Stranger Than Eviction
From the outside, 1919 Calvert St. NW looks almost exactly like its neighboring rowhouses, with their stately shades of red brick and stone. A glance at city property records shows little variation on paper: The houses were all valued around $800,000 in last year's assessment.
But once you step inside, something is clearly different. First, the naughty wallpaper: Spanning two floors of the building, it's a shiny silver, full of images of topless women and blackface minstrels and the names of Parisian cabarets.
Next, you're likely to be struck by the layout. All you'll see is a hallway, a staircase, and a row of doors. It's the same on the second floor, and the third. There's no living room, no dining room, no kitchen.
Walk into one of the numbered bedrooms, and you'll get a good sense of the deteriorating condition of the building. Several rooms have substantial water damage on the walls and ceilings, in addition to mold that might be the cause of the slightly dank odor permeating the house.
Finally, you might be surprised by the tenants themselves, likely the most diverse bunch you've ever seen under a single roof. The mostly middle-aged residents represent just about every race, shape, background, and infirmity under the sun. During a recent visit, I spoke mainly to Serge, the rent collector, who's the son of an Ivory Coast diplomat and suffering from lupus; Mary, the tenant association vice president, a scruffy white woman who takes care of the U.S. Park Police horses in Rock Creek Park; Tom, a bleary-eyed Vietnam veteran who serves as tenant association president; and Jimmy, a Cherokee artist who, despite the flu he was fighting, kept bursting through the doorway in his do-rag and blue suspenders and asking, "Now y'all gonna save this building or what?"
The house at 1919 Calvert is a rarity these days in D.C.: a rooming house, or single-room occupancy, where each of the 14 tenants rents a bedroom and shares a bathroom with others on the floor. Now, the tenants are hoping to form something truly unique in the District: what by all accounts would be the city's first tenant-owned SRO.
The owner of the house, who lives in Fairfax, is looking to sell it. Early last year, a company called Chick Row Ventures LLC signed a contract with the owner to buy the building for $925,000. Now the tenants, with the help of attorney John Mangin of Georgetown University's Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development, hope to exercise their rights under D.C.'s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to try to match the offer and acquire the house themselves.
The tenants currently pay between $130 and $175 a week in a neighborhood where studio apartments typically go for more than $1,200 a month. Most are low-income or disabled, and some fear that moving to a part of town they could afford would prevent them from getting to their jobs in the Adams Morgan area.
With the TOPA extension they've received, the tenants have until May 12 to match the offer. But before they can do so, they need to secure financing for the purchase—a near impossibility with a traditional bank, since the tenants have no collateral and the unusual SRO model makes lenders wary. On Monday, they submitted an application to the District's Department of Housing and Community Development for a $1.4 million low-interest loan, to cover the acquisition and rehabilitation of the crumbling building.
But DHCD loans can take time to come through; according to DHCD spokesman Timothy Wilson, "it can happen rather quickly, quickly being four or five months, or it can drag out for a long time as well." Given that the tenants only have about three months to spare, they're also frantically seeking a short-term higher-interest loan from a community lender to tide them over in the interim.
"We're fighting against the clock, and working to convince the various entities necessary that this is a good thing," says Mangin. "We just need to convince DHCD and community lenders that this is totally doable before the clock runs out."
They've had luck gathering some support. Half a dozen community nonprofits have gotten involved at various points with the aim of keeping the tenants in the building. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham says he plans to reach out to DHCD on the tenants' behalf. The building's owner would prefer not to see the sale drag on for too long but says she'd be happy to see the tenants remain in place.
It's an unusual situation—one expert on housing cooperatives I spoke with had only heard of two tenant-owned SROs in the country, and one was for college students—but the tenants' vision could be an appealing alternative model for affordable housing in the District. If, that is, it's allowed to happen at all.
The building's history is nearly as eccentric as its current state. According to owner Carol Henry, it was built around the turn of the last century by her late husband Phil's grandparents. The grandfather was a "colorful" man, Henry says, a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders; when he died in 1922, the grandmother decided to rent out rooms, and congressmen were among the early tenants. Phil Henry's mother, Carol Henry says, was a poor financial manager who lost all of her property, which also included the space that's now the Middle Eastern restaurant Mama Ayesha's. In 1964, Phil and Carol Henry bought the house off the auction block and put up new walls to convert it into a rooming house, of which there were quite a few in the area at the time.
Phil Henry died three and a half years ago, and Carol Henry, who's 76 and a retired high school "disciplinarian," as she puts it, decided the house was too much work to maintain and put it up for sale.
After Chick Row Ventures made its offer, affordable housing advocates put out a desperation call for financial aid for the tenants. City First Enterprises was able to secure a $36,000 "earnest money" deposit to help the tenants demonstrate that they're viable buyers. But since then, additional funding has been hard to come by, forcing them to submit their DHCD application with just a promise to supply certain studies required by the agency, for lack of predevelopment funding at the moment.
Still, the tenants have one more unlikely ally. Typically, the TOPA process pits tenants against a third-party buyer, who hopes the tenants aren't able to match the bid. But the people behind Chick Row Ventures say they're actually rooting for the tenants.
Chick Row was founded by Elliot Liffman of the Bethesda-based Diversified Realty Ventures. Liffman says that while DRV is a "profit-first" business, "conscientious behavior is the No. 1 priority" for Chick Row, a community-minded tribute to his grandfather. The Calvert Street house is Chick Row's first, and so far only, real estate venture.
Liffman heard about the house from a realtor friend, and, joined by real estate investor Brad Gilchrist, he went to check it out wondering if he could convert it to condos or a bed and breakfast.
"When we went and looked at the building, it was being shown to us for commercial purposes," Liffman says. "When we got there, two things became apparent. One: Holy shit, I can't believe people live this way. And two: I don't see any commercial potential there at the price it's going to cost us."
But they worried that another developer would buy the place and kick the tenants out. Gilchrist, who's been involved with TOPA cases before, didn't think the residents would be covered because of the day-to-day nature of their leases. So, Gilchrist says, they made an offer and drew up a contract that specified the building would be subject to TOPA and that the residents could continue to pursue their rights until they've exhausted their options. If they don't meet the May 12 deadline, Gilchrist says he and Liffman will work with the tenants to try to give them more time. Liffman says they drew up the contracts themselves and will retain their deposit if the tenants match their offer, so Chick Row wouldn't lose a penny.
If the tenants can't come up with a solution, however, Liffman isn't sure what he'll do. "We have no real estate business plan for it," he says. "If we end up having to buy it, I have no idea what we'll do with it."
Given the rooming-house zoning, a bed and breakfast might be the most feasible option, and Liffman says he'd try to use the proceeds to help the current tenants relocate. But he says he has "no interest in running a bed and breakfast" and could also back out of the sale if need be.
It's unclear if it will come to that. Financing from DHCD—and from an interim lender if DHCD can't secure it in time—is all that stands between the tenants and the solution everyone involved seems to want: a permanent foothold in their longtime home.
From the city's perspective, it should be a great deal. Other means of providing affordable housing, such as vouchers through the Local Rent Supplement Program and new construction through the Housing Production Trust Fund, cost the city money. A below-market DCHD loan for the Calvert Street house would be expected to be recouped by the agency over 40 years, including interest. Through years of laissez-faire management by the house's owners, the tenants have proven their ability to run the house on their own, if haphazardly due to their limited resources. They've already renovated one bedroom, and with an infusion of funding, they hope to bring the rest of the house up to higher standards.
There aren't many rooming houses left in the District, but using city loans to preserve them under tenant ownership is an intriguing model of affordable housing that likely hasn't been tried before. For tenants without families who are willing to sacrifice some privacy to live affordably in gentrifying neighborhoods near their work, it's more appealing than joining a long waiting list for subsidized housing that might be on the other side of town. For officials hoping to maintain affordable housing in increasingly expensive neighborhoods, it's the kind of creative approach they ought to try more often.