For a year now, Roger Turpin has walked the halls of rundown Northwest Washington apartment buildings looking for trouble.
Ducking into the Park Regent at 1701 Park Rd. NW late last October, Turpin found exactly what he was looking for -- rats, roaches, a leaky roof and more than 200 low-income tenants threatened with displacement due to a proposed condominium conversion.
Turpin, then a newcomer to the city, began organizing and teaching Park Regent tenants the urban guerrilla tactics that made organizer Saul Alinsky famous in Chicago.
He has loaded up cars with tenants and driven them to the neighborhoods of slumlords, and set up picket lines "to tell (the landlord's) neighbors what's going on," he said.
The tenants go through the neighborhood stuffing flyers into mailboxes and under the windshield wipers of cars. The flyers bear the message, "You live with slumlords. We live with rats, roaches and bad plumbing because he won't repair his buildings."
"The landlords don't like that," Turpin said. "They say, 'You're scaring my wife to death! The neighbors are shocked.'"
But the repairs often are made, he said.
Turpin is one of five fulltime community organizers from Project WISH (Washington Innercity Self Help), a tenants' rights group fromed last February by 40 inner-city churches.
WISH director Don Leaming-Elmer, a former United Methodist Church minister, said the churches spearheaded WISH because their members were being driven out as rental apartments disappeared in some areas and slums overtook others.
The sponsoring churches include 10 Catholic parishes, 20 United Methodist churches from the Black Clergy of the Central District, five Protestant churches in the Emmaus Fellowship and several other churches.
Hardest hit by loss of membership were the inner-city black churches, Leaming-Elmer said.
Faced with displacement, the elderly and low-income members came to the churches for help, said the Rev. Mamie Williams, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Adams-Morgan. Economically stable families moved away, leaving the churches "under a tremendous debt," according to Williams.
The Rev. John Carter, pastor of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Northeast, said as his neighborhood has been threatened by commercial development he has lost about 20 percent of the 150 members in his church.
Increased living costs has also caused other members to cut back on church spending, he said.
So far, the city has been unresponsive to the plight of these communities, Leaming-Elmer said.
Rev. Joaquin Bazan, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, said he once tried unsuccessfully to have a local housing office board up an abandoned building near his church.
A worker in the office told him the building didn't exist, he said.
"I asked them to go check it. They said, 'How can we check something that doesn't exist?'"
Funded by $80,000 raised through church donations and grants, WISH workers last October began working in the streets of 10 neighborhoods undergoing redevelopment, using Alinsky's techniques. Both Leaming-Elmer and Turpin worked in Alinsky's Chicago network.
Aside from taking their protest to the neighborhoods where the landlords live, WISH organizers have also convinced the city government to make repairs on property and bill the landlords.
WISH organizers have helped set up tenant associations and civic groups, and have blocked condominium conversions, acquired rent rollbacks and convinced Metro to restore a Rhode Island Avenue busline it had canceled.
"I was told when I came here," Leaming-Elmer said, "that there was no way this town could be organized." Skeptics told him, "'There's no union base here. It's a black city.' But people are people and when they deal with problems like substandard housing they will get something done."
Of the 14 buildings WISH has helped organize, Turpin said perhaps their greatest victories have come at the Park Regent, a building of Caribbeans, Africans, South Americans and southerners.
Following a year or organizing in D.C., the 27-year-old organizer said he's convinced that people are needlessly suffering here because they are unorganized and don't know where to exert pressure to get results.
He said he receives about 15 calls daily from tenants in buildings he is working in, or tenants in buildings he is working in, or tenants from other buildings. The sponsoring churches also advise WISH of buildings with problems.
"These churches are very concerned about people staying in D.C.," he said.
But generally, like most of the streetworkers in the interracial group, Turpin said he finds his cases by combing the neighborhoods for trouble.
"I go and look for problems."