"I know this must be a dream come true," said Mayor Walter Washington, and none of the nearly 100 tenants of the Kenesaw Apartment Building who had assembled in the opulent Antioch Law School library were inclined to disagree.
After nearly two years of struggle against what often seemed impossible odds they finally had succeeded in buying their home from Antioch University.
It is the first time in recent memory, according to D.C. Council Member David Clarke, that tenants of a multifamily building have won such a victory against the encroachments of real estate speculators.
Clarke and others expressed the hope that the fate of the building at 16th and Irving streets NW would set an example - and a practical model - for similar tenant cooperatives throughout the city.
From the beginning it was a curious fight, which saw Antioch - one of the most self-consciously liberal schools in the United States - repeatedly threatening to evict the 28 low-income, mostly immigrant families in the Kenesaw if they could not come up with at least three-quarters of a million dollars to buy the building.
In the end, it became a matter of conscience, Antioch President William Birenbaum said yesterday.
Late last month, after more than a year of fundraising, court fights and political lobbying, the tenants were able to meet the $750,000 asking price with the help of the D.C. Development Corporation and Perpetual Savings and Loan - only to be topped the same day by an $825,000 cash offer from the NEMAC Development Corporation in Rhode Island.
The tenants and DCDC agreed to meet that price, but when NEMAC topped them again last week with a bid of $900,000, the tenants realized they could never raise that much money in the three days required by their contract with Antioch.
Many of the tenants and the people who had helped them feared that the battle was lost, but others decided to take the fight straight to Antioch's main campus - to the board of trustees meeting in Yellow Springs, Ohio, last Saturday morning.
"We just tell it as it is," said Emily Williams, the cooperative's manager.
He and cooperative vice president Marisa Perez explained to the trustees that real estate speculators in Washington are forcing many poor people out of their homes.
"Many tenant organizations like the Kenesaw," they said in a written statement, "have decided not to move because increasingly there are no affordable places to move to."
"We feel that the college has a moral obligation to help this project," Williams said.
"The people in charge of the university honestly wrestled with their consciences," according to Birenbaum. Yesterday, Birenbaum flew to Washington to announce his decision that NEMAC's bid of $900,000 would be turned down and the cooperative's $825,000 accepted.
"Seventy-five grand is a significant sum in our operating budget," Birenbaum told the crowded press conference yesterday. He said the school was desperately in need of money. It had wanted to sell the Kenesaw to the highest bidder in order to sponsor scholarships and help finance such institutions as its Washington-based law school which, he said, is "uniquely devoted to the public interest and the pursuit of justice for the excluded and the poor."
Birenbaum said yesterday that he had decided "it best serves the purpose and principles of Antioch now to try a little harder to practice what we preach."
Mayor Washington was on hand to announce the city's decision, made two weeks ago, to grant the cooperative a low-interest loan of just over $1.3 million to restore the building, which three years ago.
As members of the cooperative offered a round of thanks to the D.C. Development Corporation, to D.C. Council members David Clarke and Hilda Mason and to Antioch's president, there was an ebullient, emotional mood in the opulent conference room.
Balloons floated through the air, tiny children applauded along with their parents and many eyes filled with tears - including Birenbaum's. CAPTION: Picture 1, This is the Kenesaw Apartment building at 16th and Irving Streets NW that was sold yesterday to tenants. By Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post; Picture 2, William Birenbaum, ". . . $75,000 is a significant sum"