For several years there was only bad news looming on the horizon for the low-income residents of a neglected Columbia Heights apartment building. But the residents got organized, got help, and yesterday celebrated turning their near-crisis into a tenants' victory.
The 36 families living at 1456 Oak St. NW were girding just months ago to be evicted from their longtime homes. They expected the apartment building -- plagued by drug dealers and inattentive management -- to fail a crucial housing inspection and then lose the federal Section 8 housing subsidy that keeps the rents affordable.
Thanks to the residents' gumption, pressure applied by a D.C. council member and numerous affordable housing advocates, that crisis was averted. This small oasis of affordable housing in the rapidly gentrifying Columbia Heights market got much-needed repairs, passed its inspection and is on track to win a contract to keep its rents below-market for the next 20 years.
"It was scary," Gloria Smith, a retiree and 18-year resident, said of the prospect of being forced out of her $700-a-month apartment. "The building had been in bad shape, but it was convenient to transportation and stores. This is where I wanted to stay."
The tenants' victory was worth celebrating, given how unwelcome many low-income and subsidized renters have felt in the last few years in Columbia Heights. The neighborhood, considered the most fashionable address in the city at the turn of the century, became undesirable after 1968 riots burned its commercial core. But the community's stately Victorian rowhouses and proximity to downtown became attractive again to home buyers and investors as Washington's recent real estate boom began in 1999. Columbia Heights' rents have risen 45 percent since, according to the Latino Economic Development Corp., which supported the tenants. Many building owners in the area have tried to oust their tenants on dubious claims -- then quickly sell for high profits.
Judith Ware, the new president of the tenants' association, said many of her fellow neighbors weren't sure where they could afford to live, since they had watched more and more subsidized apartments in Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods converted into high-priced condominiums.
"Most affordable apartments are now in Southeast, where most people don't want to go because of the high crime and because the transportation into the city is so much more difficult," Ware said. "That's really the question: Where can we go?"
Resident leaders celebrated their victory by hosting a small party at nearby St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. They presented certificates of appreciation to those who had come to their aid. Nibbling at plates of cold cuts and fruit salad, the group of African Americans, Latinos and whites; residents and building managers; housing preservationists and church organizers had already demonstrated how much a community can accomplish when it joins hands.
The residents thanked the Latino Economic Development Corp., the nonprofit Urban Village and Washington Interfaith Network for help in organizing the residents. They thanked Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) for pushing the D.C. Housing Authority to take responsibility for the building after the owner defaulted on a federal loan. They applauded new building manager Quantay Oliver of CIH Management for ousting two resident drug dealers and getting the building to pass inspection with $200,000 in elevator, electric and cosmetic repairs.
Elizabeth Figeuroa, a lawyer hired by Urban Village to help residents, turned the applause back on the audience.
"I congratulate all of us on our teamwork and being able to turn things around at 1456 Oak Street," she said. "We know the redevelopment is still going on in our areas and affordable housing is being lost daily in the city. But the Housing Authority has told us they have a long-term commitment to keep the building affordable . . . and we're going to hold 'em to it."