A year ago Barbara Valentine, a supervisory clerk at St. Elizabeths Hospital, organized a rent strike at her Anacostia apartment complex. Today, she and 21 other tenants not only own the five dilapidated, leaky buildings but last week they went to court to collect back rent from 15 delinquent tenants.
Across town, a few months ago, Burnette Johnson was baking large batches of her popular homemade cinnamon rolls each week and then selling them to her coworkers so she and her fellow tenants could raise some of the money needed to buy their 51-unit apartment complex on 15th Street NW. In April they became owners of the four buildings worth nearly $1 million.
As more and more low-rent apartment buildings are threatened by condominium conversions, lower-income tenants, led increasingly by black working women like Valentine and Johnson, are accomplishing the unusual feat of organizing and purchasing their buildings. Tenants say they must buy their sometimes rundown and disheveled buildings or face eviction.
"We decided to take a chance for survival," said Johnson, who is in her early 60s. "We had no place to go and some people have been here 50 years . . . . The way the trend is going, if you don't own you are out of luck," she added.
Tenants generally earning less than $12,000 a year have purchased nearly 1,000 units in 17 developments in the last year and are negotiating to buy 2,000 more in 20 other buildings, according to District of Columbia housing officials. The buildings range in size from eight units to more than 150.
These tenants are able to buy their buildings because the District of Columbia and Montgomery County are the only two jurisdictions in the country with a law requiring landlords to give tenants the first chance to purchase their buildings when they are up for sale.
Although the D.C. law has been on the books for three years, until last year it was used exclusively by more affluent tenants to buy their apartment buildings.
But lower-income tenants now are forming corporations, paying as little as $500 down and arranging to receive both local and U.S. government subsidies to help them finance their purchases. Some of the subsidies lower a tenant's monthly payment to only 25 percent of his income, with the government paying the difference between the 25 percent figure and the actual mortgage. However, other new apartment owners are finding they have to scrimp more on other necessities of life, such as food, in order to afford the higher payments they now are making.
Armed only with that law, these black women, many of whom have only high school educations, have found lawyers and organizations to help them unite tenants and arrange the complicated procedure of financing the acquisition and rehabilitation of the buildings.
They have fought frustration, apathy and indifference among tenants who work as janitors, cooks, clerks, and others who either are retired or on public assistance -- people who never have owned property and never dreamed that they ever could.
They have spent long hours baking pies and cakes, frying chicken, cooking dinners, organizing cabarets and trips to raise money needed to help pay engineers and make down payments. And they have learned about their rights, contracts and financing.
While developers and more affluent tenants have converted more than 9,000 apartment units to condominiums, lower-income tenants are converting to cooperatives where individual tenants buy stock in their building, which entitles them to a unit.
Their more affluent counterparts look forward to their buildings increasing dramatically in value to push up sales prices, but these poorer tenants have written bylaws to limit the appreciation on their properties.
With appreciation curbed, sales prices will remain relatively low, and a core of housing will be preserved in the city for those earning less than $20,000 a year.
Sometimes "it's a headache" being landlord, businesswoman and working mother, said Valentine, 36, who had been waiting for more than a year for the city to approve a $1 million to fix up the 67-unit apartment complex in the 2400 block of Elvans Road SE.
She and the other tenants now own a blighted complex, with a swimming pool, that was built 20 years ago. The first tenants were middle-class black families who moved after saving enough money to buy homes in the suburbs. They were replaced by poorer blacks with large families.
The swimming pool was filled in, maintenance declined, the grass disappeared, mailboxes were vandalized, owners came and went as their tax advantages wore out. Last year the tenants bought the building at foreclosure for $150,000.
Eighty percent of the tenants are single women with two and three children and many receive public assistance, Valentine said.
The new owners have replaced a hot water heater, repaired the roofs of two buildings and started on a third and paid all but $5,000 to $6,000 on a delinquent gas bill that totaled $18,000.
Some of the tenants who decided not to buy are more than $1,100 behind in their rent. The owners recently went to D.C. Superior Court to try to get a court order forcing the delinquents to pay.
"We don't want any body evicted, but we want them to carry their fair share," said Valentine, whose apartment is located in a building with broken windows and smelly hallways. "They can't live rent free.
"It would be more comfortable if we could all be owners and not [some of us] landlords, but somebody has to do that and better us than outsiders because we have more compassion for each other," she said.
Home ownership also brings other sacrifices and rewards.
In Southwest, Doris Stiner, 52, who receives a small disability check and food stamps, has exchanged her $103 monthly rent for $170 in monthly carrying charges for cooperative ownership.
To afford her first home, Stiner has to buy cheaper foods, clip coupons and shop at discount supermarkets to feed herself and her 30-year-old disabled daughter who lives with her.
Her neighbor, Kenneth C. Williams, 48, who was born and raised in Southwest, said he bought his apartment because "property is going up so bad in D.C. I thought if I had a chance to stabilize my payment for 30 years I should. Now even if I die my children pay no more than that." His mortgage and maintenance charges total $160, $41 more than his rent.
Many of the new owners said they would never have succeeded without money from the District of Columbia government and technical assistance from one of two non-profit organizations -- the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association [MWPHA] and Ministries United to [MUSCLE].
Both groups guide tenants associations through the bewildering rites of negotiating sales prices, finding an appraiser, and arranging financing.
These advisers string together local and federal government progrms to help individual tenants buy their units. Many low-income tenants are able to purchase their apartments only because federal and local dollars subsidize their monthly mortgage payments.
While acknowledging the success of some tenants' purchases, some leaders from both groups are pessimistic about the future.
"Long-term prospects for low-income home ownership are very bleak," said Larry Weston, director of the MWPHA tenant counseling program.
"The public sector has good intentions but little money and the private sector has all the money and no good intentions," Weston said.
MUSCLE's deputy director Michael Crescendo agreed. "It's becoming harder and harder to do [home ownership projects] without deep public subsidies," he said. Acquisition prices are increasing and he said he fears the city lacks enough money to help every needy tenant buy his apartment.
The city proposes to spend $2.5 million to help poorer city residents make down payments on single-family homes or cooperatives and $8.4 million to help these residents fix up their homes or buildings as soon as Congress approves the city's budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, the city is running short of money because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also held up most of its payments to the city, a major source of tenant subsidy funds.
The other major problem facing the new cooperatives is getting local savings and loan associations and banks to provide the permanent financing. While these financial institutions can sell mortgages on single-family homes and condominiums to government agencies and recoup their outlays, there is no place to sell a mortgage on a cooperative. Therefore, once the bank or savings institution makes the mortgage on a cooperative that money is out of circulation for 20 to 30 years.
City housing director Robert L. Moore, whose department pays MUSCLE and MWPHA to advise tenants, disagreed with such pessimistic views, saying the home ownership program "is a major part of the city's antidisplaclement strategy."
He said the best hope he could offer is that the city will get more U.S. funds and that the city's new housing finance agency, which is scheduled to begin operating in March, will provide an additional source of money. That agency will be able to offer permanent financing to tenant groups, Moore said.