The owners of the Fairmont apartments are poised to sell the Section 8 complex to a developer. The residents have a better idea: They want to buy it themselves.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Sertira Wilson is not your standard neighborhood busybody. Sure, she has the usual busybody tendenciesshe’s involved in many community events, she was just elected advisory neighborhood commissioner, and she spends much of her day on the phone catching up on the latest gossip. But she does these things out of necessity, not because she’s nosy or has lots of idle time.
Right now she’s hunched over a windowsill, peering between the slats of her blinds at Fairmont Street NW, which runs in front of her building. She shoves aside some papers, brushes away some chips of woodleft behind by the mice that have been chewing away at the sillsand invites me to take a look. “Damn. That’s the third time they’ve been here this week,” she says, peering at a couple of guys wearing khakis and carrying briefcases as they get into a white four-door sedan on the street below.
“Who?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to. And it doesn’t matter who they are exactly. To her, they are the Enemy. The Man. The rich white developers who she fears have come in to make money off her home by booting her, her family, and the hundreds of others who live at two buildings situated along 14th and Fairmont Streets NWa complex known as the Fairmont I and II, or, more simply, the Fairmont.
Wilson, 37, wasn’t always so paranoid. She’s lived happily for 10 years in this small two-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights with her sons Milique, 16, and David, 9. Her mother, Mary Wilson, a retired “exotic shake dancer,” lives in a one-bedroom apartment one floor up. Her aunt also lives in the complex, and her 98-year-old grandmother, who lives with a relative in Northeast, comes to stay at the Fairmont from time to time.
They’ve had their fair share of neighborhood nuisancecrime, and drugs, and streets marred by construction. But nothing has been as bothersome as this. Last spring, Wilson and her fellow tenants received letters from officials at the Apartment Investment and Management Co. (AIMCO), the Denver-based corporation that owns their buildings. The letters stated that AIMCO’s federal subsidies for the two buildings would expire that fall and that company officials had decided to sell the buildings.
The news would frighten any tenants in residential units, vulnerable to the whims of their new owners. But the stakes are even greater in Wilson’s case. Rents at the Fairmont are subsidized by the federal Section 8 program, meaning she pays no more than 30 percent of her monthly income toward rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) picks up the rest of the tab. Although new owners of the buildings might decide to continue the rent-subsidy program, they certainly wouldn’t have to. A tight real estate market could easily persuade them to drop the programor “opt out”and rent to higher-paying customers.
And that’s what worries Wilson. With a monthly welfare check of $379 her only source of income, Wilson’s strapped to pay her $90 portion of the rent and still provide for her two sons. She knows it’s a better deal than she’d find at almost any other apartment in the surrounding neighborhoodwhere property values and rental rates are skyrocketing.
“We want a place to live like everyone else,” says Wilson. “We’ve been living [in Columbia Heights] for 40 years, and, damn it, we want to live here 40 more.”
It’s a plea that could come from anxious tenants in Section 8 properties all across the District. In 1974, the federal government introduced the national Section 8 “project-based” program. Landlords who signed on to the program promised to reserve their multiunit buildings for low-income tenants. In exchange, the federal government promised subsidies to ensure that the landlords received the fair market rent (FMR), a figure determined by HUD, for each apartment and to cover some of the operating costs.
But the deal had an expiration date set for, well, right about now. HUD figures show that so far, 117 of the 15,450 Section 8 units in the District have been lost to opt-outs. And that’s only the beginning. Contracts for 3,639 units are coming due over the next year, and another 10,160 over the next five years, according to HUD. Landlords at each of those properties will be free to discontinue the rent subsidies if they opt out. Which would make the future for thousands of low-income families about as certain as Wilson’s.
Wilson, however, is not the type of person to just let things happen to her. She’s organized an association for Fairmont tenants who are working, as allowed by District law, to match the highest competing bid, purchase the buildings themselves, and then turn the complex into a cooperative. That would be a difficult challenge for any group of renters, let alone those with few financial resources. But Wilson isn’t discouraged.
“I’m not moving,” says Wilson. “I’m going to fight for these buildings if I have to fight until my toenails bleed.”
By the time the Wilsons moved into the Fairmont, in 1990, the complex had been home to hundreds of low-income families for decades. But when they were built, the structures served families at the other end of the economic spectrum.
Constructed between 1912 and 1915, the two brick buildingseach shaped like a capital E lying on its sidewere originally called the Fontenat Courts and the Falkstone Courts. They served as rental apartments for moderate- to upper-income families, most of them white. Decades later, the 1968 riots and white flight drastically changed the makeup of the Columbia Heights community. The aging buildings became more racially and economically mixed.
By 1975, Columbia Heights was home to a range of families, many of them low-income. That same year, a company called the National Housing Partnership (NHP), which owned the Fairmont buildings at the time, hired a local construction firm to gut them and turn the 132 fairly spacious units into 218 significantly smaller apartments.
In the late ’70s, NHP signed contracts with HUD to operate the Fairmont buildings as Section 8 properties, with units available only to those low-income families who qualified for the program.
AIMCO bought NHP in 1997, taking control of all its assets, including the Fairmont buildings. The Section 8 contracts for the two buildings expired in the fall of 1999. Although AIMCO officials, like any owner of a Section 8 property, could have renewed the contract with HUD on a yearly basis after its expiration, they decided they wanted out. They put the buildings up for sale and notified HUD that they would be ending their participation in the program. (AIMCO officials have since extended the Section 8 contracts through fall 2001, to allow time to sell the buildings and to fine-tune details on the finances, says a HUD source.)
In April, AIMCO officials sent out letters to tenants announcing that they had lined up a buyer for the buildingslater identified as Vienna, Va.-based KSI Services Inc.which had offered to pay $12.6 million for the two structures. A month later, tenants received letters from AIMCO stating that company officials had decided to end their involvement in the Section 8 program and telling tenants to expect more information from HUD. (Low-income renters may be eligible for Section 8 “vouchers”the other component of the Section 8 program, which provides certificates to renters, who then seek out a landlord willing to redeem them. Renters with vouchers still pay about 30 percent of their income in rent; HUD pays the rest.)
Wilson had heard rumors that the buildings could be sold months before she received the letters. She’d seen enough official-looking visitors from her windows to know that there was plenty of interest. So last spring, she contacted longtime Columbia Heights neighbor and activist Dick Jones, who suggested that she look into the possibility of the tenants purchasing the buildings. He said she should contact Bob Moore, president and CEO of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH), a neighborhood nonprofit, as well as some local attorneys.
So Wilson decided to organize a tenant association that could work to purchase the buildings. She gathered signatures of more than 51 percent of the tenants, as required by law, and filed the appropriate paperwork in June, naming the group the Fairmont I and II Tenant Association. Wilson serves as the association’s president.
Wilson saw it as critical that tenants pounce on their one opportunity to own the buildings, rather than leave their futures in the hands of some out-of-town buyer. “We might be here for a year or two, but KSI will eventually go up on rents, and we’ll be out on the streets,” says Wilson. She and other tenants need to complete a sales contract with AIMCO by the end of January, the deadline agreed upon by both parties.
To some, Wilson’s predictions may sound like little more than hysterical worries. Shaun Donovan, deputy assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of Multifamily Housing Programs, says that so far, doomsday forecasts about a massive loss of Section 8 properties just haven’t come true. More than 95 percent of the landlords with expiring contracts have chosen to renew, for a year or sometimes more. However, some landlords are more tempted to leave than others, Donovan concedes. “There has been a pressure for some buildings to opt out,” he says, “in particular in areas with high rents or where rents are increasing.”
In other words, areas just like Columbia Heights, which happens to be home to about 3,400 units of Section 8 housing, according to Moore, who has written and circulated a paper on the subject. Contracts for about 2,100 units are due to come up for expiration in Columbia Heights over the next four years, says Moore.
Wilson’s fears about the expiring contract seem less fanciful in light of the rapidly soaring value of propertyany propertyin the Columbia Heights neighborhood. With its new subway stop, plans for new stores and a restored movie theater, and proximity to busy, high-priced neighborhoods, Columbia Heights is looking good to lots of developers.
And there is certainly money to be made in a complex like Wilson’sa massive structure just four blocks from the new Metro stop. Plenty of people with plenty of cash are desperate for an apartment almost anywhere in D.C., especially in an up-and-coming neighborhood like Columbia Heights. What property owner wouldn’t want to cash in on that opportunity?
A summer meeting with Dick Knapp, senior vice president for KSI Services, the potential buyer for the Fairmont buildings, didn’t do much to reassure some tenants. Knapp explained that he and other company officials were still working out the details of their plan, but they were considering converting the Fairmont into a complex for low- and moderate-income tenants. When Knapp set up a slide projector to show tenants photos from some of his other properties, Wilson says she got the full picture of what was happening.
“There were no black people in his pictures,” says Wilson.
Knapp says he’s committed to preserving affordable housing for the Fairmont tenants. Although he considered replacing the buildings’ subsidy with vouchers for individuals, he says that he now plans to continue the Section 8 program indefinitely and that tenants will be able to remain in their units. Rents will likely increase to cover the costs of renovating individual units and public areas, adding new lighting and landscaping, and relocating the buildings’ entrances from Fairmont Street to more prestigious spots on 14th Street, says Knapp. But those increases, he says, should be covered by HUD. “There will be no displacement, no eviction. That was a key commitment that we’ve made,” says Knapp. “We don’t think owning and operating high-quality affordable housing is in conflict with profitability.”
Of course, low-cost housing isn’t the way KSI execs likely made their money. Knapp says KSI operates about 6,000 rental units in the Washington metro area, much of it “affordable housing”a term he applies to rentals priced anywhere from $250 to $2,500 per month. But a scan of the KSI Web site also shows that much of the company’s development work focuses on luxury housing in Northern Virginiaincluding condos and “planned communities” like the Piedmont, a “gated, golf-course community” in Prince William County.
KSI owns one other property in the Districta plot of land in Anacostia where company officials plan to build luxury apartments and homes for middle- to upper-middle-income families, says Knapp. And KSI has a contract on another complex in Southeast, says Knapp. Company officials plan to renovate the apartments there into units for middle-income renters and up.
Not exactly the sort of apartments someone with Wilson’s income could afford. And so far, KSI’s track record with low-income projects has been rather uneven. This spring, as KSI prepared to close on a purchase of the Woodside Manor apartment complex in Silver Spring, home to both low- and moderate-income residents, tenants threatened to sue, saying that renovations and rent hikes would drive the units out of their financial reach, according to the Washington Post. KSI backed down and, along with the county government, worked out a deal to make the tenants partial owners. “We got it all settled,” says Knapp.
Some low-income tenants haven’t been so fortunate in other KSI-purchased properties. In 1998, KSI bought two federally subsidized properties in Leesburg, Va., emptied them out, and renovated them. Only half of the former residents of Leesburg Commons, a project mainly for elderly residents, subsidized under another federal program, returned to the renovated complex, some using vouchers to pay for the higher rents, says Knapp.
The other property, a Section 8 complex known as Loudoun House, was converted into housing for low- and moderate-income families and renamed Mayfair Commons. Knapp says KSI execs got accolades for the way they treated families during the renovations. Only 20 percent of the original tenants were able to return, however, using Section 8 vouchers to pay for the pricier rents. “Those that didn’t were very happy with where they ended up in the area,” he says.
Fairmont tenants, if they had to moveKnapp promises they won’t have to, if he buys the buildingslikely wouldn’t have so pleasant a time looking for affordable housing in the District. Housing activists say the market is already flooded with low-income families desperate for nice, affordable places.
“The housing crisis, which we all agree has already started, will just be intensified by the rollover of Section 8,” says B.B. Otero, executive director of the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center, which works with families in Columbia Heights. “I have to say [housing is] the single most pressing issue that we’re working with.”
According to September 2000 figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), almost a third of renters in the District can’t afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartmenta figure of $863. A worker earning minimum wage, or $6.15 an hour, would have to work 108 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom unit at that price, according to a recent study by the NLIHC.
Gary LeBlanc, director of leased housing and the Section 8 program for the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), says his office struggles to keep up with the residents who need low-cost housing. Loss of Section 8 properties would make the situation drastically worse. “We already have 11,000 people on the waiting list to get vouchers,” he says. “The volume of funding we get [from HUD] is never equivalent to the volume of families that say they need help.”
The Fairmont I and II Tenant Association usually meets the third Wednesday of every month. But lately, its members have had many things to talk about beyond the usual tenant concerns, such as block parties or how often the security guards take smoke breaks.
It’s no surprise, then, that on the second Wednesday in October, Wilson makes an exception to the usual schedule and convenes an “emergency meeting.” She wants to inform the tenants that their association has finally signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DCCH, which would oversee the development of the Fairmont if and when the tenants managed to buy the buildings.
“You can give yourself a hand,” says Wilson, minutes into the meeting. “We made it this far.”
The drama is apparently lost on most of the tenants. Those in attendance clap reflexively. But only 20 or so have shown up, so the applause is far from overwhelming. The rest have ignored the fliers Wilson circulated earlier in the day.
Wilson plows through the meeting’s agenda. She says the tenants’ attorneys are working with the buildings’ owners to negotiate a sale contract. Then she explains a survey she needs each tenant to complete. The development team would use the answers to guide renovations to the complex.
Sounds as if everything is right on trackto Wilson, anyway. But a couple of people in the audience aren’t so confident. Tenant Tonia Kenner, who sits about three rows back, folds her arms across her chest and lets out one big disbelieving harrumph, followed by some mumbling about how she doubts the group can ever get the cash for the buildings.
Wilson explodes from her chair. She stands so abruptly that she bumps into the table and moves it forward a few inches. The legs scrape against the concrete floor. “I don’t think you can negotiate without any money,” she says, explaining that tenants wouldn’t have gotten this far if they didn’t have access to some resources. “The tenants who want to stay here and fight for where we live will stay and fight. If you’re not interested, I can give you a voucher, and you can go on about your business.”
Everyone stares. “Oooh,” says Vivian Robinson, another tenant. Flanked by her son and daughter, she tries to defuse the tension, warning the women not to let the argument escalate to blows. “I got my babies here,” she says. “I don’t want no fighting.”
Wilson reassures her. “My fighting days are over,” she says.
They’re clearly not. Wilson has struggled long and hard to get just where she ispulling together a tenant association and signing on with a developer. Along with some of the other tenants, Wilson has also interviewed and selected an architect and a general contractor. A team of lawyers from Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a prestigious D.C.-based firm, is representing the tenants pro bono.
It’s a long, arduous process only a few tenant groups have managed to pull off over the yearsusually in buildings much smaller than Wilson’s. LeBlanc says that as far as he knows, the Fairmont tenants are the first in D.C. to try to purchase a Section 8 property. Some housing activists hope they will be the first of many. Tenants at Trinity Towers, an AIMCO-owned Section 8 property only a few blocks from the Fairmont, are also looking into purchasing their building, which was put up for sale earlier this year. Housing activists say the tenant-purchase option is one way to replace the housing potentially lost when property owners opt out of the Section 8 program and sell their buildings.
“It’s a model that maybe could be or should be replicable,” says Otero. “You can see the places where tenants were able to purchase. Those are the only places where you still have families that are lower-income or moderate-income.”
Otero’s not the only one who thinks homeownership could radically improve the precarious position of Section 8 renters. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed off on a program that would allow low-income tenants to use Section 8 vouchers for monthly mortgage payments. HUD ran a few pilot programs last yearnone in D.C.and is in the process of finalizing the rules for the model so that local housing authorities may participate. LeBlanc says he hopes to take part once the program is up and running, maybe by next June.
“I think now’s the time to start ratcheting up effort to avoid a disaster,” adds At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who is encouraging city officials to get involved in the federal program. “If [tenants] remain at the mercy of other landlords, who knows when we’ll see even more accelerated increases in rent? It’s about people wanting to have a place. It’s about some security.”
But not everyone’s convinced that homeownership is a citywide panacea. “I think it’s one piece of a solution,” says Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “We still need to maintain affordable rental housing. Some people don’t want to own homes, or they’re not ready to own homes.”
At the Fairmont, the tenants still have much to do before they can join the ranks of D.C. homeowners. They hope to sign a sales contract with AIMCO representatives by the end of January. Still, they need to come up with the $12.6 million to buy the buildings. They also need cash to pay for a massive renovation of the structures, a cost pegged at about $5 million. They hope to get some help from the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which arranges low-cost financing to encourage affordable housing. Cash could also come from loans from private banks or donations from nonprofit and corporate sources, says Eugene Rudder, director of community-building initiatives for the DCCH.
“It’s not an easy task,” says Rudder. “I can rattle off a list of places [that could provide funding], and it doesn’t guarantee anything. And this is just one building.”
And even if the tenants manage to get the money together, homeownership is not a sure thing for all of them. The tenants’ plan calls for a massive redesign of the buildings, restructuring the 218 “cracker-box” units into 190 larger apartments, says Rudder. That means there won’t be room for all of the tenants currently living in the Fairmont buildings. Rudder says about 30 percent of the tenants would likely leave by the time the renovations would begineither as part of the regular turnover or because they didn’t want to go through the purchasing process. Those who remained would have to come up with the average anticipated $450 monthly mortgage payment and the $100 co-op feea sum well above what many tenants are currently paying.
“We hope to get a little support from HUD for a short period of time to transition tenants to the new ownership mode,” says Rudder. If the city takes part in the new federal homeownership program, tenants may also be able to use their Section 8 vouchers toward the cost of the mortgage. “We hope to find ways to help those people stay. I don’t know if we’ll be successful or not, but we’re going to try. We don’t want anyone moved. We don’t want anyone evicted.”
All the uncertainty leaves some tenants suspicious. “[Wilson] is on drugs. Ain’t no way we can buy the building,” Robinson says after the meeting. “None of us have nothing.”
Truth be told, the Section 8 program suffered from problems long before the current threat of a mass exodus of landlord participants. Like many federal programs, Section 8 has been, at times, too big, too costly, and not terribly efficient.
A report issued jointly by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Urban Institute, for instance, found that although Section 8 was designed to allow poor families to relocate away from areas dense with low-income residents, few actually moved from their original locations once they signed up. Tenants also complained that they struggled to come up with the money to cover application fees and security deposits.
Renters weren’t the only ones with gripes. Landlords grumbled about the paperwork and “burdensome bureaucracy,” according to the report, which was released in February. Federal payments were frequently late, and the total rents for Section 8 buildings were still well below what owners could get for the apartments if they were renting at the market rate. Some local property owners complained that HUD and the local housing authority didn’t adequately screen out irresponsible tenants. “While this may not be the case, the perception by this property managerand most landlords who respondedis that Section 8 tenants are destructive to units, are not law-abiding, and create problems in the community,” said the report. Landlords also complained that it was nearly impossible to evict delinquent tenants, considering the red tape and protections inherent in the Section 8 program.
No wonder that when they’re given the option of getting out of the Section 8 program, many landlords actively consider it.
By the mid-’90s, HUD officials realized that their lack of foresight 20 years earlier could soon leave millions of low-income tenants in a real jam. They began looking into ways of enticing property owners to remain in the program. Last April, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan called “Mark-Up to Market.” The initiative allows HUD officials to review rent levels at participating Section 8 properties. If they find that a change is warranted, HUD can permit landlords to increase the rent. Tenants’ portions remain fixed, but the change increases the amount of federal money HUD contributes to the monthly expenses.
The Mark-Up to Market program also requires participating landlords to renew their contracts on a five-year basis instead of annually. The change provides everyoneespecially tenantswith a little more security, says Donovan. Neither the landlord nor HUD can break the contract unless Congress fails to fund the Section 8 programa situation that has never happened, says Donovan.
The new program also protects tenants in case a landlord decides not to participate in the Mark-Up to Market program. If a landlord chooses to opt out and raise rents, for instance, residents living in the building are supposed to receive “enhanced vouchers”which means that they still pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent. HUD pays the rest of the higher rent for as long as the tenant stays in the apartment.
The program comes with a hefty price tag: $100 million for the first year of its operation. But Donovan says it’s money well spent. “Since we implemented the program, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of opt-outsfrom 4 percent to below 2 percent nationwide,” says Donovan. “That’s a more than 50 percent reduction.”
Sheila Crowley, president of the NLIHC, is skeptical about the changes. She says HUD has done little to advertise the new initiatives, so property owners are still unaware of the incentives and tenants know even less about their options should their landlords choose to opt out. “I know that the translation of intent into practice is garbled,” says Crowley. “I question what HUD is doing to reach out and make sure every tenant understands his rights. And I don’t think that’s happening.”
Neither does Lucille Davis. In 1978, Davis signed up for the Section 8 program and moved into a two-bedroom unit at Urban Village Apartments, on 16th Street NW, right on the edge of Columbia Heights. In July, Davis’ landlord, Housing America Inc., opted to convert the Section 8 units to market-rate rentals. Davis says both building and DCHA officials told her that she’d get an enhanced voucher to remain in her apartment and that her portion of the monthly rent would not go up.
By August, she still hadn’t heard anything about the voucher or her new rent, so she wrote out a check for her regular rent amount, which was $279 a month. On Sept. 28nearly eight weeks after the Section 8 subsidy for Davis’ apartment complex had expiredshe received a letter from the DCHA saying that the amount she would have to pay for rent would nearly double, to $525. A DCHA employee told her the increase was partly due to the fact that Davis is one person living in a two-bedroom apartment. Davis, 63, says she’s been asking to be moved to a new apartment for months, but no one has cooperated. With a monthly income of about $1,200money she gets from Social Security and a part-time jobDavis should not have to pay more than $360 a month, according to Section 8 guidelines.
The Sept. 28 letter also stated that the new rate was effective August 1, 2000, six weeks before the notice was actually sent. Davis says that shortly after she received her letter, the property manager at her apartment complex called to say she would also have to pay the difference for both August and September. “I didn’t have nothing in writing, so why should I pay attention to it?” she says.
Silas Young, president of S&S Management Inc., the company that oversees Urban Village, says that if tenants are paying more out of pocket, it’s likely because they didn’t complete the paperwork on time. “There [have] been some increases in rent,” says Young. “I think part of the problem was that for some residents the reality set in too late. HUD held meetings on site. Residents just didn’t show up, and therefore they were kind of lost in the process.”
But Davis says she filled out her application months in advance. She has since paid her rent at the new amount but refuses to pay the back rent. She says other tenants at her building have had similar problems. (Many of them refused to give their names for this story because they feared they would end up in a worse situation.) They’ve complained to management. Davis has contacted the DCHA and is considering hiring a lawyer to help pressure HUD to pay its share of the rent. She’s even looked into moving to a new building and called a few places to see if any landlords would accept her Section 8 voucher. They wouldn’t. “I feel like I do need an attorney, because I feel like I did all I could do,” she says.
The gathering starts out harmlessly enough. About 20 people have turned out for a “town hall meeting” on a Saturday in October. Lawrence Guyot, chair of the advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) that covers this part of Columbia Heights, called for the meeting after KSI’s Knapp made a presentation about his plans for the Fairmont at the monthly ANC gathering a few days before. Knapp had come to seek an endorsement from the commission, saying he’d like to sign a “binding contract” with the group so that locals know he means to do well.
Guyot says the presentation sparked so much conversation about the need to protect Section 8 tenants in Columbia Heights that he decided to hold a special meeting so others could listen to Knapp’s speech and weigh in on the topic.
Concerned residents are scattered in folding chairs in a second-floor conference room at the Reeves Center, located at 14th and U Streets NW. The last two rows are occupied by Wilson, a couple of other Fairmont tenants, and DCCH’s Moore. Wilson and Moore have returned early from a conference in Leesburg just for the meeting. To Wilson and some of the other tenants, Knapp’s presentation seems like a slick effort to garner neighborhood support and derail the tenants’ chance to purchase their buildings. And Guyot seems like a neighborhood sellout for giving Knapp a forum.
Not that they’re saying any of this aloud just yet. Right now, they’re content to listen. Knapp, a ruddy-faced guy wearing khakis and a short-sleeved blue shirt, fumbles with a folding easel at the front of the room. He sets up some maps and design drawings and starts in quietly on his presentation.
Knapp explains that early on, he considered ending the federal building subsidy and replacing it with vouchers. “We’ve decided not to do that,” he says, explaining that if his company buys the buildings, he’ll keep it within the Section 8 project-based program.
He doesn’t get much further than that before a man wearing a black baseball cap reading “Free D.C.” asks him how tenants can be certain their subsidies will last.
“There’s no reason why HUD would not want to continue Section 8…” Knapp starts, launching into a discussion about federal funding patterns.
The man cuts him off. “You didn’t answer my question,” he says. “What guarantees do the tenants have?”
You can almost feel the bodies in the room collectively tensing up. Knapp tries to be diplomatic. “There’s no guarantee that KSI or HUD can make,” he says. “It is in the category of war, disaster, earthquake. You’ve just got to trust that the federal government will continue to fund [Section 8].”
Not bad, but the man’s not buying it. “The question is about the company,” he says.
Again, all eyes are on Knapp. The room is silent. Knapp says his company will continue the programwith the same caveat about federal backing. But it’s not enough to erase suspicions in the room. And not everything about Knapp’s plan is set in stone. He says that KSI’s original concept included plans to convert a Section 8 unit to an apartment for moderate-income tenants each time the original tenant moved out. But, he says, conversations with Moore and other tenants have convinced him that maybe that’s not the best idea. “We want to leave that open to discussion with the community somewhere down the road,” says Knapp.
It’s just that sort of open-endedness that worries Wilson and other Fairmont tenants. They’ve been pretty quiet until now. But when Guyot asks Knapp to talk a little more about other Section 8 properties in the area, Moore throws a fit. He stands and starts to flail his arms. “I’ve been working hard on [assessing] the Section 8 inventory [and the potential for opt-outs]. Why don’t I get to give a presentation on Section 8?” says Moore, stammering a bit.
Guyot stares back, a little startled. He tries to calm Moore. “You’re going to be asked to give a presentation on Section 8,” he says, mumbling something about plans to ask Moore to talk later today or at some other meeting.
But Moore’s only getting started. “You’re going to bring a developer who is competing with tenants at Fairmont I and II?….I am finished.” He stomps out the door. Wilson stands and follows, as do some of the other tenants. Shelore Williams, a vice chair of the DCCH board, trails after them.
About 15 minutes later, Moore, Williams, and the fuming tenants return. They stand in the back of the room while Williams addresses Guyot, asking him to reschedule the meeting so that the tenants can also make a presentation. “They have an idea. He has an idea,” says Williams, motioning alternately to Knapp and the tenants.
Guyot refuses. So Williams asks if the tenants can address the next ANC meeting. “If they want to come and make a presentation, they can come and make a presentation,” says Guyot.
But the politeness doesn’t last long. “If you knew there were two groups competing, why wouldn’t you invite them both?” says Moore, directing the question to Guyot.
He slices the air with one crooked index finger and inches toward Guyot. “Why wouldn’t you ask them to make a presentation, if they are your constituents, if they vote for you? Why wouldn’t you ask them? Why do they have to ask you? [Knapp’s] asking you to sign on to his project. Why wouldn’t you ask the tenants, your constituents, to make a presentation?”
Moore appears to be going a bit overboard, his anger welling up from his wounded egonot to mention his organization’s financial interestsas much as his concerns for tenants. In fact, if the tenants buy the buildings and keep the DCCH as the developer, Moore and his office stand to benefitreceiving about $500,000 as the developer’s fee, notes Rudder.
But Moore aside, the episode reveals the anxiety that underlies almost everything that goes on in Columbia Heights these daysespecially anything related to affordable housing. At nearly every meeting I attend during the reporting of this storythose at the Fairmont, some at other buildings in the neighborhood, still others about low-income housing in Columbia Heightsthe discussion almost always rises to yells and, in some cases, nearly to blows. It’s not because Columbia Heights residents are any more temperamental than others in the District. It’s because Columbia Heights residents, especially low-income ones, are trying to hold ground in what has suddenly become a very volatile areaan area besieged by an influx of new money and people, an area where the existing residents believe they have to fight just to stay put.
Wilson and other Fairmont tenants may be too quick to assume the worst, but you can hardly blame them. They’ve seen low-income residents forced out of places like Shaw and Mount Pleasant, when those areas became hipand expensive. They’ve heard about tenants being displaced from public housing, promised something better, and ending up with nowhere to go.
“When you push people…At some point, a person has to fight back,” says Gracie Rolling, executive director of Change Inc., a Columbia Heights social-services nonprofit. “The neighborhood is tipped like just before the  riots. There’s a feeling that something is going to happen.”
Sertira Wilson has thrown so many block parties during her years at the Fairmont that she has the process nearly down to
Today, Oct. 31, Wilson is deep into preparations for her latest event: a Halloween party like none that has taken place at her apartment complex. She has already gotten the proper approval from the city to block off the strip of Fairmont Street that runs between the two apartment buildings. She’s also gotten donations from a couple of local businesses and nonprofits: 200 hamburgers from a grocery on Georgia Avenue, buns from a nonprofit called Martha’s Table, and candy from the Amoco convenience store just around the corner. Her boys are busy toting chairs and tables from the basement out onto the street. A tenant who also serves as DJ has already set up a stereo and speakers in the middle of the block.
Wilson says she’s also called the police department to ask for additional patrolling on 13th Street, because she’s heard there might be some fighting. And even though the street’s been blocked off by strips of yellow police tape, Wilson has called a few tow trucks to come and park their rigs to block the roadway, just in case anyone decides to try to drive through.
“We have to call them all the time,” she says, pointing at the trucks as she surveys the party’s progress. “We do this a lot.”
Still, Wilson can’t prepare for everything. Tonight, for instance, only minutes before the party is supposed to start, Wilson gets a call from a rep at the WKYS radio station, who tells her that the radio employee who was supposed to hand out posters and candy to the Fairmont kids has just gotten into a car accident somewhere off North Capitol Street.
But Wilson doesn’t give up that easily, and she’s always looking out for her neighbors. “I said, ‘Of course, I hope he’s OK. But can they still bring our care packages?’”
Wilson has a way of running a party like a sort of gracious bully. She keeps a close watch on the people in the food line, reminding them that the kids should get first dibs. And when a guy with a mustache and a lady in a witch hat start to light up cigarettes, Wilson confronts them before they’ve had a puff. “If you want to smoke, then move back,” she booms. “I don’t want to get smoke in the food.” They move obediently. After all, you don’t disobey “Miss Cookie”as she’s often called by neighborsin the midst of a block party, nor many other times, either.
Wilson’s tyranny pays off. Kids swarm the tables, filling up on barbecue. Old and young bounce around the concrete along with the DJ’s tunes. Others stand along the sidewalks talking with neighbors. It turns out just the way Wilson imagined it. “This is how it always goes: no arguing, no fighting,” she says, adding that you wouldn’t see the same party if the Fairmont were bought and transformed into swanky new buildings. “This would never happen, never take place. It would be an uppity, rich, snobbyish community.”
Tonight’s event is a successful product of Wilson’s mission to make the most of the Fairmont for her family and her neighbors. But her efforts are also, of course, for her. She grew up in Columbia Heights and has spent her whole life building ties. She cherishes the Fairmont community, and she doesn’t mind being a central figure in so much that goes on there. Like buying the buildings. Or tonight’s party.
So when the DJ puts on a recording of “Make Room for the Big Girl,” a rumbling, dance-inducing song by an underground Baltimore band, Wilson drops her dutiestemporarilyas strong-armed hostess. In her jeans, a casual shirt, and a velvet pillbox hat she grabbed from the closet (she says it completes her Queen Latifah costume), Wilson takes to the dance area, plants her hands on her waist, and starts to shake her hips, spinning around in a space cleared by her neighbors. If anyone can pull off a miracle at the Fairmont, they figure, she can. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.