Antioch Law School, long a crusader for the city's poor, especially in landlord-tenant disputes, now finds itself locked in an ironic, embarrassing battle with tenants of a run-down Adams-Morgan apartment building the school owns and plans to sell.
After months of negotiating with the tenants, who want to turn the 86-unit Kenesaw apartment building on 16th Street NW into a low-income housing cooperative, Antioch reiterated this week that if the tenants do not succeed in obtaining $800,000 to buy the building by Tuesday, then the school will sell the Kenesaw to private developers.
"You have to understand that we're in a bind," said Edgar Cahn, codean of the law school. "The money that we'd get from the sale of that building means financial aid to poor students and operating expenses for our legal clinic."
"The school also has a moral and legal imperative to survive and continue to provide the lgal and community services that we deliver to poor people across the city," he said. Antioch claims to have lost $150,000 it would profit from the sale of the building, which has an outstanding mortgage of about $400,000.
"Antioch wants to make $250,000 off of the sale of that building and that is too damn much," said Susan Bancroft, a volunteer with Adelante, a community organization that is trying to persuade Antioch to reduce its price for the Kenesaw so the building's present tenants can buy the building and prevent it from being turned into a highpriced condominium.
"The want to make their money off of poor people they've abused; that's an outright shame," Bancroft said. "They (Antioch) don't deserve that much profit on a building they've neglected for two years. That would be slumlord profit."
Bancroft and leaders of the Adams-Morgan community see the Kenesaw controversy as a miniature version of a battle they are fighting against real estate speculators and a growing number of middle-class singles and couples who want to live in the city.
The community leaders want to preserve Adams-Morgan as a cosmopolitan mix of residents ranging from persons on welfare to wealthy persons, including blacks, whites and his panics.
If the Kenesaw becomes a condominium like several other buildings in the area have recently, Adams-Morgan community leaders fear they won't ever be able to stop the flood of town houses and condominiums that are beginning to turn the neighborhood into an extension of exclusive Georgetown.
Cast as one of the unjust, profiteeering landlords that its free law clinic, the Urban Law Institute, usually fights in court, Antioch finds itself having to sell the building because, like many District landlords, the school is losing money on the Kenesaw and wants to get out of the landlord business.
Antioch, which received the building in 1975 as a memorial gift from Dr. Aaron H. Gerber, the father of a Washington neighborhood legal services attorney who was killed in a car crash, has countered the tenants' charges of profiteering by arguing that it did not know that the building had 681 housing code violations when the school took ownership.
Codean Cahn estimates that Antioch has lost $150,000 in managing the building and making "cosmetic" repairs since the school took ownership of the building, located at 3060 16th St. NW.
Despite the repairs that Antioch has paid for, Kenesaw tenants say the building is in worse shape today than it was two years ago. A reporter who recently visited the Kenesaw found dead rodents and garbage in hallways and vacant apartments. Vagrants, alcoholics and drug addicts are said to use empty apartments for sleeping, drinking and getting high.
Antioch has refused to allow The Washington Post to photograph the building's interior.
Cahn said in a telephone interview that, despite the tenants' accusations, the school has attempted to accomodate them. He said the school has offered to sell the building to the tenants for $800,000, at least $200,000 less than what Antioch has been offered by private developers.
Cahn also said the school has put off selling the building for several months, hoping the tenants would find the financing they need to buy the Kenesaw for a cooperative.
"When we first got that building, we did not expect to make a profit from it," Cahn said. "We expected to dispose of it after a period of time (so) we could form an endowment in honor of the daughter of the man who gave us the building. From the first, we hoped to make the building a pilot project for tenant ownership."
But Cahn said the school's board of trustees has ordered him to stop stalling and dispose of the Kenesaw by Aug. 30 - next Tuesday.
Although Adelante and the Kenesaw tenants are still hoping to obtain the $800,000 they need by next week's deadline, they concede privately that they desperately need more time.
The tenants are mostly domestics, janitors, nurses and dishwashers earning no more than $150 a week. Many are immigrants from South America and the Caribbean. Cooperative meetings are held in Spanish and English.
"It's getting so that if you move into a nice building around here, you better be ready to move out in two to three months," said Amy Williams, a 10-year resident of the Kenesaw. "The rich people want to buy the whole thing and, you know, how they say, renovate. Where do they want us to go?"
While the city housing department has refused to buy the Kenesaw - or to loan the tenants $800,000 to buy it - the city has promised the tenants $900,000 to renovate the building if they are able to get the purchase money from another source.
"They think we won't get the loan, that's why they signed the agreement" for the renovation money, said Silverio Coy, an Adelante neighborhood coordinator working with the Kenesaw tenants. "But we're going to surprise them. 'We're going to get that building."