Tenants at 2630 Adams Mill Rd. NW once lived without refrigerators, without hot water and without care from their landlord. And once, those same tenants -- most of them Hispanic, many illegal immigrants -- had high hopes of buying the building themselves and fixing it.
That never happened. In the end, all the residents were forced to pack up and move when city inspectors ordered the building closed last year.
But a different sort of victory was celebrated there yesterday, and some of the former residents returned to see how the squalor they once called home had been transformed.
Mayor Marion Barry led the opening of the newly named John Francis Plaza, a completely renovated apartment building that represents a rare kind of cooperation between the city and a private developer.
Where rats once roamed the basement, 40 preschool children will attend a day care center. Where holes once gaped in the plaster walls, new washers, dryers and refrigerators have been installed in apartments that now rent for up to $950 a month.
The former tenants received cash payments to move from the developer who bought and rebuilt the structure last year. In return for a low-interest, $2 million city construction loan, the developer set aside seven of the building's 37 renovated apartments for low-income residents.
"I'm happy for the building and I'm happy for myself," said 62-year-old Dinah Longs, a former tenant who recalls how the sewer line broke last year, filling the basement with waste six inches deep.
She now lives in a subsidized town house on Bates Street NW.
"Drugs. Alcohol. You name it, it was here. This building created problems for the whole neighborhood," she said.
With its shiny new fixtures and wall-to-wall carpeting, the John Francis Plaza does not represent the future of public housing in the District. "These projects are very expensive," said Barry, when asked why the city is not involved in more such projects.
Nor will the seven apartments set aside under the District's Tenant Assistance Program solve the city's low-income housing shortage.
What does count, officials said, is that a former eyesore and neighborhood health hazard has been eliminated, spreading benefits to a wide range of people in the bargain.
The building had been going downhill for years after its absentee owner virtually abandoned it in the early 1980s, officials said. All but eight of the original tenants left. They were replaced by a mostly Hispanic group who could afford no better.
"The conditions were so bad, they really shouldn't have been renting it," said former tenant Portia Clare. "We were just trying to survive."
The tenants organized, hoping to purchase the building and rehabilitate it. Instead, the owner filed for bankruptcy. The city won rights to the property after filing more than $500,000 in claims for repairs it had made over the years, as well as for heating oil it had provided and taxes the previous owner never paid.
District housing officials offered financial incentives to J&B Enterprises, developers based in Sterling, to buy the building from the city, fix it, pay tenants $5,000 or more each to relocate, and allow for some low-income renters in the renovated apartments, along with day care facilities.
In addition, former tenants are scheduled to receive funds from the city -- some up to $14,000 -- to help them buy their own houses.
Not all, though, are pleased with the way things turned out.
"This is a subsidy for the rich. It's a farce," said Ann Hopkins, a terminal cancer patient and former officer of the building's tenants association. "This was a chance of a lifetime to organize and buy. They took it away from us."
Housing activist Keary Kincannon, executive director of the Churches Conference on Shelter and Housing, also said he had mixed feelings.
"We helped the tenants get some decent things. But we know that most tenants in this city aren't organized enough to get something not even this nice," Kincannon said. "This is just a pittance."