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Restrictive zoning, poor management, low-paying jobs, and income inequality all make creating and maintaining affordable housing in D.C. challenging. For a 90-unit apartment building in Mount Pleasant, a historic designation makes keeping housing costs low for its residents—some of whom earn less than $36,400 annually—all the more difficult.
The issue? Repairing 25 corroded balconies to the tune of $1.69 million. To take all the balconies down and replace them with edging instead would save the residents, who own shares of the property or their individual units, more than half a million dollars. But removing all the balconies is not even an option because D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board wouldn’t allow it, say the residents of 3060 16th St. NW. The balconies have been a fixture of the building since it was first constructed at the turn of the century.
“You can’t even put a plant on it,” says Fatima Da Silva-Lopez of the ornamental balconies.
She and a few other residents met in the common room of their building in late February to discuss the balconies, which no one uses but are a source of anxiety nonetheless. Originally from Brazil, Da Silva-Lopez has lived in the building for more than three decades.
“We were security,” she said at the meeting. “We used to have people sign in and out visitors when I came here.”
“I also remember my mom having to heat water, having to take the water from the kitchen and into the bathroom, so we can take warm showers with buckets,” Rocío Leonzo recalled as the group reminisced. “Their elevators did not work, so everybody went up and down stairs.”
Leonzo and her family moved into the building in 1977, when she was 6 years old. At that time, the building was owned by Antioch School of Law. School leaders neglected the property and tried to force the tenants, who were mostly immigrants, out. It took seven years for the tenants to form a cooperative to collectively purchase and rehabilitate their forsaken building. During the rehab, residents were without heat for two years and without hot water for one.
“It was tough, but it was good memories,” Leonzo said. “Everybody knows each other. We saw each other grow up, and now we see our kids play and grow up with each other.”
“She was in charge of caring for most of us. I’m pretty sure the parents would say ‘Rocío, keep them in order,’” joked Melina Jimenez-Flores.
Now in their mid-40s, the women have known each other practically all their lives. They remember bobbing for apples in the basement and the yard sales out front. They also remember their parents meeting with their neighbors in the common room just as they do nowadays to go over the responsibilities that come with collectively owning and managing a multifamily property. They’ve lived in the building all this time, and over the years, their husbands and kids have joined them. Cooperative living was not always easy, but the hard times were past them, or so they thought.
A loan to pay for the balcony repairs would result in a 16.6 percent increase of the monthly fees for the average one-bedroom unit next year. The building’s financial reserves cannot cover the cost, and a portion of those funds were reserved for essentials like replacing the boiler in their century-old building next spring. The building, called the Renaissance, is a “condop,” meaning it contains both co-op and condo units. The cooperative, which owns a total of 29 units, would be hit harder because they have larger units and fees are based on square footage.
“It’s going to hit the families the hardest,” says Randy Keesler, the cooperative president. “For everybody, it is going to be a belt-tightening effort,” adds Neha Desai, the condo president.
The co-op and condo are in agreement that repairing the balconies will be a burden for everyone, particularly in this time of economic uncertainty, so they are actively searching for a solution. Perhaps the Historic Preservation Review Board could let the Renaissance just remove the balconies? Local representatives told the residents that the board is unlikely to do so. If the board recommends against granting a permit, the Renaissance could appeal to the “Mayor’s Agent,” who has the final say on what is in the public’s interest under the D.C. historic preservation law. Or perhaps the Renaissance could also apply for a historic grant? The application process takes upwards of six months and the maximum award is $25,000. The balconies need to be taken care of by the end of 2023, because they are at risk of falling. Installing stainless steel beams and replacing the corroded under-window steel pieces could cost anywhere from $1.35 to $1.69 million dollars.
“We are reaching out to the building owners to better understand the situation and discuss options,” says a spokesperson with the D.C. Office of Planning, which oversees historic preservation and its board, when City Paper requested comment.
The stakes are high if the Renaissance receives no help. Fourteen owners who earn less than 30 percent of the median family income and who were part of the original group of tenants who formed the cooperative would have to spend nearly one-third of their income to pay off the loan for the balconies in their monthly fees. Their average income is $14,600. This is not feasible, so some would be forced to end their membership and sell. To leave the building is rare, but some co-op members would have no other option.
“It’s income that we simply don’t have,” says Jimenez-Flores, who works at a charter school and whose husband is a mechanic. “Where are we going to go? It’s almost impossible. I’m living here with seven people. It’s home hospice for us—home hospice with a 93-year-old.”
Da Silva-Lopez had plans to retire in a few years. She is part of the janitorial staff at Georgetown University Hospital. She’s worked for a long time, both for her cooperative and at her job, and eventually would like to enjoy the fruits of her labor, as most do when they get older. Da Silva-Lopez is in her mid-50s. Not only have the balconies complicated her plans, but so has the coronavirus pandemic. She was laid off during the pandemic and just returned to work two months ago. Now she’s behind on bills, including her co-op fees.
“They pay me $15 an hour, so it is not enough to survive in this city,” Da Silva-Lopez tells City Paper over Zoom. She uses her neighbor’s computer for the call. “I am by myself to pay my bills. I don’t have any husband or no help from anybody else.”
Keesler says three members are behind on monthly fees, and six in total either lost their jobs or saw their wages reduced during the pandemic. The co-op is working out a payment plan with members that are struggling. Adding another expense to satisfy the historic character of the neighborhood could be the thing that destroys the membership, so Keesler is hoping to reach a compromise with the city.
“We have this tension between two public policies—one is to try to help create affordable housing and sustain it, and another policy is to create beautiful architecture and sustain it,” says Keesler.
“The cooperative predates the historic district,” he adds. “The historic district, which is supposed to be a boon to property owners, is no boon to us. It’s really kind of a yoke around our necks.”
The Kenesaw Cooperative formed in 1977, while Mount Pleasant was first recognized as a historic district nine years later in 1986. Both the history of the cooperative and the building it occupies are documented on street signs around the neighborhood. One sign explains the history of the Kenesaw Apartment House, now called the Renaissance, which opened around 1906 and housed members of Congress and other prominent Washingtonians, including legendary pitcher Walter Johnson. The building, designed by Frank L. Averill and George W. Stone, marked the acceptance of apartment buildings in a neighborhood riddled with single family homes, according to Historic Mount Pleasant. Another sign tells the story of the Kenesaw Cooperative, one of the first cooperatives in the District to use the landmark Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. A black-and-white photo taken in 1978 that is now on display on a street sign shows Kenesaw tenants and their supporters marching north down 16th Street NW; Keesler is among those marching. It took years of organizing for the Kenesaw Cooperative to take ownership of their building.
“I know this must be a dream come true,” said the first home-rule mayor of D.C., Walter Washington, of the Kenesaw Cooperative. According to a Washington Post article published at the time, lawmakers believed the building at 16th and Irving streets NW served as a model for what other tenant associations in the city could do should their landlords decide to sell.
The District government helped Kenesaw’s dreams materialize. In January 1985, the District of Columbia Development Corporation provided $1.6 million in financing to the cooperative so it could purchase units, according to the Recorder of Deeds. Later that year, the loan was assigned to the Department of Housing and Community Development. And in February 1986, DCDC provided about $970,000 in additional financing. DHCD again was assigned these loans. Now, the cooperative is enlisting government assistance once again.
“If you want to keep a nice appearance, we need help with that,” says Robin Madrid, a former condo president. “We do our part with all the other stuff, keeping the building standing and keeping the diverse building for what it is … And it’s been a struggle to both rebuild what needs to be rebuilt and to keep the fees down.”
A number of years ago, Madrid says the roof needed a special assessment, so fees went up to cover the costs, but no one was priced out. Keesler says cooperative fees average around $500 per month, and his own is $750.
Generally speaking, creating and maintaining cooperatives is challenging. Cooperative members have to deal with a lot of complex regulations and compliance requirements, says Elizabeth Floyd, a supervising attorney at the Housing Cooperative Preservation Initiative with the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. She provides technical support to struggling cooperatives for this reason.
While she cannot speak to how pervasive the problem is, Floyd knows of a few instances where a historic designation has created problems for co-op members. She recalls one co-op president telling her about having to spend money they otherwise wouldn’t to accommodate a request from the Historic Preservation Review Board. The building, mostly made up of seniors, wanted to replace their front door, which had glass panes near the knob, with solid wood for security reasons during renovations. But the board told the cooperative that members had to replace the front door with a replica. The cooperative opted to purchase a security door to put in front of their door instead.
“They ended up having to dig into their own funds that they had raised for the building, literally through bake sales and fashion shows,” says Floyd.
While challenging to maintain, D.C. invests in cooperatives because they are viewed as a viable way to preserve affordable housing. Cooperatives have been used to push back against displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant. Kenesaw is part of a long and rich history of turning Black and Brown tenants into collective owners.
“Some people ask me, ‘Why don’t you move to Virginia or Maryland?’ I look around and say, ‘I don’t want to leave here.’ My doctor is three or four blocks from here,” says Teresa Baldizon. “I know the neighborhood and the neighborhood knows me.”
Originally from Nicaragua, Baldizon came to the District on a student visa in 1973. She moved into the Renaissance four years later and never left. Baldizon lives with her 92-year-old mother, her sister, and her niece. Her nephew also owns a share in the cooperative and lives in his own unit.
The Kenesaw is a community within a community. Keesler’s godson, Victor Bernal, lives in the building, and Bernal’s mother, Angela Rosas, took care of Keesler’s kids when he and his wife would go to work. They celebrate the holidays together and would have gathered for Thanksgiving had it not been for the pandemic. Rosas, who is 82, moved into the building in 1977 with three of her friends from church. She remembers the days when the building’s residents did their own landscaping. Every family pitched in and took care of the building.
“I cleaned on Saturdays,” laughs Rosas.
Some of the residents humored returning to those days to save money and put it toward the balcony repairs. They just don’t want anyone to be displaced.
“It is a very unique place that I love, and I hope that it doesn’t change too much or that I am forced to move out,” says Bernal. “I honestly don’t see myself ever leaving the building because I love the area, I love the building. I just couldn’t imagine living somewhere else.”