Finding that inhabitable rental apartments were too expensive, and cheaper housing unfit to live in, a group of low-income, Southeast apartment dwellers have found a way to obtain a decent home: a low-equity cooperative.

More than 50 families living at the Jeffrey Terrace Apartments received title this week to the three decaying buildings at Stanton and Elvan roads SE. The tenants will renovate the 67 units and rename the complex "The People's Cooperative," said Barbara Valentine, president of the tenants' association.

Once the co-op is formed, tenants will pay $300 to join. Mortgage payments will be comparable to current rents, which range from $188 to $230 a month, Valentine said.

One of the tenants, Martella Shine, said she never planned to remain in her vermin-infested, two-bed-room apartment. "I changed my mind when I got around to checking the rents (at other buildings)," Shine said.

Although the floor in the kitchen of her second floor apartment is sinking, Vera Stroman said she couldn't have found a better deal.

An estimated $200,000 will be needed to repair a leaky roof, faulty plumbing and wiring and a quirky sewer system in the complex, said Valentine.

But despite the "unbelievable" maintenance problems, the tenants said they were able to arrange an equally unbelievablle sales agreement on the building.

Earlier this week, the tenants signed a $150,000, no-money-down note with the Sun-Life Insurance Company, after Sun-Life reclaimed the complex and an adjoining building from the former owners, C & G Associates Ltd. Partnership. Developer William T. Syphax was the managing partner of the firm.

According to Barry Gottfried, attorney for the tenants, Sun-Life foreclosed on Syphax's mortgage in September for lack of payment.

Michael Jaffe, an attorney for the Sun-Life Company, said similar foreclosure proceedings were begun in January when Syphax defaulted on payments then. At the time Syphax owed the company nearly $50,000 Jaffe said. But the foreclosure was stopped after Syphax made the deliquent payments.

In September, when Sun-Life put the building up for bid, Jaffe said more than $1 million remained on the mortgage. Later Sun-Life reclaimed the property.

Under the agreement with Sun-Life, tenants will have an indefinite period of time to seek financing, Gottfried said. Once financing is obtained, however, they will pay Sun-Life $150,000 plus the interest accrued to that date. If financing is not obtained, Sun-Life cannot reclaim the property under mortgage because there is no deed of trust, Gottfried said.

In the meantime, Gottfried said the tenants' association will continue to operate the building as a rental property, while seeking financing and forming the cooperative.

After the signing last week, several tenants joined in celebration with Ward 8 Council member Wilhemina Rolark and Michael J. Crescenzo, deputy director of MUSCLE -- Ministries United to Support Community Life Endeavors. MUSCLE is a group of tenant organizers formed in 1978 by 10 Southwest churches, Crescenzo said.

For three years, tenants struggled under Syphax's management, Valentine said. In the winter they often lacked heat and hot water. On several occasions, the utilities were shut off for lack of payment.

Council member Rolark added that Syphax has "one of the biggest utility bills owed in the city." According to the tenants' lawyer Gottfried, the unpaid utility bills on the Jeffrey Apartments total $80,000. The tenants are not responsible for the bills, he said.

Syphax could not be reached for comment.

In February, Valentine said she organized a rent strike. About 30 tenants participated, and the money was used to make some repairs and hire a private trash agency to service the complex.

Throughout the struggles, Valentine said she tried to convince the tenants that their only chance of acquiring a decent, inexpensive home was to buy the complex and renovate it themselves.

"Intially there were a lot of people looking at me thinking, and saying, 'Her heart's in the right place, but she's crazy!'" Valentine chuckled.