Co-op d'Etat How a group of Mount Pleasant lefties saved their home from the real estate boom

How a group of Mount Pleasant lefties saved their home from the real estate boom

At the beginning of this year, the Lamont Street Collective--residents of the co-operative group house at 1822 Lamont St. NW--discovered that the new owner of their home, a bank, was getting ready to sell out. At that point, the seven residents could have done what countless other displaced do-gooders have done in identical circumstances--namely, curse the real estate boom, scuff the floors a bit, and disperse.

The Lamont Street Collective, however, doesn't operate that way. Instead of going quietly into the night, this group, which includes a self-described "old socialist" and a former Nader crusader, went guerrilla.

All over their property, collective members plastered signs that added new meaning to "caveat emptor": "PLEASE DO NOT BID ON THIS HOUSE. We have been a socially responsible co-operative for over 25 years. We...are a valuable asset to this community, and are attempting to make the world a better place for all of us. WE NEED MORE TIME. Please, as a public service for Mt. Pleasant, and the wider community, do not bid on this house."

The signs went on the front door, all over the walls, and in full color above the entrance. They articulated quite a contrast to the typical "spacious living area, bright breakfast nook" real estate jargon potential buyers are used to seeing.

When real estate agent Michael Patterson brought clients to look at the house, he wasn't impressed with the new decor. "He told us he was going to sue us for obstructing the sale," says resident John Acher.

Patterson and his agency's attorneys decided against a lawsuit. "We really tried to work with them," he says, stressing that the collective members had ample time to exercise their right of first refusal and make an offer on the property. "Those signs were offensive to us and the buying public. It was disrespectful for them to attack us, like we were bad people for trying to sell the house." Patterson points out that his agency had to sell the house in order to pay the deceased former owner's heirs and had no choice but to act.

Residents remember a time when things were simpler. "As long as we took care of the house, they didn't raise the rent," says Acher, a former teacher and current Socialist Party organizer who has been with the collective since the beginning and uses the word "man" in a way most people abandoned in the '60s. The house attracted nonprofit workers and idealists who would have had a hard time supporting themselves in other situations. Things ran smoothly for a long time, with house members sharing groceries, toiletries, cooking duties, bills, and lefty ideology.

"The house was all vegan at one point," says Acher, "and we had about 30 kids sleeping here during those [April 2000] World Bank protests, even though one of the girls living here worked for the World Bank." The housemates share long-standing subscriptions to Harper's, the Nation, and the Utne Reader, and they make sure everyone pays the same for everything, no matter what--room assignments, for example, are based solely on seniority.

When the bank took over the property soon after the owner's death, the residents agreed that trying to buy the house themselves was a bad idea. "You can't run a collective with the landlord living among the members," says Acher. "We all decided against that." The bank soon raised their rent by 70 percent, and the collective refused to pay, claiming the action was illegal. Frustrated and energized, the residents went to war, posting the signs, filing maintenance complaints with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, sending out e-mails imploring their Mount Pleasant neighbors to help, and generally doing whatever they could think of to keep the collective intact.

The bank eventually did get an offer, and the residents were faced with two options: either find an alternate buyer quickly or start packing. They consulted lawyer Richard Eisen, who was willing to help them for less than his usual fee. "He could tell we were just a bunch of losers," says Acher. "So he helped us."

Soon, two collective-friendly buyers came into the picture: the son of the former owner, and a man who had heard about the house from a friend who had seen the signs. Both expressed interest, and the housemates entered negotiations, mindful that failure would mean not just moving out but also, they feared, the end of the collective.

"I try to live by my ideals, and this is a simple way to live," says Cody Doran, a young, bearded future lawyer who lives in the house. He compares group houses in the District to single-family mansions taken over by groups of poor families in Cuba. "It's ridiculous that one family is going to move into this house. It's just a waste of space--this is a better use of resources."

Doran mentions the Liverboat, a working sailboat the housemates built from putting together almost 200,000 wine corks they collected from friends and local businesses. "If it weren't for this house we never could have done that," he says wistfully. "I think it's good to be around people."

Aspiring photographer Molly Hewes, another resident, seconds the thought. "There is a sense of community here. The people in this house are part of my life." She acknowledges that she has become slightly more jaded since moving in three years ago, but she still appreciates the environment in which she lives: "It's an immediate connection."

The house members, despite their political earnestness, are not without a sense of humor. When they needed a new roommate, they placed this ad in the Washington City Paper:

Intentional community, multicultural with political aspirations, seeks experienced person for house--shared chores & food, struggles, laundry...Female agnostic vegan conversationalist proletarian preferred.

That ad yielded, among others, a transsexual named Debbie, who, worried that she would be rejected from the house due to the strict gender-balance roles, offered indisputable evidence that she was a woman. "We get tons of cool people, and it's hard to pick one," says Doran, laughing. He stresses that their low rents--$289 per month--make it possible for residents to make employment decisions that correspond more to their ideals than their pocketbooks. "Living in a group house is something we choose. Most of us could probably be making more money doing something else, but that's not what we want. This is a community."

The collective's distaste for traditional free-market values may have blinded members to the reality of living in a suddenly booming real estate market. "We've definitely seen an upswing in sales lately, and almost 100 percent of houses are bought by people who want to move in themselves," says Mark Drummond, an agent with Habitat Real Estate. That takes group houses off the rental market and narrows the living prospects for idealistic newcomers to the city.

"There are fewer and fewer neighborhoods where it's financially feasible to come to the city and work in a nonprofit or internship," says architect Garth Goldstein, another member of the house. He worries that this situation will force more and more people to abandon their dreams of settling in the city and doing something meaningful.

"D.C. is certainly becoming more and more like the other major cities in the U.S., where housing is much worse," says Drummond. "The entire city has become more expensive across the board. It's a tide that raises all ships."

Of course, not everyone thinks the sky is falling. "In two houses I was involved with this fall, the groups moved, almost as one unit, into another house," says real estate agent Linda Low. "Mount Pleasant is such a transient place. Nothing is ever static." She adds that there are still plenty of places in the city for people who want to live in group houses to go. "Columbia Heights is just like Mount Pleasant was 20 years ago," she says. "Logan Circle has made a big leap forward as well. People get shifted around. That's life."

The members of the Lamont Street Collective hope they can keep that particular aspect of life from intruding for just a little longer. Recently, the bank got a new offer on the house from the son of the former owner. He is planning a rent increase of almost $250 per resident but will allow the collective to remain intact for at least three more years. "We're happy," says Acher. "That was probably the best offer we were going to get....We think this place is going to be around for a long time." CP

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