It happened suddenly and without warning. On Dec. 7, 1977, the tenants in the Beecher Street apartments in Glover Park learned from a newspaper story that their 95-unit complex had been sold. Two-and-a-half weeks later, on Christmas Eve, they received eviction notices.
"I was terrified, I felt very much alone," said Esther Siegel, a Beecher tenant and former D.C. teacher. "I couldn't afford to move, and neither could most of the people" who live in the low-rent units.
Siegel and many others didn't move. Instead, they started action they expect will lead to nonprofit, cooperative ownership of the apartments within the next year. Their efforts have become a model for other tenant groups in the city and, according to Siegel, have affected the lives and attitudes of many Beecher residents.
"We used to live in isolation from one another," said Siegel. "Now there are five other buildings filled with people I know and can call on."
Siegel recalled that rumors began in the summer of 1977 and the property might be sold, but residents did not become concerned "until it dawned on us that the apartments being vacated were not being filled. That's the first sign to watch for." And calls to the landlord produced neither confirmation nor denials of the rumors, she said.
Siegel and a handful of other tenants felt they should organize, and in early December they formed the Beecher Low-Rise Tenants Association, with Siegel as president. But it took the eviction notices to draw in other tenants.
The BLTA "had a lot of conflicts, a lot of disagreements" over whether to "wage a long an expansive court battle to fight the evictions" or to attempt buying the buildings back from the new ownerm William Walde, Siegel said. Despite the friction, she added, a sense of community was developing and "we no longer felt we were in this alone."
With the help of attorney Ann Garfinkle and the Multi Family Housing Service, a private consulting firm, the BLTA decided it was feasible to try to form a cooperative. The BLTA was incorporated, an easy step that Siegel recommends to other tenant groups. Under D.C. law, incorporated tenant associations in buildings of more than four units have a 90-day period to invoke "rights of first refusal" before the property can be sold.
A series of offers and counter-offers was made by the BLTA and Walde, who had paid $1.2 million for the 10-building complex. "He was willing to work with us," Siegel said. "I want to stress that."
The BLTA also sought the support of city officials and the surrounding community. At a "We Shall Not be Moved" block party in April, the BLTA announced it had reached an agreement with Walde.
He was willing to sell back six buildings with 63 units for $961,506 if the BLTA could get financing within 18 months. He raised rents by $100, ranging from $239 to $250 a month, and the BLTA worked out a subsidy plan to help tenants on low or fixed incomes.
Siegel said she has "to be confident" that the BLTA will get financing. (Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan Association "has been working" with the Beecher group, said Jef Morris, a Perpetual urban loan officer. "We are definitely interested" in the project although no decision on financing will be made until December or January, he said.)
Siegel concedes there are drawbacks to the nonprofit, cooperative plan.
"It is not an investment, there is no appreciation. You own a share (not your apartment) that you get back if you move . . . It's a very heavy responsibility. If two people don't pay their rent, we coult all get kicked out," she said.
What a cooperative does offer, she said, is "housing security. That's important in a place like D.C. Your home is secure, and nobody can take it away from you."
The other advantage is community spirit. In the early months, many residents were reluctant to participate, Siegel said, but "something happened this past summer."
"People who had keep to themselves began to help with the maintenance. My neighbors scrubbed the hallways. Others keep up the outside . . . and we don't call the plumber until we try to fix it ourselves," she said. "It's not ideal by any means, but we do live in an environment we can control."
One of the first moves taken by the BLTA was to lift the no-pets restriction.
"It's okay to have them if you take care of them. Any complaints go to our grievance committee," Siegel said.
The BLTA is run by a committee system, and each building is represented by a "captain." A tenant who is home during the day volunteers as resident manager, and a Beecher newsletter is distributed monthly.
Ownership is the key to the changes in the Beecher apartments, according to Siegel.
"When we're renters, we don't care. When we're owners, we have a lot more pride in our homes."