To neighborhood residents and other observers, four brick buildings at the corner of 15th and T streets NW last March became a bright symbol of triumph in battles by tenants against displacements in the heart of D.C. It was then that the apartments were purchased for $550,000 by an association of about 50 tenants, some of them low-income, elderly residents who had lived there more than 50 years.

But shortly after the victory celebration, the tenants, members of the 1901-07 15th Street NW Tenants Association, and the group that helped them buy thier buildings, MUSCLE -- Ministries United to Support Community Life Endeavors, began fighting another battle. If they do not win this one, they may never realize their dream of managing the property as a cooperative.

The battle began when G. Thomas Borger -- who had made a legal agreement if the tenants association failed to raise the $550,000 within the 90-day limit set by the D.C. Rental Housing Act -- filed a civil suit against the association and the previous owners to block the sale. Borger claims that the sale of the apartments was illegal because the association did not have in hand the money needed to buy the property on March 24, 1980, the settlement date.

According to Burnette Johnson, president of the tenants association, the settlement was made in escrow "because the cash to purchase had not been released by the D.C. National Bank until the last minute due to technical difficulties."

About one week before the deadline date, the tenants' association and MUSCLE negotiated a $550,000 loan from the bank. Then it made an arrangement for the D.C. Development Corporation to guarantee the loan. Disbursement of the loan did not occur until April 11 and, on that date, Borger filed suit to prevent the recording of the deed. But the association says, Borger was too late, so he amended his suit to ask that the sale be ruled illegal.

"My rights were violated," Borger says. "The sale was not actually made until after the (deadline) date."

With the suit pending, the tenants cannot obtain the additional $450,000 loan which the D.C. department of Housing and Community Development has agreed to give them to rehabilitate their buildings to comply with city housing regulations. Only after the rehabilitation is completed will the tenants become official stockholders in the 1901-07 15th Street Tenants Cooperative. At that time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will pay off the D.C. National Bank and the Department of Housing and Community Development loans and become the sole financier of the tenants cooperative.

The rehabilitation work, which was to include the installation of storm windows, new bathtubs and kitchen fixtures, was scheduled to be completed this fall. "(But) a lot of the work will have to be cut out due to inflation," Johnson says, adding that tenants will not recieve new bathtubs or storm windows.

Those are not the only losses caused by the lawsuit."We're in jeopardy of being unable to get our permanent financing from Hud," Johnson says. "The money has already been alloted by HUD, but it won't be available if it's held up too long. This nuisance suit which Borger has filed could prevent us from fully becoming a cooperative if it remains hung up in court proceedings."

"This is not a nuisance suit," Borger maintains. "The case is a fairly technical case. It's complicated. A lot of the tenants don't understand the case at all. The case is based on various and sundry definitions of the law.

"They (the tenants) had to go to settlement by March 24, 1980," Borger says, "but the money wasn't transferred until April 11. It was my right to buy the property, but I was denied."