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Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005; 2:15 PM

Washington Post staff writer Debbi Wilgoren was online Friday, Dec. 16, at 2:15 p.m. ET to examine economic development in Washington, D.C., and to field your questions and comments about the series "Staking Their Claim: A Dream on W Street."

Over four years, the residents of Capitol Manor in Washington, D.C., struggled to purchase and renovate their apartment complex, preventing it from being developed and sold at prices they could not afford.

Read the Post Series:

The Purchase Of a Lifetime (Post, Dec. 14)

At Each Hurdle, Stronger Resolve

(Post, Dec. 15)

With Capital Manor Reborn, Co-op Members Step Into Their New Role as Homeowners

(Post, Dec. 16)

Photos-Part 1: Four Year Struggle

Photos-Part 2: At Each Hurdle, Stronger Resolve

Photos-Part 3: A Crash Course in Responsibility

Timeline

Graphic: Surrounded by Change

Graphic:Tenant Purchase-Efforts in the District

Graphic:Making the Deal

The transcript follows.

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Debbi Wilgoren: Hi everyone, and thanks so much for reading the series and writing in. Tenant purchases in general are very complicated, and Capital Manor's four-and-a-half-year saga was no exception. I look forward to answering your questions about the residents' successful purchase of their complex, other purchase projects in the District, and the choices these tenants-turned-owners made along the way. Let's get started.

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Washington, D.C.: This series was fantastic in that you showed how people who are poor can create what they need and gain self-respect and the worth to those who help them. Some questions:

1. I believe today's piece said they could see for a restricted amount in 10 years -- can they profit and yet keep costs in line so that the building will stay for low-incomes indefinitely?

2. What is the Orange Hat Patrol?

I am concerned that those in the coop are as critical of those outside as those who moved into the area with wealth. I hope both sides will listen to each other.

Debra, YWCA USA

Debbi Wilgoren: Hi. The sale and income restrictions imposed on the co-op were a condition for them receiving generous financing from the city. Although originally, the tenants proposed restricting the price at which they could sell their shares, that changed as the deal evolved. As we wrote today in the graphic and, I think, the story, the co-op members eventually committed not to allow anyone to buy into the co-op if they earned more than 80 percent of the area median. People who earn less, or even much less, than that, will be allowed to buy in, and the price of buying in cannot rise beyond what is affordable for that income level. That restriction is in place for at least 30 years, and could be renewed. To answer your question directly, yes, the arrangement is intended to allow them to maintain the complex and even build some equity, but also protect these apartments as affordable in an increasingly pricey neighborhood.

2. The Orange Hat patrol is like a neighborhood watch. More on north vs. south in the next answer. Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: In your articles you cited issues with "gentrifiers" on the North side of the block, but only had quotes from one person. Were the owners of those row houses unwilling to talk with you, or did you intentionally not want to present their opinions in your articles?

Debbi Wilgoren: I talked to several current and former rowhouse owners, and renters in the rowhouses, over the years. Some were willing to be quoted, some were not. I also spent considerable time on the block and at Capital Manor events and meetings, and observed the interactions of northsiders and southsiders (when both groups were present). I ended up quoting only two northside residents for the same reason I quoted far fewer Capital Manor tenants/coop members in the series than I spent time with: I just didn't have space to fully introduce any more characters, and still get all the twists and turns of the purchase effort told. In the quotes I used from the northsiders, and in the narrative passages about them, I tried very hard to represent the breadth of their feelings and concerns: that they supported the idea of affordable housing and tenant purchases, but were frustration about its sometimes messy execution, and also frustrated about conditions on the block. In addition, I wanted the stories to convey that just as the Capital Manor residents view the northsiders through a somewhat pre-conceived lens, the northsiders bring some assumptions to their dealings with those who live across the street. An example (sorry to go on at such length here): several northsiders told me they were disappointed that the renovations of the complex were mostly interior, and did not include sprucing up the facades. They were surprised to hear that there simply wasn't enough money to do that sprucing up -- though there may be funds available in the future, as new members buy into the co-op.

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Boone, N.C.: I found Debbi's article on the W Street winners a wonderful example of the human spirit. It is healing to my soul to read of the persistence, courage, and success of the underdogs. What a lesson for the rest of us.

Debbi Wilgoren: Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it. One comment, though -- many people who have contacted me said how glad they were that the Post had decided to do a "positive" story. The fact is, I had no idea for at least the first 3 1/2 years whether these tenants would succeed in their purchase effort. This could easily have become a story of tenants displaced -- and if that was the outcome, I would have written that story.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you so much for this important story, with words like gentrification and displacement being thrown around -- it is good to have names, faces and personal stories to better understand how difficult it is for the working poor to reap the benefits of economically prosperous areas.

I have to wonder though, what is the benefit of becoming a homeowner in this instance when they cannot capture any equity? I see the value in preserving affordable housing -- but what about the individual homeowner?

Debbi Wilgoren: Hi, good question. I addressed some of it in a previous answer. The fact is, these are the issues that affordable housing advocates and experts struggle with all the time--how to provide poor people an opportunity to build wealth, but also preserve affordable units long-term. There are many different answers. Capital Manor's decision was to allow co-op members to build equity as the complex rises in value. But, because the shares can never be priced above what moderate-earners (80 percent of the area median, which currently computes at about $79,400) can afford, the units will remain affordable to people who otherwise would be priced out of the neighborhood. Obviously, many original co-op members earn far, far less than that income ceiling. One key question for the future will be whether newcomers to the co-op include a range of incomes, from low to moderate. The co-op association wants this to happen. They have recently forged a partnership with a local advocacy group that will help them find low-income applicants for some of their available units, and will also help those applicants find and access the special financing programs that are available to them and will help them cover the purchase price.

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Washington, D.C. : Congratulations to the new owners, and to you as the writer of this great series!

How did you select this particular project four years ago? And, did you ever consider a piece that would compare and contrast it with an unsuccessful tenant purchase project like 1418 W, for lessons learned?

Thanks again

Debbi Wilgoren: As I said earlier, I had no idea as I followed these tenants whether the would succeed. How could I know? The series does offer as a foil some other purchase efforts that failed -- The Roosevelt and 1418 W Street. Although the former tenants of 1418 W Street profited, from an affordable housing standpoint it is a loss, because that building is now high-end, rather than affordable. www.washingtonpost.com also has posted a list of about 85 tenant purchase efforts, success and failures, on our Web site (we'll try to post a link here). We have written about displaced tenants in the past, and will definitely continue to do so. It's extremely important.

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washingtonpost.com: Graphic:Tenant-Purchase Efforts in the District

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washingtonpost.com: Other D.C. Tenant Purchase Attempts

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Washington, D.C.: With the $114,000.00 made from the sell of 1418, did Louise Thomas have to pay taxes on her money? Was any of Louise or Deb Thomas benefits reduced from monies received?

Debbi Wilgoren: A couple of people asked questions on this topic. I don't know the intimate details of Louise Thomas's finances, but I believe that the tax ramifications for the 1418 W Street tenants were the same as they would have been for anyone else who sold property. Deborah did not get this money, so it did not affect her housing subsidy. She gave up a full-time job in the midst of dealing with the tenant purchase, and is very much struggling financially.

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Washington, D.C.: Will The Post continue to follow the Capital Manor residents? I'd like to see how this experience changes them. Deborah (spelling?) Thomas does so much good and has clearly proven she can be a community leader. How about a good paying job for her?!

On another note, in the first article, a photo with Deborah delivering requests for deposits, I believe, the spiral staircase, stained rail, and paint looked beautiful -- was this after the remodeling started?

washingtonpost.com: The Purchase Of a Lifetime (Post, Dec. 14)

Photos - Part I: Four Year Struggle

Debbi Wilgoren: I think any beauty was because of the lighting and the skill of Post photographer Andrea Bruce. That picture was before the renovations, and that staircase was far from beautiful. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: I've read the first part and I commend you on a good series so far and just for taking the time to represent in the Washington Post a group of people who are rarely represented.

It is indeed difficult to do what that group of residents has done. It seems in the face of developer greed and even basic property owner greed, these folks are the only ones really fighting back against this avarice that not only displaces middle and low-income residents but destroys beauty and proportion throughout the city.

Thank you.

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for your nice comment.

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Washington, D.C.: It is really hard for me to imagine the lawlessness that must have existed when the police had to barricade the street because of the open-air drug market (the nearest police station is about 2 blocks away).

Debbi Wilgoren: Me too. It was before I came to the Post, but it really happened -- I read the old articles, and the residents, and police, recalled it for me vividly.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm curious why the tenants opted to create a co-op, rather than creating a condo association, when they purchased their property. Can you comment on this decision and the long-term implications for the new homeowners?

Debbi Wilgoren: Great question -- one of many complex issues I had to try to learn about to write the series. As I understand it -- and I am no expert -- a coop is jointly owned, while condos are individually owned. They grow more slowly in value, but people can buy in who don't have strong credit histories or earning potential, because it is the co-op itself applying for the loan, not the individual owners. Beyond financing, a co-op is more than the buildings in which residents live, it is an organization that they themselves lead. They must work cooperatively, hence the name, to manage and run their community.

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Anonymous: How can the Thomas family receive government benefits after receiving $114,000.00 from the sell of 1418. That's a story I would like to read.

Debbi Wilgoren: As I said, that sale was by Louise Thomas, not her daughter Deborah, the co-op association president. I never wrote that Louise receives government benefits -- she is retired from working as a hotel maid, so does a pension, or Medicare count? Deborah receives a housing subsidy through Sec. 8, because her income is quite low.

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Formerly of W Street: Ms. Wilgoren,

Thanks for a fascinating look at the controversial gentrification process. As a former resident (renter) of the northside of this block, my only comment is that I wish you had presented the 'northsiders' in a more nuanced light. Yesterday, for example, you castigated 'northsiders' for stereotypically believing the 'southsiders' to be harboring drug dealers. Today, however, you describe marijuana users roaming in and out of the buildings at all hours. I obviously can't speak for the northside residents as a whole - I wasn't there long and didn't know many of then - but I will certainly attest to the ongoing annoyance of very loud horns being sounded all day and night (including a school bus at 7AM every day), constant double parking on a narrow street, extreme shadiness on the end of the block by 14th street, and much foot traffic and empty bottles in and around of alleys through the empty lot you say should have been turned into a playground. Maybe it should have, I don't know the details. It does sound like a good idea. But I can't imagine the debate was as black and white as you describe.

Debbi Wilgoren: Thank you for writing. I really did not want the debate to come across as simplistic, or black-and-white, as you say. The reason I detailed all of those problems and conditions was to show that there were real issues at stake here. And I never took any position of whether the empty lot should become a playground. I found it fascinating that the southsiders, many of whom have young children and grandchildren, saw it as a good idea, but the northsiders, few if any of whom have children, did not. The northsiders had some important concerns about the playground project. But the lack of connection between the two sides of the street meant that, whenever those objections were voiced to Capital Manor residents, the residents heard them as evidence that the northsiders didn't trust them.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for your stories. I live in an apartment building in Washington that has been sold, and a large number of residents, including myself will probably have to move, because we can not afford the prices of condos, even though they are reduced for current residents. I think that The Post has been slow to cover some of the problems in the D.C. area housing market. There have been large numbers of apartments converted to condos in the Washington area in recent years. Apartment dwellers in the city have more legal rights than in Maryland and Virginia. However, many people are being displaced in the city and in the suburbs. Moreover, there have been significant rent increases in apartments throughout the D.C. area. I am glad that many residents at Capitol View can stay. However, I think The Post should do some reporting on the many people who are being displaced either by condo conversions or rent increases. Moreover, The Post might do some reporting on the property owners and financial institutions that are profiting handsomely on the spiraling housing market. Perhaps some examination on the political contributions that they make might be in order, also.

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for writing. I'd be interested in knowing which is your building (please email me at wilgorend@washpost.com). As I said earlier, we will continue writing about displacement, and this series could have ended up that way too. The list of tenant purchase attempts on our Web site (see link, above) includes many where the tenants bought, then converted to condos. The condos do end up costing much less than market rate, because original residents pay no premium to a developer, but they are not always affordable to all.

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Anonymous: I happen to live a few blocks from Capitol Manors and I think it's great that the tenants were able to buy their apartments. What I love about the U Street area is that there are all economic levels living in the area.

I do, however, understand why other rowhouse owners might be unhappy about the look of Capitol Manors and the fact that people occasionally hang out outside of it at all times of day and night. They are residents of the neighborhood too. If I lived across the street, I can honestly say I wouldn't be thrilled by security lights on at night and people being loud.

Debbi Wilgoren: Good points. Like I said, it's complicated. And the fact that the two sides rarely speak to or interact with each other doesn't help. Maybe the woman quoted at the end of today's story will succeed in bringing the two sides together.

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washingtonpost.com: Other D.C. Tenant Purchase Attempts

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Washington, D.C.: The new convention center has been up and running for awhile now, and the only development news I've heard so far is to put a new hotel next to it. What's being discussed about the development potential for the area north of Massachusetts Ave into the Shaw area around the convention center area?

Debbi Wilgoren: The convention center, and all the downtown/east end development has launched a huge boom in eastern Shaw and the Mount Vernon Triangle. Huge new projects in the triangle (bound by NY Ave, Mass Ave and NJ Ave) are planned or underconstruction -- some market rate, some a mix of incomes. Prices of existing rowhouses are shooting every higher, adding to the pressure to create new affordable units. Thanks for writing.

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Baltimore, Md.: Great series, but there seems to be a disconnect between low income and what's considered moderate to middle income. Your article made mention that new owners could purchase units if their income did not exceed 80 percent of the areas median income. For a family of 4 that's 71.4K. That's commendable and necessary, but I challenge anyone making between 75k-100k in the district to be able to find decent housing in a nice rapidly appreciating area. The middle is still being left behind because they make too much to be considered low income and too little to enjoy being classified as high income. What's out there for those folks. Thank you.

Debbi Wilgoren: Another good point, and good illustration of why this is so complicated. One question that can be asked is whether more public dollars for housing should go to those middle-income folks, rather than the very poor? Different people come down on different sides. Suburban jurisdictions, interestingly, generally define moderate-income or workforce housing as people earning 80- to 120 percent of the area median. The District government defines moderate income as 60 to 80 percent. For the record, I do think there are places in DC where people earning $75,000 to $100,000 can still buy, and see their investment appreciate. Anacostia, Brookland, Woodridge, Pleasant Point, Congress Heights, River Terrace, to name a few.

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Renter on W St.: Hi Debbi! I love this whole series. As someone who just moved in to one of the rowhouses across the street, it's been great to learn the history of the block. Anyway, in your story you mentioned some residents trying to set up a mentoring program. Where can I get more information on that effort? I'd love to be a part of it!

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for writing. Please send me your contact information at wilgorend@washpost.com, and I will forward it to your neighbor, Sonal Sheth.

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Arlington, Va.: Just a comment. I really enjoyed your articles. I usually don't read long series articles in The Post, but yours was fascinating. I hope to read lots more of your work in the future. -from - not your mother, just a dead-tree edition subscriber.

Debbi Wilgoren: My mom lives in Boston. Otherwise I would have been suspicious. But, thanks. This series was actually shorter than many that run in the Post. And, while many of our very long pieces are amazing (in my opinion), I think readers liked this somewhat different approach.

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Arlington, Va.: As someone who would qualify as low-income, I'd like to make a point about affordable housing and goals since there's been a lot of talk about affordable housing for moderate income as well. I rent, and affordable housing is important because if I have a fixed mortgage I don't have to worry about prices going up. I don't have much room to pay more for where I live. I currently live in a nice moderately priced apartment, but if rent goes up next year, I'll have to move possibly to a high crime neighborhood. So a cap on my wealth isn't an issue. For people who make moderate income, (but still need affordable housing), you can still rent many places in nice neighborhoods and can more wiggle room so for them buying a place is about building wealth. Just wanted to point this out.

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: Debbie,

Let me first say that I loved your series. I'm a 23-year-old native Washingtonian and I've lived east of the Anacostia all my life and I typically follow issues like this closely. My question is more Journalistic. I work as a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Maryland, and I would like to know how you went about organizing your story/structure? I know in the four years you worked on this piece you gathered tons of information. How did you keep organized, and was it difficult crafting the story?

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for writing. It was difficult, at times, to stay organized. Having great--and patient--editors helped. In the end, we felt we had a long story to tell, broke it into three parts (the launch, getting the money, and making the transition from renters to owners), worked very hard painting accurate portraits of these very compelling characters, and managed to get all the details of the neighborhood and the deal in as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Great series. Yes, it's become a very desirable area, but my guess is that virtually none of the rich people moving in have kids, and those who do aren't sending them to local public schools. So I don't necessarily see that it's that desirable for families. If I were a parent in the position of these families, I would have seriously considered taking the money and buying in a more family friendly area. What do you know about the schools in the area? And did you hear any talk about schools?

Debbi Wilgoren: Schools are a crucial issue in the city's efforts to revitalize long-struggling neighborhood. Several residents of Capital Manor send their children to D.C. public schools -- some have done great, others have struggled. Some children go to charter schools, again with a range of results. Peggy Fitzgerald's grandson, who she raised, got a scholarship to an elite private school. You're right that there are few, if any, young children living on the north side right now. Even if that changes, I'm not sure what will happen with schools. Other affluent, educated residents of gentrifying D.C. neighborhoods so far have been reluctant to try out the public schools in large numbers. There is a gap of expectations, perceptions and practices that is at least as large as the one running down the 1400 block of W St., where Capital Manor is located. Thanks.

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Debbi Wilgoren: I thought I had seen a question asking how I started covering these tenants in the first place, but now I can't find it. Still, I want to give that answer. I met Deborah Thomas right at the start of the Capital Manor purchase effort. I was interviewing tenant leaders across the city about a series of laws Mayor Williams had proposed to promote housing development -- both affordable and market-rate. I wanted her and their opinions on whether the laws would ease the gentrification pressures they were feeling. But the more I saw of Deborah Thomas and her neighbors at Capital Manor, the more I thought there was a bigger story there. I started going to their meetings, and spending time on the block, and it just kept getting more interesting. They were extremely patient with me. I originally intended to write periodically about their efforts, but eventually decided, with my editors, to wait and see how things turned out.

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Kansas City, Mo.: I am not that familiar with co-ops. Are there monthly dues that must be paid? Are the owners able to sell their apartment/codo/co-ops? If so, how the price determine? Do they have to remain an owner for a specific amount of time?

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks for the questions. The monthly payments are called carrying costs, and they cover mortgage, including debt service, and operating costs. Each co-op member owns a share in the co-op, rather than owning their specific unit. They can sell, but they sell their share back to the co-op, and then the co-op association sells it to a new member. The share price (what they get when they sell) is calculated as a percentage of the total current worth of the property. The new member is usually interviewed, and must meet whatever requirements are set by the co-op board. The Watergate is a co-op, as are many other buildings in Washington, New York and elsewhere.

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Washington, D.C.: Do any of the Capitol Manor residents participate in the Orange Hat neighborhood watch? Have they been asked to participate?

Debbi Wilgoren: I know members of the co-op have received general emails about the Orange Hat patrols, inviting neighborhood participation. No residents of Capital Manor have participated that I know have. But it may have happened.

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Washington, D.C.: Fantastic series of articles! It really demonstrates how great D.C.'s tenant opportunity to purchase law is, and how important that law can be to preserving the city's diversity, and preventing long-time residents from being displaced. It's unfortunate that so many buildings that COULD have been purchased by tenants over the past few years instead were the subject of the so-called "95-5" transactions that are now being challenged in court. Do you see any inconsistency between the Mayor's stated positions on preserving affordable housing, and his administration's tacit approval of the "95-5" transactions that were occurring until the Council stepped in earlier this year?

Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks. The mayor and his team seem to be truly committed to preserving affordable housing, but they also want to promote market rate and commercial development to boost the city's tax base and strengthen neighborhoods. They certainly could have acted more quickly on closing the 95-5 loophole.

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Debbi Wilgoren: Thanks to all for the great questions. Sorry there are some I couldn't get to. I really appreciate everyone's interest in this story and this issue.

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