Esther Keehan, a spry woman of 85 with twinkling eyes, was up and working by 8:30 Saturday morning, moving old books, dishes, racks of clothes and lacy linens out to the front yard of her apartment building at 11th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.
She and the other residents of Wisteria Mansion were holding their fourth bazaar in two years in a determined effort to purchase their 71-unit building, a project that has unified the tenants and invigorated some members of the predominantly elderly group.
By 10 a.m. most of the better furniture was sold. "They just keep coming," Keehan said. "They don't even give you time to straighten up," she said moving off to bring out more items and encourage her fellow tenants. All the tenants donated goods and time for the bazaar to raise expense money for a lawyer and financial consultant.
Wisteria Mansion residents decided to buy their home when it was put up for sale by the District of Columbia Development Corp. (DCDC), a quasi-public housing agency, in 1981. Under the District's First Right to Purchase law, tenants are allowed up to 240 days to organize and buy the property they live on. But this sale is taking longer than that and some tenants are concerned.
"When you're renting, you're hanging by a thread," said Joseph William Martin, 71.
"We want to make sure that the elderly are not displaced," said Janet LaBella, attorney for the Tenants Association. "That's why the negotiations have taken so long." She said there are "numerous housing code violations on the property," and DCDC is not willing to invest in a building it's selling.
"It's mainly a matter of dollars, dollars we don't have," said Abraham Beaton, president of DCDC. He said the corporation is trying to keep the sale price low.
"The main problem here is the elderly who are on a fixed income," Beaton said. He said the tenants group is the only prospective buyer and the sale is expected to be made final within 45 days.
The effort to buy the building has made the residents group a community, according to Patrick Guthrie, 31, public relations director for the Tenants Associaton. He said few of the residents knew each other before the association was formed.
"A lot of the older people were solitary and frugal," Guthrie said. Now, he said, the elderly residents are involved "instead of just letting their fate happen to them. If we had never organized I imagine we would have been cleared out of here a long time ago."
Four of the younger residents started the Tenants Association. Gary McCoy, acting president, said some of the elderly feared the younger tenants would buy the apartments for profit, and felt "grave insecurity" about their futures, until the association guaranteed them lifetime tenancy.
"Our main objective is making the apartments habitable for the elderly who live here," McCoy said. "That means me," said Esther Keehan, who has lived in the building 21 years.
Keehan works as storeroom manager for the twice yearly bazaars and cleans, organizes and prices all the sale items. "Esther has to be given a lot of credit . . . it's a full-time job," said tenant Don Brenke, 59."