Judge Blocks Eviction of Former D.C. First Lady's Nonprofit From City Building

Cora Masters Barry founded the Recreation Wish List Committee.
Cora Masters Barry founded the Recreation Wish List Committee. (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A judge granted a temporary restraining order Tuesday barring the D.C. government from evicting a nonprofit program run by former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry from its Southeast Washington headquarters.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith N. Macaluso agreed with the Recreation Wish List Committee, an organization Barry founded, that evicting the group would disrupt the center's operations, which include the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center and education programs.

On Aug. 13, the District's Office of Property Management informed the committee, which occupies about 240 square feet in the city-owned building at 701 Mississippi Ave. SE, that it had until Sept. 12 to leave the premises.

D.C. officials said they ordered the eviction because the committee had allowed its charter as a registered corporation to expire, a violation of the 10-year lease agreement entered into in 2006.

Macaluso cited District landlord-tenant laws, which state in part that landlords are not permitted to evict a tenant without a court hearing. Macaluso also said she feared that students who rely on the program would face "irreparable harm" if it was forced to shut down while searching for new quarters.

Barry sat in the first row of the courtroom as her attorney, A. Scott Bolden, argued on the committee's behalf. Bolden said he had sent e-mails and letters to the government trying to work out an agreement but had not received a response.

"We want to prevent the government from going in and shutting them down," Bolden said. "We are entitled to our due-process rights." At times, Bolden's arguments sounded like a sermon, and about 50 of Barry's supporters broke into applause before Macaluso ordered them to be quiet.

Robert C. Utiger, an attorney with the D.C. attorney general's office, said the committee's lease was void because it had allowed its corporate standing to lapse for about four years and because it had entered into a multiyear lease with the District that must be approved by the D.C. Council.

"They never had a lease," Utiger said. "They never had a legal right to be on the premises."

Utiger said Barry's group had 30 days to respond to the eviction and waited until the 29th day to do so, giving the government little time to respond to Bolden's requests. Utiger said the committee could find another location for the program.

Macaluso disagreed with Utiger. She said that his arguments were based on a "disputable conclusion of law, not fact," and that she needed to review records before making a final determination. The judge set a follow-up hearing for Oct. 16 to review the preliminary injunction.

Several children who attend the program were in court with their parents, and Barry's former husband, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), made a brief appearance, arriving about 25 minutes after the hearing began. The former mayor walked over to his ex-wife, gave her a hug and whispered his support before leaving for another meeting.

Civil rights legend Dorothy Height sat next to Cora Barry in court. Height said that she and renowned poet Maya Angelou had set up two meetings with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to resolve the issue but that Fenty did not show up. Height also said she had not heard from Fenty's office about rescheduling the meetings. She called the judge's decision "fair."

Barry said she, too, has been unable to talk to Fenty about the program's future in the building. She said the committee's corporate standing lapsed because the renewal notice went to a different address.

"Had we had known we are not in compliance, we would have taken care of it immediately," she said. She said renewal had cost only $50.

Barry said she feared for the program's future. "I've been living in terror about this," she said. "I'm hopeful we can find a way to resolve this so we can continue to serve the children."

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