The tenants of the Chateau Thierry had hoped to pack the Biltmore Ballroom to the rafters last Thursday night. Their disco party was to have been a major fundraising event.
It didn't turn out that way, though. When the TV camera crew left, there were only 15 people in the ballroom. Half an hour later, when Ward 1 City Council member David A. Clarke left, there were maybe five or six more.
Only 75 people turned out during the course of the sleet-filled evening. At $3 a head, that came to $225. But the tenants had used some foresight. They had sold tickets in advance -- at their offices, to their friends -- to the tune of $580, so the fundraiser wasn't a failure after all.
The benefit was held by the Chateau Thierry Tenants' Association to finance a "feasibility study" of their building -- that is, to hire an appraiser, an architect, an engineer and a lawyer to find out how much it will cost to refurbish the building, now owned by the estate of J.M. Stein.
In September, the tenants of the Chateau, located at the corner of 20th and S streets NW, received notice from realtor, Millicent Chatel, that the 56-year-old building was for sale and they had the "first right of refusal."
The notice said that the tenants had 45 days to offer to buy the building before it went for sale in the open market. The price was $1.25 million, according to Antoinette Hatfield, the Millicent Chatel agent who is handling the account.
Because of a legal technicality, that notice was invalid. The Rental Accommodation Act states that the tenants have 90 days to consider such an offer, so, a second notice was given Jan. 25. "The law had been changed and we had not been notified of that change," said Hatfield.
The tenants' association is now working to find out if and how they can afford to buy the building before their 90 days run out at the end of April.
Present rents at the eight-story, 56- unit building, range from about $90 to $185, according to Sheila Zubrod, a tenants' association member. Under city law, these rents are too low to qualify the building for condominium conversion, so that's not the tenants' fear. Mostly, they say, they fear the unknown.
"The biggest fear is that any person who bought it -- we don't know what they would do with it," said ANC Commissioner Madeline DeLisle, who has lived at the Chateau for the past six years. "We want to turn it into a cooperative."
After the feasibility study is done, DeLisle said, "We might find out that (buying the building is) entirely too expensive to swing."
Another fear, DeLisle said, concerns the older residents of the building. "There's a man who's lived there 26 years. A pensioner. What's he going to do?" she asked. "The old people -- where are they going to go?
"The moving is really trying. It's like uprooting a plant. Uprooting a tree. I'm sure he won't be able to find anyplace in the city that he can afford," DeLisle said.
"The uption is to move way out into the suburbs," said Zubrod, who has lived at the Chateau for two years. "I went to high school in Bladensburg. I have no ambition to return."
Zubrod said that, "given the asking price (of the building), we'll have to come up with about $260,000" as a downpayment before the end of the 90-day period. "For a really low-in-come building with low rents, it's kind of an irony to ask them to come up with a large sum of money."
A survey taken by the tenants' association showed that, of the 37 people responding, 20 percent had incomes of less than $5,000; 31 percent had incomes between $5,000 and $10,000 and none had an income of over $25,000.
"They're not bankable. A lot of our tenants are waitresses and potters: the nouveau poor," Zubrod said.
Sudie Black, who has been the resident manager of the Chateau for the last two years, stood by the bar at the Biltmore last week, nursing a drink.
"I was evicted from the last place that I lived.I lived over Schwartz (drug store on Connecticut Avenue) for nine years and I'm in this as much as anyone," she said. "I need a place to live."