happen this fall, but I think it will happen

next spring."

SONAL SHETH

northside resident

Renovations of the last of Capital Manor's buildings were completed Thanksgiving week, and a ribbon-cutting is scheduled for this afternoon. But the transformation of the complex is still underway.

Thirty new households must be selected to fill empty apartments. Applicants cannot earn more than 80 percent of the area's median income (currently the income limit is $71,400 for a family of four). Their down payments will be $12,000 or $20,000, depending on unit size -- much more than what the original residents paid. Lynch, the developer, calls the arrival of more moderate-income families "managed change."

A mix of incomes is a good thing, he said -- "the middle ground between stagnation and gentrification." The next stage, he added, "is to really start building the bonds, the glue."

Lynch was talking about the new and old members of the co-op. But on W Street, the challenge also extends to forging ties with the mostly white, mostly affluent homeowners across the street -- many of whom still regard Capital Manor as a blight. They hate the bright new security lights, which shine into their bedrooms, and they don't understand why there wasn't enough money to spruce up the facades.

"Their renovation hasn't been some great boon to the neighborhood," said Kurt Ehrman, a government lawyer who bought his rowhouse in 2000. "It hasn't been a boon to my home equity."

Concerned that he will be seen as "the complaining, rich, white neighbor," Ehrman hastens to add that he has befriended some of the older women across the street; one invited him in to see her renovated apartment. He has clashed with Thomas in the past but said last week that he hopes to build a relationship with her as well.

Residents of Capital Manor grouse that northsiders rarely come to their block parties and celebrations, or even greet them on the sidewalks when they pass. Orange Hat patrols of the block, launched by the Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association, are welcomed by many northsiders. But members of the cooperative find them intrusive.

The young men on the corner do not need to be shooed away, said Craig, 50, who has known many of them since they were in diapers. "They're not all drug dealers, they're not all going to rob you," she said impatiently. "Some of them are working for Metro. Some of them are doing construction. They have jobs, but they get together and hang."

At least one northsider is determined to bridge the two sides of the block. Sonal Sheth, 31, rents a room in a rowhouse and directs an afterschool youth program in nearby Petworth. One day last summer, she took a Frisbee across the street and asked the kids if anyone wanted to toss it. No one did. But she ended up sitting on the stoop with 15-year-old Jasmine Thomas, Deborah's younger daughter. Together, they sketched out a mentoring program in which residents of the rowhouses would tutor the children of Capital Manor and take them on field trips.

"It's two worlds that certainly can come together," Sheth said. "It didn't happen this fall, but I think it will happen next spring."

On a recent Sunday, on the way home from church, Thomas and her mother noticed balloons outside their old building, the one condemned by the District government years ago.

A smiling, smartly dressed woman stood in the entryway of 1418 W Street, handing out information about the newly rehabbed condominiums in "The Hamilton on W Street." Thomas and her mother looked at each other, then at the familiar building. They had to go in.

The kitchen cabinets were cherry, the countertops a dramatic, dark green sweep of granite. Appliances were shiny stainless steel. Prices started in the high $300,000s and topped out at $545,000.

Thomas drank in the hardwood floors and exposed brick, wondering how much it would cost to line a wall of her unit with similar masonry. She pictured a fireplace in her living room.

Then Thomas and her mother walked out of the building and down the block to Capital Manor. Thomas unlocked the door and entered the apartment she will one day leave to her children.

While the balloons flitted in the sunshine down the street, Thomas and her mother, part-owners of a multimillion-dollar cooperative, sat down to a Sunday dinner of macaroni and cheese, baked turkey wings and greens.

Online

Additional photos and graphics can be seen at www.washingtonpost.com. Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren will be live online at 2:15 p.m. today to discuss this series.

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