The rumors started last summer, passed from one tenant to another in the elevators and laundry rooms of our apartment building. Two words -- "going condo" -- were whispered over and over again.
Condomania had been sweeping out low- and moderate-income renters all over the District, as landlords sold their buildings to developers who turned them into high-priced condominiums.
I was reporting on the plight of tenants caught in the condo trap, when a source confirmed that the elevator gossip was true. Bon Wit Plaza, the apartment building my husband and I had lived in for two years, had received a certificate of eligibility to convert to a condominium.
But, unlike some other situations, the condo nightmare turned out to be a dream come true for tenants of our 112-unit building at 2401 H St. NW. The Bon Wit Tenants Association last month became the first tenant group in the District to buy its own building without the aid of a developer, convert it into a condiminium and sell its units back to members at bargain prices (about $45,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Foggy Bottom).
How did we do it?
"Countless hours of hard work, the best professional advice we could get and some anger," said Esther Fisher, a systems accountant and vice president of our tenants association.
"I could have rented forever -- I had no intention of buying in Washington," Fisher grinned over a glass of celebration champagne. "But I love the people and the neighborhood. You can fall out the front door and be at Metro or the Safeway. I didn't want to move out to the boonies and buy a car. Staying here was worth a fight."
That fight started last August when Hal Davitt, a 35-year-old computer salesman who was experienced in local politics, heard about our building's condominium eligibility. He posted a small notice in the elevator asking interested tenants to help form an association.
The paper was ripped down shortly after it was posted (by whom we can only speculate), but not before about 10 people responded to the call. This "action group's" first goal was to circulate a petition to create a tenants organization, giving us the legal "first right of refusal" to buy the building, should the landlord decide to sell.
On Aug. 15 "captains" on each floor of the nine-story building slipped notices under every apartment door -- the first of a flood of newsletters that we came to expect as regularly as the mail. The notice proclaimed "Condo?" in bold black letters and urged us to sign the petition when it came around.
The next month's newsletter reported that nearly 75 percent of the tenants signed a statement of support for the tenants organization. It announced that the first general tenants meeting would be held at a nearby church and asked for our first monetary contribution -- $1 to pay for newsletter copying costs.
I had attended several such meetings as a reporter, but never as a tenant. I was pessimistic, from covering other groups' unsuccessful attempts to purchase their buildings.
But I became more hopeful as Davitt asked us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and start thinking of ourselves as a community -- the only way we would attain our goal. With some embarrassment I realized I could count on one hand the names of neighbors I knew. If nothing else, I figured, the organization was at least one way to meet people in the building.
At the time of that first meeting, the building's atmosphere was "not as nasty as New York, but not very friendly," as one resident described it. The mood changed over the months.
My neighbors, I have discovered, are neither rich nor poor. Many are single civil servants, some are retired, some are widows and a few are young couples. The diversity of talent shows in the occupations of some who served on the board of directors -- an economics professor, a retired chemist, a Foreign Service officer, a marketing consultant and a personnel manager.
Looking back over the year-long fight, our story appears long and complex, marked by a seemingly endless number of meetings, details and newsletters. Here are some of the highlights:
Sept. 22, 1978 -- We became a non-profit corporation authorized "to take and hold title to property." We were asked for another $1 contribution.
Dec. 7 -- The association conducted a survey to see if tenants had the interest and financial strength to pull off the purchase.
The following week our landlord distributed a letter noting his intention to sell the building.
Jan. 8, 1979 -- The association voted to retain the legal services of attorneys Ann Garfinkle and Alan Dranitzke and the real estate counsel of John Iwaniec of Walker and Dunlop Inc.
Jan. 11 -- We were asked for our biggest chunk of cash to that point, $100 per unit (non-refundable) for initial professional services and a feasibility study to see if our building was in good enough shape to buy.
("When 56 people put up 100 bucks of real cash, I began to be convinced this thing could really work," attorney Dranitzke recalled at the purchase party.)
February, March and April -- The action group, board of directors, legal and real-estate counsel worked out a proposed contract for purchase of the building, calling occasional general tenants meetings.
Mid-April -- Tenants were asked for down payments on their units, and the association raised roughly $300,000 in five days. We signed a contract to buy the building.
May -- Our advisers secured a $5 million commitment for financing.
June -- We bought an additional 60 days to come to settlement, putting our down payment "at risk." We began converting the building on paper to a condominium and reserving individual apartment units.
June 26 -- We held a lottery to raffle off vacant apartments to those tenants who wished to move to another unit.
June 27 -- The lender began taking loan applications from tenants.
Aug. 23 -- The tenants association purchased the building.
Aug. 24 -- Individual units were purchased by 53 tenants in a "mass settlement" at the church which had served as our meeting hall.
Aside from a beautiful two-bedroom condominium with a view that extends from the Watergate to Pennsylvania Avenue, my husband and I have gained something else of inestimable value from the experience.
As our organization's secretary, 30-year-old Regina Dolan, put it: "There's a new sense of community here, from the pride of forming a group to work together and help each other achieve a goal.
"In a city like Washington you tend to get so involved in your job, and people are so transient that you lose all sense of roots. Condominiums are tremendous ways to bring back that lost sense of neighborliness."