The housemates woke Friday morning wondering if it would be their last day in their home.
They had fought for years to stay in the ramshackle three-
story brick house, known as the Lamont Street Collective, on a leafy block of Mount Pleasant. Since 1975, it had been an artists’ cooperative, one of many that once dotted the neighborhood. Now, as similar houses in the area sell for $1.2 million, this one was a holdout from a less materialistic, more idealistic era.
“It’s really hard to find a place that’s affordable for a bunch of artists,” said Christi Vandermale, 29, a resident who plays piano for the band allthebestkids. The group shops for groceries and cooks together and has hosted protesters from Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and other movements. “We don’t want to lose the community,” Vandermale said.
Their battle to remain in the seven-bedroom house came to a head last year when a new landlord, Paul Repak, took over. After negotiations, the residents agreed last month to move out by the end of next month, in exchange for $30,000, according to court documents. But after a rent check dispute this month, Repak said they had violated the agreement and moved to evict them.
The collective began to face insecurity in the early 2000s, after its original landlord died, and was tied up in legal battles for a decade. Two years ago, members say, they were given the chance to buy the house at the 2003 value — $531,000 — but were unable to raise the money.
In May of last year, Repak purchased the building for that price, according to city records. In court documents, he said he had learned it was available through his attorney. According to his LinkedIn profile, Repak is a budget analyst at the federal Transportation Department and was formerly an “evictions specialist” at a Maryland law firm.
Neither Repak nor his attorney, Rachael Abramson, responded to repeated requests for comment.
In court documents, Repak said that he plans to move into the house with his family, including his 2- and 3-year-old children. He said he sold his home in Cheverly, Md., in September and has since been renting a condo and storing his belongings while waiting to move in.
The collective’s members say that after they overnighted a $2,800 cashier’s check for June’s rent on the first of the month, Repak claimed he never received it and initiated eviction proceedings. They say they are awaiting the results of a post office inquiry into what happened to the check. The matter went to court, and last week a judge ruled in Repak’s favor.
As a cardinal fluttered in the front garden, three of the eight current housemates took a break from moving piles of artwork into a U-Haul. The U.S. marshals could arrive at any time to evict them, and they had signed a lease on a smaller but more expensive house in Park View.
But they are a group accustomed to activism – just last weekend they hosted a fundraiser for an LGBTQ center in Orlando – and they swore not to leave without a fight.
“Our protest, it’s peaceful, and I think at this point it’s more symbolic,” said Cody Valentine, 32, a sound engineer and band mate of Vandermale. By resisting the eviction and inviting friends and neighbors to be there when it happens, he said, the residents hoped to raise awareness about gentrification and its dark side.
The collective’s new house costs $5,800 a month, which means residents will pay a little over $800 per bedroom instead of $400. That, they say, has already deterred potential new housemates from joining.
By midday Friday they learned the marshals would not come that day, and there was still no word Monday of when they would. Whenever they do, the group plans to sing, link arms and possibly use zip ties to attach themselves to railings.
“This kind of thing happens very often when someone has a lot of money. They find something available, and they feel entitled to it more than someone who lives there,” Valentine said, adding that many people who are evicted end up living on the street.
As the housemates combed through the house, which was once plastered in art, books and records, it revealed layers of the past — a Pink Floyd stencil; a gumball machine (fully stocked); a Smiths CD from 1984; a set of books on Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other isms.
In a box of cassette tapes, residents found a 1983 recording of Bernie Sanders speaking about his mayoral run in Burlington, Vt. They also came across a homemade poster exhorting Ronald Reagan to “get your bloody hands off Nicaragua.”
Unable to fit everything into the new place, they reluctantly considered what to leave behind. A beloved wall mural of naked women reclining (it couldn’t easily be moved). Props from the elaborate Halloween displays for which the house is known. A mushroom-cultivation stand fashioned from a tree stump.
“At some point there was a mushroom-growing expert,” Vandermale said with a tinge of awe mixed with sadness. “It would be so nice to keep this thing [for] the future, if a mushroom-growing expert comes.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.