Fear leaps from Betsy Branson like a laser, energizing her body, clad in purple polyester, and her hair, which usually hangs like lank gray streamers. The countdown is nearing in a battle against condominium conversion that may be the poor renter's last standin the District.
For several months, Branson alone has refused to vacate her apartment in a 28-unit building at 1436 R. St. NW. The city will decide any day on the apartment owners' applications, and Branson isn't sure how much longer she can hold out.
"I don't sleep well. I've had one heart attack. They've offered me $200 to move. . . now it's up to $250. But somebody's got to stand up to them. They're trying to take my Tobacco Road away."
It's a war of nerves in the psychological battle of eviction, where the odds are stacked against people like Branson, a former street vendor who, at 55 and largely disabled, is in no shape to outwit the pros in a booming real estate market that has caught even the middle-income renter.
She has lived in the apartment three years, but has known fear only in the months since all the other tenants left. The building is no longer properly protected by the owners or the police.
"A lot of people are in and out when there is nobody supposed to be here but me," she said. "People come in and out at all hours of the day and night."
Security is impossible, said Richard Crone a partner of CMA Properties. CMA purchased the building and two adjacent ones a year ago. "Betsy knows it is not safe. I know it is not safe," he said.
"It may well be that there are people coming into the building to shoot up or to use it for prostitution," said Crone's lawyer Abe Greenstein, a former city housing official.
Crone and Greenstein want Branson to move into one of the CMA partnership's rental units next door. Branson said she dislikes the apartments they have shown her and believes it is "only a matter of time" before those buildings also go condo. CMA properties denies this.
"I'm really scared," Branson said. "The people who own the building are really mad at me because I didn't go along with the program and move to another ramshackle building. If only the other people had stayed and fought and not taken that litttle money. Now there is nobody left but me. . . ."
Branson also questions the tactics of CMA Properties in applying for condominium conversion permits.
Shortly after CMA Properties purchased 1436 R St. last November, it sent notices asking tenants to leave voluntarily "to accommodate extensive but necessary repairs." No mention was made then of any intention to convert the building to condominiums. Most tenants dutifully moved. Some went to the building the firm owned next door. Others took "moving" money that ranged from $125 to $475.
Branson did not like the apartment she was shown. Nor did she want the moving money. She refused to leave.
In August, CMA applied for a condominium conversion certificate, informing the city government that a majority of the tenants had consented as the law requires. By then the three tenants in the building were Gregory Malinowsky, the brother of one of CMA's general partners, and Charles MacFarland, whom the firm employes as a resident manager -- and Branson. Not surprisingly, the "tenant" vote for conversion was 2 to 1.
And the battle of nerves has gone on . . .
"The $250 they offered last week was so tempting," Branson said. "don't know when I haven't even seen that much recently."
Afraid to meet at the tiny efficiency she rent for $85 a months, she talked with me at a senior citizens feeding program where she packed the spaghetti sauce and cake they gave her into a bright-colored shopping bag. "I'm too nervous to eat," she said.
A lawyer friend, Sara Case, who works for the National Housing Law Project, has taken an interest in Branson's situation. She is waiting to see how the city rules on CMA's request for conversion before deciding what can be done for Branson.
Crone and Greenstein say they are victims of rent controls that makes it unprofitable to operate the building and they simply want to go condo like hundreds of other apartment owners across the city.
The problem is that poor people fall through the cracks because rent subsidies and supplements are too little or unavailable and there is a waiting list for public housing of up to 22 years. As more affluent people move back to the city and convert cheap housing into homes for the middle class, the poor increasingly are left the park bench as a last resort.
Thus, when poor tenants have been offered as much as $4,000 in some buildings in town to move out and make way for the middle class, many have taken the money and left because they think it is a matter of being out on the street penniless or with a few hundred dollars.
Tenant groups such as Project WISH (Washington Innercity Self Help) and Case's National Housing Law Project would like to see buildings like Branson's brought up to code and maintained for the low income through the use of subsidies. "The displacement is of alarming proportions," Case said."It's ultimately whether Washington will become Johannesburg surrounded by Soweto," he said.
In the meantime, Betsy Branson battles on like a doomed dinosaur.
"These people got me so nervous I'm sick all the time. Somebody's got to listen. Somebody's got to hear and help us before it is too late. Something is going to happen in one of those buildings."
Right on, Betsy!