Despite a six-month effort by a tenants' cooperative to buy the Kenesaw Apartments from Antioch College, the building has been sold to a private development company.
Edgar Cahn, co-dean of the Antioch Law School told 200 tenants and community residents, crowded into the lobby of the building at 16th and Irving Streets NW last week, that the new owners of the building will relocate the present tenants while the building is being renovated. Eleven families remain in the 78-unit building.
The Ashley Investment Corporation, which recently bought the building for $780,000, plans to renovate the apartments during the next 18 to 24 months, and offer them as rental units or condominiums. The entire project is expected to cost $4 million, according to H.R. Crawford, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development assistant under secretary, who represented the new owners in the sales negotiations.
Cahn, who represented the college in the negotiations, said that he had been meeting with representatives of the Kenesaw Co-op since April, while the co-op tried to raise money to buy the building. Cahn said he could no longer delay the sale.
"Antioch is not in the business of putting people on the streets," he said.
"I used every bit of authority I had to try to give the (Kenesaw) co-op time to explore the possibility of securing the building. Last November, I was ordered (by the Antioch governing board) to sell this building to the highest bidder," Cahn said.
"I stalled as long as I could," he added.
The college finally decided to sell to Crawford's investment company, after it became apparent that the co-op needed too much time to work out details, because the company assured the college that the tenants would be offered relocation housing within two blocks of the building at comparable rents, Cahn said.
Crawford said that he has other new housing units available now on 14th street where the families could be relocated.
The sale came at the end of a bitter dispute involving the tenants' cooperative, other community residents, and the college.
After the college announced plans in April to sell the building and served the tenants with eviction notices, residents began withholding rents. Antioch sued the tenants for non-payment of rents and the tenants sued Antioch for not maintaining city housing codes. That suit is still pending.
Co-op members began putting half of their rent into an escrow account and paying off past-due gas and oil bills. They also hired security guards.
Co-op members also said that they put in more than 300 hours of work to repair the building while the negotiations were continuing.
Even though the co-op members were aware that a contract for the sale of the building had been signed by both the college and the investment company, last week's meeting was called to try to get both parties to amend the contract in order to give the co-op more time to match or better the current offer, according to the sponsors of the meeting.
The meeting was called by the Mount Pleasant Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Kenesaw Co-op and the Mt. Pleasant Neighbors Association.
Crawford said that, while it would be desirable to move all the tenants during the restoration, his company has "no intention of putting people on the streets."
"Four families from this building have already asked to be relocated. There are ways to provide (federal) rent subsidies to those who can't afford to pay for the new housing," Crawford said.
Crawford said that the company also plans to seek subisdies for the families who want to move back into the Kenesaw once the renovation is completed to condominium units.
According to the Rev. Sean O'Malley, president of the co-op. "We would prefer to keep people in the building" while the restoration is taking place.
Father O'Malley said that the co-op's loss of the building "points out the inability of the District government to provide decent housing" for some parts of the community.
Many of the tenants were Spanish-speaking and had large families, he said.The Kenesaw had large units - at rents ranging from $150 to $250 a month - to accommodate the larger families, Father O'Malley said.
"If the co-op were able to buy the building.I'm sure we could keep the rents as low as they are now. We had planned to have sliding rent scales and to have some commercial space. There could also have been rent subsidies," he said.