While a TV Superman minded her five children on a rainy October day, Doreen Johnson, 24, laid her head before the praying wooden hands on her kitchen table, searching for the right words.
"I guess, if they wanted to put us out, there would be somewhere to go," she said, looking up at a cracked wall and fiddling with a picture of the twins. "But it ain't right to put people out of their homes."
As Johnson spoke, a dozen of her landlords, all members of church congregations, were busy outside, painting the hallway.
Bob Muldrow, president of the group, put down his roller to explain."You know, offering low- and moderate-income people a decent place to live is what we're all about," he said, "but if we don't get help from someone soon, we're going to lose this place."
Unusual drama is unfolding in the bottle-strewn gutters and urine-fouled alleys of the upper 14th Street NW ghetto where Doreen Johnson lives. The landlords and their tenants are together this time, each fighting in their way to save not only a building, but a new way of life.
Their story began 14 years ago. It was just after the riot in Watts, two years before Washington's inner city burned with the fires of change. As prophets and politicians talked, slumlords made their fortunes, stealing behind Washington's color line by day to collect inflated rents on neglected rooms.
The members of the 15th Street Presbyterian and the Georgetown Presbyterian churches, a committed coalition of blacks and whites decided to make a difference.
Finding a pastorial mission within a jungle of tangled federal rules, they formed PITCH (Presbyterians Incorporated To Conserve Housing), obtained a low-interest loan and became the first nonprofit landlords in the country.
Today, PITCH's five-story brick building at 1430 W St. NW is in trouble. The District has found 15 pages worth of housing code violations, which, because of short maintenance funds, makes the building's future uncertain.
"Where else could I find a three-bedroom apartment for $259 a month?" asked Johnson, who lives in her second story apartment with her father and her five children, from 15 months to 9 years old. "I used to pay almost that much for a one-bedroom place. . .
"You move in somewhere, you fix it up, settle down. You want to call it home," she said. "But how can you when someone's always trying to put you out?"
Muldrow, PITCH president for the past four years, says he understands, and that "none of these 26 families will lose their homes if we can help it. . . But it would cost us nearly $10,000 to correct all the violations they saddled us with. And most of them are only cosmetic, anyway -- chipped paint, cracked plaster, loose molding. . . "He said the money just isn't available.
The Rev. John Pharr, pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian, said PITCH was founded to "bear witness that two churches of diverse racial backgrounds could work together to do some things in this city."
In 1967, PITCH bought and renovated the W. Street building with the help of an obscure Department of Housing and Urban Development program that allowed them a 3 percent $328,000 loan.Today, rents in the building range from $180 for an efficiency to $259 for a three-bedroom apartment.
"It's part of the scriptures," said Pharr. "Jesus had no place to lay his head, and he was provided for. We wanted to provide for people who had no other alternative. It is a mission we have as a church."
"But the problem with good works," Muldrow counters, "is that they don't pay.
"We ran up a $4,500 deficit last year, and we've been in the red every year since we opened," he added.
The PITCH House operates solely on money received for rents, though the group has balanced its deficit since 1972 with $17,000 they made on the sale of their partial interest in the Capitol Manors Apartments next door. At present, Muldrow said, there is $3,000 left in that fund, but they are losing $300 to $400 a month.
"Once that money's gone," he said, "we'll be up the creek. But I don't want to see us throw up our hands and walk away. We could sell the place -- D.C. is speculation city, you know -- but I'm afraid to think of what would happen to the families who live here."
One alternative, Muldrow said is to raise the rent, something he says he'd hate to see. And, he adds, it "wouldn't really help anyway.
"Hud will only grant us a rent increase after we show a deficit for the previous year. We do show the deficit," he said, "but the problem is that even though we have raised the rent, we never make enough back to build up a reserve fund for major improvements we would like to make."
While appeals to HUD for aid have yielded nothing but the suggestion to sell, Muldrow said the District government has been more supportive, though not financially.
"They've already let us go past the 120-day deadline for making the improvements," he said, "but I don't think they'll let it go much longer. They could go ahead and hire a contractor to do the work, but then they'd have a lien against the building. And since we couldn't pay, the PITCH House would, revert back to the city. Kind of a Catch 22, isn't it?"
Despite PITCHs good intentions, Muldrow said that some of the tenants are getting anxious about conditions in the house. "It was one of our tenants that we were having trouble with that first brought the inspectors here," he said.
Rev. Pharr said he worried about tenant discontent:
"If we don't keep the building up to standards, he said, "then it's easy for these people to say we're just trying to make money like all the other landlords. But we're not there only to provide housing. We're there to minister to the people of the neighborhood."
"A lot of these people have been in this situation before and have had their homes sold right out from under them," Muldrow said. "We've formed committees to go to them and let them know about our situation. We haven't given them any reason to think that we'd sell out, but I really can't blame them."
Meanwhile, Johnson has five kids and a father to take care of.
And nowhere to go without PITCH.