Vernese O'Bryant, 46, who has lived most of her adult life in public housing, got a one-way ticket out of the projects last night when she became the proud and happy owner of a boarded-up, two-bedroom, two-story brick-and-frame house in Southeast.
It makes no difference to her that it will take six or seven months for the empty shell at 421 Xenia St. SE to be transformed into a real house for her and her two daughters.
"It was a dream of mine to own a home," said O'Bryant, a secretary for the Federal Communications Commission who has raised her five children in public housing over the last 20 years. "It's something I can pass on to my children." And, she added, the house is close to schools, shops and a bus line.
O'Bryant was one of 10 women, all public housing residents, who shrieked, yelled, clapped and cried as they were chosen from among 71 eligible applicants who wanted one of the 10 homes that city housing director Robert L. Moore raffled off before a packed crowd of about 100 in the board room of the housing department's North Capitol Street headquarters.
For these women, home ownership holds the same meaning as it does for most first-time buyers -- a chance to exchange rent receipts for mortgages, a legacy for their children, a backyard, space for flowers and a garden, privacy, no more fears of increasing rents or displacement in old age, and a chance to be independent with something permanent that belongs to them.
The lottery, limited to public housing tenants who pay between $200 and $300 a month rent, compared to the $85 paid by the average public housing resident, is part of a program designed by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Moore to encourage home ownership for public housing tenants. The majority of them are single women, with two or three children, who receive public assistance. All the homes raffled off are boarded up and must be renovated.
"Public housing is not a place people should stay for the rest of their lives," Moore said. "It should be a stepping stone. People have to hope and want to do better and these women will be role models that you can do better."
"God answers prayer," said Dorothy L. Strother, 47, a dietetic technician at the Walter Reed Army Hospital, who tossed her hands over her head in glee after Moore plucked her name from a cardboard box and read it aloud.
Later she said she applied for the two-bedroom house at 3832 Halley Ter. SE "because I can be paying on something that is mine. It's just a good feeling. I know I could not have gotten a house any other way."
Lower-income residents like herself have been virtually squeezed out of home ownership in the District of Columbia because of high prices and high interest rates. Only a relative handful of homes sold for $50,000 or less last year, even though this is the price that 90 percent of the city's renters can afford to pay for a home.
"Thank you, Jesus," said Essie Rembert, 45, as she rushed forward to become the new owner of 1347 Morris Rd. SE. "They say if you do good things, good things will come to you."
The women will pay $1 to buy the homes, which are sold under the city's Urban Homesteading Program, and then borrow between $25,000 to $40,000 -- depending on the size of their new home -- from the city at 3 percent interest to renovate it. They will repay the city over the next 20 years and these mortgage payments probably will not exceed their current rent, Moore said.
And they must help fix up the house. "People should not get something for nothing," Moore said, explaining that the new owners will be required to clean up, cut the grass and, if possible, paint, re-finish the floors and put up new drywall.