It was only two years ago that Silverio Coy, a young Community organizer, stood on 16th Street NW watching the Kenesaw Apartments burning. Firetrucks swarmed around to the once elegant structure as the impoverished tenants stood shivering on the sidewalks.
"I asked the people what was happening," Coy remembered the other night. "They said "There is everything wrong with this building. It's a fire on the third floor. It's nothing unusual." Nobody would do anything about it. It was like apathy existed everywhere."
Yesterday Coy sat with some of those same tenants - among them a chauffeur, a houskeeper - watching as a government-funded corporation bought the Kenesaw for them from Antioch University. They had become symbols of the battle against the displacement of low-income families in Washington, essentially poor people who had fought to keep the homes they rented and soomeday own them.
In the still-dim halls of the Kenesaw the people who live there could hardly believe that they had finally met with sucess after two years of organizing, fighting court battles and suffering disppointments.
"I heard the news. I hope this time it's good," said Bernice Askins, who has been trying to raise her four grandchildren in the building trhough all its recent troubles. She smiled. "I'm glad. We all just worked hard. I'm so tired of moving; always being so upset about things."
"Oh I'm very happy," said Genora Medina. "I told my husband and he say Oh Hallelujah" She laughed easily as her three youngest children scampered through the apartment.
In a sense it was Medina, a shy young woman from the Dominican Republic, who started the whole process that ended so happily yesterday.
During the same winter as the fire, the heat did not work in the building for two months. Everyone was forced to sleep in several layers of clothes. There was no hot water for bathing or laundering. Medina's youngest child, israel, was suffering from allergic rashes brought on by fleas from the rats and mice that infested the building.
Then the eviction notices came. Antioch, itself in dire financial straits, was attempting to sell the Kenesaw-which had been bequeathed as a gift but turned out to be nothing but a burden.
But with six children and her husband Thomas earning only about $700 a month as a houseman, there was no where else for the Medinas to go. In March 1977, through a teacher at her children's school Genora Medina was put in touch with Coy.
"You should have seen it," said Coy. "The building was so dirty. The doors were all broken. It seemed like nobody was living here."
Derelicts wandered and slept in the building at night. The security guards, when they could be found, were ineffectual. The elevator in the six-floor structure was a dead relic. There was no lock on the front door.
"I couldn't walk to room," said Marisa Perez, a houskeeper born in Spain. "I came home from my work and there would be six or seven boys smoking marjijuana. I say excuse me. They say, 'Oh come on, lady.'"
A public service legal adviser had been telling the tenants that there was no real hope for them. But with the help of the Rev. Sean O'Malley, seven years running the Spanish Catholic Center housed on its ground floor, Coy organized a tenants association to fight eviction.
Some families moved out anywork. Several Haitians who had lived there abandoned the building. A group of tEthiopian students left. A man who was selling drugs to schoolchildren was asked to leave.
They were replaced gradually by Hisapics, mostly from Central American and the Caribbean. A handful of young professionals and activists were attracted to the building as well by the spacious apartments and the desire to help tennis.
Where before the tenants had wandered the halls as strangers, now they found themselves together at weekly meetings. Leaders emerged, like Perez, who became the association's indefatigable vice president.
They gained a promise of a rehabilitation loan from the D.C. Department fo Housing and Community in August 1977 only to learn that Washington developer and political figure H. R. Crawford was planning to buy the building in October.
Crawford eventually withdrew his offer and the tenants began working with the government-funded D.C. Development Corporation to finance their own purchase. But again and again they had to ask Antioch for more time to raise the money.
The promise of the rehabilitation loan was withdrawn when the deadline ran out this February and was only returned after City Council member David clarke went to bat for the Kenesaw's tenants.
Then, in May, just as DCCDC and the tenants were about to sign a contract for the property the Nemac Development Corp. of Rhode Island suddenly outbid them. Antioch University's president publicly announced he would sell the building to the tennants anyway, in accordance with the school's avowedly liberal social philosophy, but in the meantime his representative had signed a binding contract with the Rhode Island company.
Nemac and Antioch eventually settled ut of court, enabling DCDC and the tenants to buy the Kenesaw at a price of $890,000. Another $25,000 from the tenant's saving went toward buying out the Nemac contract-money that had been set aside to heat the building this winter.
The 90 residents of the Kenesaw now are in the process of working out their new monthly payments, ranging from $150 to $350 so that once the building is filled-about 50 of its 80 units are still unoccupied-there will be enough money flowing iinto a capital fund to eventually enable them to buy the building or refinance it independent of the D.C. Development Corporation
After it has been totally renovated with a $1.45 million loan from the D.C. Department of housing and community development it is expected to be a valuable property.
But more important to the tenants is the fact that it will remain their home and become a new home for more people lik.
"It's like an island," said one resident admiring thhe view outside this window of Mount Pleasant and 16th streets ofconverging. "I think of this building as a ship. sort of the flag ship of Mount Pleasant." CAPTION: Picture 1, Genora Medina, below, with her children Israel, Ana, caona and Elias (in chair), smiles in her department at the news of Kenesaw's purchase.; Picture 2 A jubilant Silverio Coy, left, stands outisde the Kensesaw apartment building after it was purchased from Antioch college on behalf of its tenant; Photos by Margaret Thomas -The Washington Post; Picture 3, Presidents of Kenesaw, Where this empty apartment is located, are hoping to renovate the building. By Margaret Thomas-The Washington Post