"Housing ownership is the answer" to the mounting housing problems of low- and middle-income residents of the District, according to an aide to D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy.
"There is a serious housing imbalance in the District," said Johnny Barnes, Fauntroy's legislative assistant. "Approximately 70 percent of housing is renter-occupied. The spiraling cost of housing can be attributed to the inadequate housing stock."
Barnes was one of the participants in a day-long seminar on housing ownership held at the Marie Reed Community Learning Center in Adams-Morgan.
Representatives from community organizations and tenants' associations and members of the D.C. Bar attended the seminar. Participants explored the intricacies of forming cooperatives and condominiums, as well as ways to organize tenants' groups and seek funding for both types of housing. Barnes said that 125,000 landlord and tenant cases are filed in D.C. courts every year and that "more than 50 percent of the courts' business is in trying to resolve landlord and tenants issues."
Cooperative housing ownership was cited as an answer to what one participant called "a full-fledged housing crisis" in the District.
"Fewer and fewer low-income people are able to find housing, and the situation is going to get worse before it gets better," C. Peter Behringer, president of Multi Family Housing Services Inc., told the audience of about 75 people.
"I think coops are the best way of ownership," he continued. "Somebody's got to own real estate. If it's not you, it'll be someone else and they'll be looking to make a profit. As long as it's somebody else and not you who's the owner you'll have a lot of problems."
Steven Roth, an attorney with Daniels, Roth and Sacks, listed what he said are advantages of cooperative unit ownership: "There's no landlord to make a profit. There are tax deductions, and there's a certain psychology to owning your own unit. You can't be evicted."
But John Lunsford, a member of the Board of Directors of Jubilee Housing Inc., a church-affiliated, volunteer community group, disagreed.
"From a tenant's standpoint participation in a coop may have the fewest advantages," he said, suggesting the formation of a cooperative only after all other alternatives had been explored.
"You may bind yourself to people you may not like and who may default. Coops aren't a shortcut to housing happiness, although they are, in fact, one of the last, best opportunities for housing for low-income people," Lunsford said.
The seminar divided into workshops later in the day on topics including formation of cooperatives, organizing tenants, financing cooperatives and condominiums and legal aspects of both types of housing.
At the session on organizing tenants for cooperatives Lunsford and the Rev. Tom Nees, another member of the Jubilee Housing board of directors, discussed their experiences in tenant organizing.
"With few exceptions, equity is of little interest to low-income tenants," Nees said. "For people who survive from day to day, equity is not a motivation. Twenty percent of D.C.'s residents have incomes of $5,000 or less. They are worried about survival."
"The desperation for housing isn't just touching low-income people anymore. It's creeping up," Lunsford said.
"Low- and moderate-income people in D.C. are getting desperate for housing. Middle-income people have had more chance to move elsewhere. They've had more opportunities. When the desperation becomes strong enough they'll begin to work together and not move somewhere else," said Jim Vitarello, a member of the audience.
The seminar was sponsored by the District of Columbia Bar, divisiion 6 (D.C. Affairs) and division 15 (Real Estate, Housing and Land Use.)