THE DRUMS ALONG Bryant Street NE are tapping out an upbeat message these days, thanks to Walter Booth and some other people who care. The tenants at 1386 and 1390 have beaten the odds in a difficult game many blue-collar Washingtonians are losing. They're going to settlement Oct. 1 on the quarter-million-dollar purchase of their apartment building, and the deal transforms them from nervous renters to cooperative owners is a better one than many middle-class homeowners have worked out.
"It really hurt me to see a bunch of opportunities come in, pay people a little money, fix places up and sell them for two or three times what they'd paid," Booth, a 41-year-old divorcee, says of other neighborhoods he's seen. So when he got a letter telling him th e building in which he rented a one-bedroom apartment was being sold, he knew they had to fight to survive. And fight the tenants did, using a city law giving tenants the first opportunities to buy buildings being converted.
Although more than a decade in the music business, chiefly as a road manager for singing groups, gave him "an ease with figures," Booth, who is also a cook, and the other tenants couldn't have pulled off the deal had they not been able to draw ideas and technical support from a community-based group called Ministries United to Support Community Life Endeavors (MUSCLE) and legal services help from University Legal Services (ULS).
What's happening on Bryant Street is happening in broad, if fragmented, ways across America. The people who are helping make housing work for the poor "are not just a few good-hearted folks," says Prentice Bowsher, who has just written a 290-page report about some of these groups. "They are," he says, "part of a movement."
Walter Booth didn't know he was part of a movement last April when he'd get up in the morning, pad across his tan carpet and out to parking lots and apartments to corner his neighbors in the 24-unit building, many of them elderly, to try to interest them in buying the building. To some of them, the asking price of $240,000 sounded astronomical, but Booth knew it was a deal. (The value has increased $40,000 in the five months they've been negotiating).
He didn't know he was part of a movement when he contacted the District housing office -- once he'd met their requirement of getting more than half the tenants at a meeting -- and they came out and gave them a step-by-step guide to incorporating as a tenant organization.
"I found older people more willing than younger people at first," he recalled the other day, seated on an orange sofa across from a table stacked with papers and a telephone that constantly pealed with tenants asking questions about their cooperative status or settlement news. Before April, there were no tenant organizations, no cooperation among neighbors. People occupied the buildings, paid their rents and that was that. Few had any idea of doing anything different when the owner informed them he was selling the building. Most waited for a new owner to take over and winced at the probable rise in rent new ownership would bring.
But Booth found many willing listeners when he began to talk dollars and sense. "I told them we could do it ourselves -- it was just a matter of organizing." So they formed a tenants' association, incorporated them to raise the $11,000 earnest money and found that half the tenants in the building had incomes that fell within the federally established low-income guidelines and therefore qualified for government assistance with their down payments.
Two unusual factors characterize the Bryant Street deal: It is not being financed through a bank. Instead, the owners of the building are financing $180,000.
Second, they'll own the property in nine years rather than the usual 20 or 30 years required by the mortgages most cooperatives, condo and individual homeowners get stuck with. "The owner is a beautiful person to do this. This is the deal he offered us. He's a man in his seventies with a lot of property and he doesn't seem out to make a killing," Booth said.
And a new cohesiveness and camraderiehave enveloped the residents of 1386 and 1390 Bryant Street. Besides buying the building, they're organized to handle most of their own maintenance and hired a management firm to work for them. To raise money, they've sold chicken, pigfeet and fish dinners. A new pride emanates from Booth, who during his years on the road "didn't have any type of life to show for it." Now the father of three has new hope and he's proud of what he's been able to do with his fellow residents. Booth is not given to bursts of enthusiasm, but he can't contain his feeling of accomplishment.
"I knew it didn't make sense to let this building get away from us. I really put my whole soul into it."