They wistfully sang the refrain "We shall not be moved" to the hymnal tones of "We Shall Overcome." They chanted -- "Affordable housing now!" -- as they stood among placards decrying the ill effects of gentrification on those who don't have the means to give up their inexpensive rental apartments.
For the 50 or so protesters attending yesterday's rally in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest Washington, it was another last stand for residents with low and moderate incomes in a neighborhood being transformed by big developers and a relentless condominium boom.
The cause of the day was 1020 Monroe St. NW and the building's tenants, who turned out to express dismay about the 22-unit property being put up for sale and to call for full funding of the city's Housing Production Trust Fund to assist them in purchasing it.
"We don't want to be pushed out. We are victims of redevelopers, the banks, the Realtors and all these things," said Thaia Grace, 45, a government contractor employee who has lived at the building since 1986 and pays $550 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
"This attack is going on all over the city. This madness has to stop. We want to encourage the D.C. government to put more money in the fund."
Tenant leaders said the residents formed an association after learning that the building was on the market for $1 million. Some residents said rent control has made it affordable to live there.
The association was incorporated two weeks ago with the goal of purchasing the property. The tenants, who under D.C. law have the right of first refusal, have about 120 days to come up with financing and a developer to work with and to make an offer.
As part of this effort, the tenants hope to receive money from the District's housing trust fund.
But the city's financial problems have them worried.
"Because of the budget crunch, the city is not fully funding the fund and complying with the intent of the law," said Robert Pohlman, executive director of the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development. "This is hurting the people who would have the capacity to buy if they had the assistance."
Under D.C. law, 15 percent of the revenue collected from the recording of deeds and transfer taxes on property is supposed to flow into the fund each year to help secure affordable housing for low- to middle-income families. This would provide the fund with about $20 million annually.
During the budget process for this fiscal year, however, the mayor and the D.C. Council amended the law to temporarily reduce the funding to $11.5 million. It was then cut further to $5 million.
In an interview yesterday, Stanley Jackson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the fund, said the dollar amount for this fiscal year was eventually brought back up to $20 million -- all of which has been committed.
Because of budget pressures, he said, the fund is expected to receive about $12 million next fiscal year.
"For me, the level of funding is simply a matter of circumstance, meaning whatever the funds are, it is better than having no funds allocated to the program," Jackson said.
But those at yesterday's rally, in a small park across from the Monroe Street building -- a four-story, red brick structure showing signs of neglect, including chipped paint and dirty hallways -- said that Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) should do more to help the less fortunate in such situations.
"We want the mayor to step up," said Thomascine Camara, 59, a librarian who has lived in the Monroe Street building for four years and pays $530 a month for a two-bedroom unit. "Displacing people does not speak to social justice."
Said Deborah Anderson, 38, a federal government worker who has lived at 1020 Monroe St. for three years and in the neighborhood for 28 years: "This is a dignity issue. I don't want people to make a profit at my expense."
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents Columbia Heights, said it is critical that the city make sure that neighborhoods like the one that is home to 1020 Monroe St. do not become overrun with condominiums.
"We must make every effort to preserve these affordable units and make sure they stay habitable, because otherwise it will all be condo," Graham said.
"We welcome our new residents, but we are getting plenty of them, so we have to preserve our diversity and one's right to affordable housing. The challenge we face as a government is, how do we set our priorities?"