Holdout: 1424 Chapin St. NW

In January, Leroy Washington, 72, moved into the Meridian Manor apartments at 1424 Chapin St. NW. He was heartened to see evidence of an improving neighborhood: New condo developments were sprouting up, and a nearby lot had recently sold for $3 million. All the activity has Washington convinced that his second stay at Meridian Manor will be better than his first.

Washington first set foot in Meridian Manor in 1979. Back then, he says, the place was in bad shape. And as the years went by, conditions only grew worse. Washington and his neighbors endured the usual battery of slumlord affronts: periods of no heat or hot water, an army of rats and roaches, and a lobby flooded with water, thanks to a leaky roof. Still, he says, the structure’s potential was always obvious to him. “I had a dream that this could be the best building in all of Washington,” he says.

In 1994, the Meridian Manor tenants took their landlord to court. A judge granted them a $1 million judgment. The tenants, though, chose to take title to their building instead of the cash. Washington thought his prayers had been answered.

The tenants, however, quickly learned that their new power didn’t mean much without money to make repairs. A $50,000 water bill, a $100,000 gas bill, an $88,000 property-tax lien ate up loans and grants that the residents had received.

The tenants also were ill-prepared to be property managers. When the trash-collection bill went unpaid, the trash hauler emptied the building’s dumpster on the ground in protest. The pile of garbage “was two stories high,” recalls Washington. It took several District dump trucks to remove the mess. Some tenants stopped paying their rent. Squatters moved into vacant units and refused to leave.

Finally, one evening in 1996, Washington was home when he heard firetrucks screaming down Chapin Street, stopping outside of Meridian Manor. Only then did he realize that his building was on fire. Once firefighters extinguished the flames, they declared the structure inhabitable. Washington says he had 10 minutes to gather what belongings he could and flee.

Washington found temporary refuge at the Roosevelt Residence for Senior Citizens on 16th Street NW, and later with his daughter in Forestville, Md. For the first month, he says, he walked up the hill to Meridian Manor every day, “just to make sure it was still there.” He occasionally would get unsolicited calls from developers interested in buying the building. But Washington and what was left of the Meridian Manor tenants turned them down every time. “We wanted a home,” he says.

The residents sought help from Washington Initiative for Self-Help (WISH) to secure financing to renovate their building. But WISH couldn’t help them, says Washington, who was a WISH board member.

Then, in 1999, Washington made a last-ditch plea for help to Micasa, another nonprofit developer, as well as the National Housing Trust and the Enterprise Foundation. Rising land values in Columbia Heights helped the developers secure the necessary $5 million in financing for renovations from about a dozen different public and private sources.

By then, most of Meridian Manor’s residents had scattered. Washington says many of the former tenants whom he tracked down weren’t interested in moving back. So Micasa recruited new tenants, mostly longtime Columbia Heights residents who had been displaced by rising rents.

Washington is perhaps the happiest new tenant. “I want to go to the Heavenly Father from here,” he says. “I hope to never have to move again in life.” CP