D.C. tenants celebrate Thanksgiving as new homeowners

After three years, the 18 households at 3121 Mount Pleasant St. NW control their building through a tenants cooperative.
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

Three helium-filled balloons floated in the living room of Sabino and Maribel Quijano's Apartment 21, overlooking Mount Pleasant Street NW.

One story above them in Apartment 31, Buena Flor Guzman and Hayde Constanza moved to salsa music Thursday on a small carpet that was their makeshift dance floor. They had hung quinceaƱera decorations to make the apartment festive, putting red and white paper hearts on the crimson drapes.

In Apartment 41, Maria Vargas was cooking a Thanksgiving feast for all of them: a Latin-spiced turkey with green beans, green peppers and potatoes. There was a side dish of white rice with vegetables. "This is the stuffing," said Vargas, 52.

All of the apartments are modest, with concrete or battered wood floors, small bathrooms and even tinier kitchens.

But now they own them.

After three years of working together, fighting the landlord and soliciting help from nonprofit groups, the 18 households at 3121 Mount Pleasant St. control their building through a tenants cooperative.

The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development provided the tenants with a $1.8 million loan to buy the building, which they did this month. The Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN, a nonprofit group, guided them step by step as they went from being potentially homeless to homeowners.

The residents proudly identify themselves by their apartment numbers, which have become status symbols. "I'm 34," said Maria Nellys Reyes, 56, who moved into the building nine years ago.

CARECEN was founded in 1981 to help refugees of Central American wars. Through the years, the group has evolved, and now its mission includes working to prevent Latinos from being pushed out as neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights fill up with new restaurants, shops and condominiums.

Raul Rodriguez, a housing counselor with CARECEN, said he is working to save two other buildings for tenants.

"This is one of the best ways to fight gentrification: homeownership," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a spokesman for the Latino Association of Mount Pleasant. "This is ensuring that Latinos have a presence."

Ruiz and Rodriguez joined the new apartment owners Wednesday night to celebrate the purchase of the building. Folding chairs and tables, the aroma of tamales and gales of laughter filled a vacant first-floor apartment.

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