When Lucille Cooper learned recently that her landlord was selling the Northeast Washington house which she had rented for over 30 years, she was determined not to become another of the city's "displaced" renters.
Instead, the 70-year-old widow -- who supports herself and her 45-year-old mentally retarded daughter Syliva on less than $6,000 a year -- became a homeowner. The gray rowhouse in the 2000 block of Gayle Street NE now belongs to Cooper, after an uphill struggle.
"When I know things have got to be done, I don't like to fiddle aroundo So I just dug in," said Cooper.
District law requires that tenants be given the "right to first refusal" to buy their apartment or building before it goes on the market. However, Copper said, her landlord had returned her $900 deposit because she failed to obtain a loan on the $18,800 house within the time the landlord required.
Cooper then returned for advise to her other five children, who live nearby. They suggested she move in with them, into a senior citizen's home or that they help her buy the house. Cooper chose the last option, scoffing at the idea that she was "too old" to become a homeowner.
"I prefer to be on my own, free to do as I please, and my main concern was a place where Sylvia felt safe and secure," she said.
Cooper also doubted that she could find a comparable house for the $100 monthly rent she was paying. And she was reluctant to leave the home where her family had gathered for so many years.
"It's kind of heirloom place, a haven for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, where 35 or 40 people visit every Christmas," she said, looking around her living room filled with family picturs, albums and momentos.
After Cooper told her family she wanted to stay in the house, one of her grandsons, Preston Williams, 32, turned his attention to honoring a promise he made before his grandfather died in 1977 "to take care of Grandma and the house."
Williams went to University Legal Services, a community-oriented law firm designed to help low-income tenants solve housing problems.
Attorney Laurie Farnham guided Cooper and Williams through a bureaucratic maze. The result: a special, guaranteed federal loan of $11,000 and an interest-free loan of $7,500 from the D. C. Development Corporation, where enabled Cooper to buy the house.
"Mrs. Cooper forged ahead despite great odds: her health -- she has diabetes -- her age, the discouragement of some members of her family and a low income," said Farnham.
"Her determination was so unusual that we got incredible cooperation from all levels of government. Everyone involved rushed to meet our deadlines, pushing the loans through quickly, because they realized she was special to try to stand on her own two feet."
Despite Cooper's determination, she needed assistance in completing the legal details of buying the house. She got it from University Legal Services, which is funded primarily through grants from the D. C. Bar Association, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United Way.
An unusual payment plan helps University Legal Services educate tenants throughout the city. The clients they serve each year are charged a$4 administrative fee, but must also contribute their time. For example, Williams spent 20 hours speaking to federal and city housing officials trying to resolve his grandmother's case, and Cooper distributed pamphlets about housing to her neighbors.
"I learned that housing laws should be written so the average person can understand them and so tenants are made aware of their rights and of the community programs available to help them," said Williams. "I'm sorry about what's happening on the rest of the block. Neighbors are receiving notices about their homes going up for sale.Some are leaving or living with the uncertainty that soon they many have to move."
Although Cooper is pleased to finally own her home, she has found some problem -- especially since her federal loan is contingent upon making necessary repairs.
"Repairs keep popping up -- like electrical work that needs to be done or replacing the roof. I guess I'll still have butterflies in my stomach until the house passes inspection," she said.
Cooper still has her original lease, dated November 18, 1946. Rent for the two-story, two bedroom house was $20.50 a month then. After more than 30 years as a tenant, she admits some habits are hard to shake.
"I still think of the monthly mortgage payments as paying the rent," she said. But the $113 a month payments are her guarantee that she will never become a "displaced" renter. CAPTION: Picture, Lucille Cooper: "When I know things have got to be done. . . I just dig in." By Michael Ford Parks -- The Washington Post