Ernestine Turner, an unemployed mother of six, and Jacqueline Dyson, a 40-year-old clerk for the U.S. Navy, were arrested yesterday after they tried to fulfill their dreams of owning houses by staging a squatters' house-cleaning party in two vacant District government properties.
Ignoring the no trespassing signs, Dyson and her friends carried brooms, a shovel and a rake into a house at the corner of Euclid Street and University Place NW, and began throwing old refrigerators and furniture out of a second-story window. Turner moved on to another vacant house at the end of the block, where she planned to spend the night, and used a sledgehammer to knock down the blocks used to seal the doorway.
"I know it is illegal to squat on property, and I'm going into this with my eyes open," said Dyson. "The dope dealers go into these vacant houses and shoot up and I could be living in there and preserving the property. It is being wasted, and I need it."
As the two women threw trash out of a window and chanted, "Two, four, six, eight! We want houses; we won't wait," seven police officers gathered on the sidewalk. In a few minutes, the women and three helpers were arrested and handcuffed. The five were charged with unlawful entry.
Police said the five alleged trespassers were given citation releases last night and are scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court today.
Both Dyson and Turner are members of the District chapter of the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN), which is trying to launch a squatters movement to get the city to turn over vacant houses to low- and moderate-income families.
"We're trying to say, 'Give us these houses and eliminate the eyesores in the city,' " said William Thompson, an ACORN member who was arrested. "We're going to have to force the city's hand. We know it is highly illegal and it is not safe, but the time has come for a change."
In addition to Dyson, Turner and Thompson, Russell Mead, an ACORN staff member, and Booker T. Jones, an ACORN member, were arrested.
The squatters are focusing on six vacant city-owned houses on University Place between Euclid and Fairmont streets NW. The houses do not have electricity or water, and neighbors said that the houses had been vacant for about five years.
Oliver W. Cromwell, a city housing department spokesman, said the properties were once slated for renovation but are in such poor condition that the plan now is to demolish them and build new houses.
Police said yesterday that the housing department had asked them to arrest the squatters.
Meanwhile, ACORN's efforts to enter vacant properties sparked sidewalk debates and drew comments from neighbors who say that the vacant properties in the area have attracted crime.
"They can move in all they want to, but how are they going to pay for it?" asked one 30-year-old man. "It is easier said than done."
Viola Palmer, 73, nodded approval and scolded another man for being critical. "Real estate people buy and fix up and sell houses for three times what they paid for them and that ain't wrong in God's sight," Palmer said. "Poor people got to have houses to live in. The right way is what we're doing now."
ACORN is trying to force the city to broaden the scope of recently adopted homesteading legislation to include city-owned, vacant single-family property and to authorize the government to bid against real estate investors for property sold because the owners failed to pay property taxes. The homesteading legislation currently authorizes the District to acquire apartments or houses when owners have been delinquent for two years on their property taxes and to sell the buildings to residents willing to make repairs and live in them for at least five years. The properties would be sold for $250 a unit and homesteaders could get a $10,000 loan to help repair a unit. The loan would not have to be repaid unless the unit were sold.
Robert King, an official in the city's Department of Finance and Revenue, said the potential pool of properties for the homesteading program includes 432 properties that represent 1,950 multifamily units and 300 single-family units.
ACORN members said they plan to return to University Place to claim four other vacant properties.