The residents of Sursum Corda, a low-income housing co-operative 10 blocks north of the U.S. Capitol, were facing foreclosure and the threat of eviction by federal housing officials. The problem of saving their homes fell to co-operative President Beverly Estes, a former welfare mother with a GED and a smattering of college English courses.
Estes, 51, knew nothing about real estate or federal housing regulations. So she turned for advice to David Chestnut, 52, a down-on-his-luck community organizer working as a Baltimore trash collector.
Over the past five months, they have engineered what admirers describe as the miraculous rescue of Sursum Corda. But detractors fear that Estes and Chestnut have bartered away to developers one of the most valuable parcels of affordable housing left in the nation's capital -- 51/2 acres of prime real estate worth an estimated $80 million.
The sprawling, notoriously crime-ridden complex of 199 units is one of the few housing developments in the nation owned and managed by its low-income residents. After the property failed two health and safety inspections, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a foreclosure notice in January.
Estes and the co-operative's board of directors rejected offers of help from the city and a nonprofit developer and, with Chestnut's guidance, assembled a group of politically connected partners that includes several former Washington Redskins, the wife of U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and KSI Services Inc., one of the region's largest developers. The team persuaded HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson to give Sursum Corda another chance, halted a mass eviction threatened for June 15 and is spending at least $1.1 million to ready the property for a last-ditch inspection that could end the threat of foreclosure.
Those involved in the partnership have declined to discuss details, saying they are not final. KSI President Richard W. Hausler said his company has a handshake agreement with Sursum Corda's board to redevelop the property, replacing the shabby apartments and townhouses with more than 300 mixed-income units. Sursum residents in good standing are guaranteed homes and a shot at home ownership, Chestnut and board members said. Hausler said those who do not stay will be offered "the benefit of their ownership" stake in the property.
The secrecy surrounding the deal has spawned conspiracy theories among community activists, city planners and some Sursum residents, who have long worried about developers snatching the low-income apartment buildings clustered near North Capitol Street. The once desolate neighborhood now lies within walking distance of the New York Avenue Metro stop, the Washington Convention Center and new luxury condominiums.
"Somebody sees an opportunity to make some money on a deal with a group of gullible, inexperienced people," was how David Gilmore, a housing consultant who advises tenant activists in the area, described the situation.
Alverta Munlyn, a former resident leader at Sursum Corda, stated her concerns more bluntly.
"There's just a flimflam going on over there right now," Munlyn said after a contentious community meeting at which Estes and Chestnut refused to answer questions about the redevelopment plan. "If you're truly there for the people, what do you have to hide?"
Estes said Munlyn is "spitting fear."
"Do I look as stupid as they think I am?" she asked during a recent interview in Sursum Corda's community room, her 2-year-old granddaughter snuggling at her knees. "Why would I be making a deal to cut my own head off?"
Estes has lived in Sursum Corda for 25 years. She raised three children on "what used to be called public assistance," as she put it. She went to work briefly in the 1980s but quit because she feared her son would fall in with drug dealers if she were not home to watch him. Now that her kids are grown, she spends her time writing children's books she hopes to publish and fulfilling the duties of board president.
Lately those duties have consisted largely of badgering residents to cooperate with KSI contractors, who are busily patching walls, fixing roofs and changing locks. When HUD inspectors come in August, every unit might be inspected. If the windows do not open, if extension cords snake around, if roaches scuttle through kitchens, the complex could fail and wind up on the auction block.
Estes is so nervous about her neighbors that she is thinking about evicting recalcitrant ones. She has urged the board to empty the place on inspection day by arranging a free trip to Six Flags America.
"I'm serious as a heart attack," she said at a recent board meeting. "We could call it Sursum Corda Family Day. Load 'em up on a bus and cart 'em away."
Estes confided later that, for the first time in the year-long crisis, she was frightened. "All the obstacles HUD put before us, I was never afraid," she said. "I'm afraid now because our fate lies in our hands."
The foreclosure threat is the latest chapter in a long history of trouble at Sursum Corda. Built in 1969 as one of the nation's first subsidized housing complexes, its name is Latin for "lift up your hearts." Twenty years later, the place was so badly managed that tenants demanded and received HUD approval to purchase the property. With a HUD mortgage and about $65,000 a month in HUD rent subsidies, conditions improved. But then a new management company let the complex fall into debt and disrepair. Drug dealers settled into vacant units and, in January 2004, executed a 14-year-old girl who witnessed a killing. .
Last year, Sursum failed two inspections. HUD threatened foreclosure. And Sursum Corda asked Manna Inc., a nonprofit developer, for help.
Manna hired a new management company and sought grants to begin correcting a list of health and safety violations that ran more than 300 pages. Residents elected a new board of directors, mainly women with many years at Sursum Corda, plus Shiv Newaldass, 24, a Georgetown University graduate who grew up in the complex.
"We were able to show a lot of progress," said Manna President George Rothman, but he said HUD "still didn't have confidence" in Sursum's ability to manage its affairs. HUD issued a foreclosure notice in January, saying new owners were essential to saving the property.
Manna and the city offered to redevelop Sursum Corda, but the board was wary. Estes said the city has a terrible reputation for putting people out of their homes, then forcing them to pass criminal and credit checks to get back in. And Manna never seemed to give them straight answers, she said. Manna and Sursum Corda parted ways in February.
Board members cast about for other options. One called Chestnut, a relative who once worked as a community organizer in Baltimore. He had not been particularly successful there. City officials said they cut off funding to two groups Chestnut led because they failed to reach their goals. In 2003, the Southern Mondawmin Improvement Association accused him of stealing money and fired him as executive director.
No charges were filed, and Chestnut called the allegations unfounded. He was working as a trash collector when he impressed the Sursum board with his ability to talk to developers and government people. They hired him in March.
Meanwhile, Newaldass made contact through a Georgetown professor with Charles Williams, a D.C. native who works with Redskins legends Darrell Green, Art Monk and Charles Mann. Over dinner, Newaldass asked Williams if the philanthropic football stars would start a job training program at Sursum Corda, as they have elsewhere in the city. By the time dinner was over, the two men were talking about how to save Sursum Corda.
In May, 103 Sursum residents voted to enter a partnership with a Monk, Green and Mann enterprise called MGM. Williams said Monk brought in KSI, with whom he previously had done business, as well as Brig Owens, another former player who owns a real estate development company with Moran's wife, LuAnn Bennett.
Meanwhile, Green, who is chairman of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation and a regular at White House functions, met with Jackson, the HUD secretary. Jackson gave Sursum 30 days to make $482,000 in overdue mortgage payments, hire a security force and fix the worst safety violations, according to Chestnut and HUD officials.
The board set to work, hiring the Nation of Islam to patrol the property and drawing up a financial plan. They interviewed several developers, Chestnut said, including KSI. He said they also met with city officials and asked for a $4 million loan, but the city did not respond.
On June 8, HUD officials threatened to halt rent subsidies if the co-op did not meet its June 15 deadline. Desperate for cash, the board signed a letter of intent with KSI, which promptly dispatched repair people and a mortgage check.
Now the complex has one month to get ready for its final inspection. Some residents are nervous about all the activity. They say the board has offered dire warnings about the consequences of failure but has told them almost nothing about what will happen if they pass.
"It's bits and pieces," said Gail Stewart, one of several Sursum residents who have grown distrustful of Chestnut and the board. "Only thing we want is to know what's going on. We want to save our community. We don't want nobody to come up here and give us half answers and then say, 'Well, we tried.' "
Board members have asked for patience, saying all will be revealed at a meeting tomorrow. They say that they are proud of the deal they have put together and that KSI's promises are ironclad.
"People think we're a bunch of uneducated drug dealers up here. They're just shocked that we've come this far," Newaldass said. "But we're giving this community a guarantee, a place to come back to. A home."