The easiest thing is to put them down as naive do-gooders -- which, of course, is what they were.
They are members of two local Presbyterian churches, one black, one white, who grew tired of merely talking about social problems and decided, 14 years ago, to do something about one of them:" housing for low-income families.
They formed Presbyterians Incorporated to Conserve Housing (PITCH), bought and renovated a 27-unit apartment house at 1430 W Street NW and set about making their Christian witness.
Today they are all but out of business, facing some 15 pages of housing code violations that will cost up to $80,000 to correct and a tenant who they say is making a career of causing them grief.
Robert Muldrow, president of PITCH (whose members come from the congregations of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian and Georgetown Presbyterian churches), says he is seriously considering recommending to the group that they abandon the project in which he has invested such high hopes and so many sleepless nights.
For the troublesome tenant, Venita Rushing, PITCH's agonizing is just so much talk. "Basically the place is nice," she says. "It's just that the violations need to be taken care of and they aren't doing it. How long should I have to wait?"
She cites a leaky sink, a corroded countertop, ill-fitted doors and windows, loose plaster, uncaulked joints and inadequate extermination among the complaints that led her, over a year ago, to go to the housing inspectors.
Muldrow acknowledges the violations but says one reason they haven't been able to make the repairs is that Rushing has been withholding her rent -- $259 a month, utilities included, for three bedrooms. He says the complaint to the housing inspectors followed PITCH's attempt to evict her for non-payment.
"It's a game she plays," Muldrow says, "just a ploy to keep from paying back rent. The rent comes due, we ask for the money on threat of eviction, and she files a complaint. That's the cycle."
For PITCH it may be a fatal cycle. Rushing and PITCH officials met Friday, at landlord and tenant court, to -- unsuccessfully, it turned out -- work out some sort of compromise. Rushing's legal aid lawyer proposed that she be forgiven her back rent -- upward of $2,000 -- and that she begin paying rent into a special account until June, when her 16-year-old son will be out of school. At that time she and PITCH would split the money in the special account, and she will leave.
PITCH rejected the proposal.
"We just didn't think we ought to do that," Muldrow said. "Her case is about to close the whole project, and it just isn't fair to the other tenants. For the same reason, we don't want to just walk away. But I'm coming more and more to agree with the people who tell me that we should face reality and give up."
Muldrow's pessimism is a far cry from the attitude with which PITCH members began the project. Even before the "gentrification" trend hit lower Northwest Washington and started squeezing out low-income residents in favor of young middle-class couples, the church members saw a need to do something about housing for the hard-pressed poor.They borrowed $320,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to purchase and renovate the building -- some $12,000 per unit.
The building never paid its own way, necessitating frequent fund-raising projects among the membership of the two sponsoring churches.
"Still we were convinced that we were doing the right thing," Muldrow said. "We wanted to be more than just landlords. We sent some of the children to camp. We tried to create a scholarship fund. I suppose you could say we were trying to make a witness.And now we've come to this point."
Muldrow says the city has been understanding of PITCH's difficulties and has refrained from issuing final orders on the needed repairs. He speaks less kindly of HUD's involvement. He said HUD threatened to foreclose on their mortgage a few months ago until a special fund-raising made it possible to bring the payments up to date. But HUD's advice all along was that PITCH should sell.
"Even at Friday's meeting, when we were trying to work out a compromise, the only thing the HUD representative had to say was, 'I told you two years ago to sell the place,'" Muldrow said.
He will admit, however, that even with a cooperative HUD and without Rushing, it's still an open question whether the project could work. Even if they were able to collect all the rentals, they still would have a negative cash flow of some $1,000 a month.
When the project started, PITCH members had visions of white and black Christians setting an example of interracial cooperation and social responsibility. Now they see themselves as hard-pressed landlords trying to provide housing for tenants who assume they are rich rent-gougers.
As the Rev. John L. Pharr, pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian, put it: "Here we were, identifying with out lower-income brothers and sisters and feeling good about it. I have to say that rich-landlord bit is a little hard to swallow.
"The irony is, if we are forced to sell, the building will be taken over by people who 'knew not Joseph.' They'll convert to condominiums, and nobody who's there now will have a place to stay."
Which is pretty much what Rushing expects will happen. And when it does, she says, she'll simply find another place to stay. "There's a place down the street with carpeting and everything," she says.