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Hoping to Own the Run-Down Place That's Home

Mohammed Yasine works at his computer in the apartment rented by Ermias Gebereyes at 1107 11th St. NW, where many of the residents are Ethiopian immigrants.
Mohammed Yasine works at his computer in the apartment rented by Ermias Gebereyes at 1107 11th St. NW, where many of the residents are Ethiopian immigrants. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

The spicy aroma of Ethiopian cooking often fills the shabby halls of 1107 11th St. NW in downtown Washington. When tenants pass in the dank stairwells, they exchange greetings in Amharic.

More than two-thirds of the renters in this crumbling, 31-unit building are immigrants from Ethiopia. Most started out staying with relatives or friends, then worked at menial jobs, often in hotels or restaurants, and rented the first apartment that became available.

They overlooked the poor condition of the building -- the front-door lock doesn't work, so vagrants sneak in at night to sleep in stairwells, and leaks have left gaping holes in many ceilings -- because the rents were cheap, the location was convenient and the sense of community was strong.

But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which controls the mortgage on the building and administers the federal subsidy program that keeps most residents' rent below $500 a month, was not so forgiving of the building's deteriorating state.

The agency notified tenants in October that the building had failed several safety inspections and could be foreclosed upon and sold early in 2006. The federal agency promised housing vouchers for residents and said it would try to keep the building affordable, but there were no guarantees.

So the tenants, who were working with affordable housing advocates to address the building's many problems, decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a partnership with the National Housing Trust and Manna Community Development Corp., two nonprofit developers, and contacted the owners of the building, a family in Rhode Island.

The federal government is about to seize your building, the tenants' developers told the owners. Why not let the tenants purchase the building instead?

The landlords signed an agreement to sell them the building for $3 million, if they can assemble financing.

Such deals are encouraged by D.C. law, which requires landlords to offer buildings to tenants before selling them to outside buyers. As the city's real estate market has heated up, the number of purchase attempts has grown from about five a year to several dozen. Increasingly, tenant-purchase efforts have been hailed by affordable housing advocates as a way to stem the tide of gentrification in some neighborhoods, or to help poor residents in those neighborhoods benefit from it.

While some renters have used the law to convert their homes to condominiums or negotiate buyout payments from developers, the residents of 1107 11th St. were adamant that they wanted to remain there and keep the building an affordable rental property. Even the cheapest possible condominium conversion, they thought, would cost more than some tenants could afford.

"We need to renovate it, to continue staying here," said Ermias Gebereyes, 26, a taxi driver who has lived in the building nearly six years. "That's what everybody wants."

In addition to the convenient location, he and others said, there is the comfort of living among fellow Ethiopians. When someone needs help translating English-language documents, they can usually find it right down the hall. This Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, is when Ethiopians and other Orthodox Christians traditionally celebrate the biblical miracle of Jesus's birth. As many as "9, 10, 11 people will gather" in some of the building's cramped apartments, Gebereyes said, to dine on spongy injera bread and spicy lamb or chicken stew.

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