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Ward 4: Columbia Heights Residents Push Back Against Displacement — And Win

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Ana Margarita Pineda and her neighbors now own this 13-unit building at 1445 Spring Road NW in Ward 4.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Ana Margarita Pineda and her neighbors now own this 13-unit building at 1445 Spring Road NW in Ward 4.

Ana Margarita Pineda has lived in the same building in northern Columbia Heights for close to 15 years. For most of that time she turned to the manager and owner when she had complaints about cold showers, holes in the walls and rent increases. But now she's the one hearing complaints — she’s one of the building’s owners, after all.

Last month residents at the 13-unit building on Spring Road NW closed on the sale of their building, becoming homeowners in a neighborhood of rapidly rising rents. In taking advantage of a D.C. law that allows tenants a first shot at buying a building that’s going on the market, Pineda and her neighbors bucked the trend of low-income residents being displaced by housing prices and rents that have jumped in recent years.

Pineda signing the paperwork for the building's sale in February. (LEDC)

"For everything we were told, what was best for us was to fight to see if we could buy the building," she says. "It was the best idea, because we were scared that if a buyer came they would make a good offer and make improvements and repairs, but they would have raised the rent to a price that we couldn’t afford to pay."

Pineda came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1989. When she moved into the building in 2000, the neighborhood was dangerous and her apartment was rundown. But as a single mother who cleans offices at the Department of Interior, it offered her relatively low rent — about $1,000 a month — and a chance to pay her bills.

But in 2008, after a series of fires caused by a faulty electrical system, Pineda and her neighbors sued the building’s owner — and won. Once the owner decided to sell in 2012, the tenants made the leap and chose to buy. Their decision came as D.C.'s housing market was emerging from the recession, and prices were jumping across the city.

"One of the challenges we face here in the District is that our housing costs have really exploded over the last decade while incomes haven't changed that much," says Jenny Reed of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. She says that while median rents have increased by 50 percent over inflation, many incomes not increasing at all or keeping pace. That has left many low-income residents putting up to two-thirds of their incomes into paying the rent.

"Here in the city, it’s too expensive, and we make very little and have few resources," says Pineda, a slight and soft-spoken woman. "The desire to stay here is to keep the low price so the families can have a good life."

To buy the building, Pineda and her neighbors invoked the city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, one of the few laws of its kind in the country.

"TOPA is a law that was passed in 1980. It basically says that in most circumstances, not absolutely every circumstance, when an owner of a rental property in D.C. wants to sell the property, they have to let any residential tenants have the opportunity to buy the property first," explains Elizabeth Elia, an attorney who specialized in affordable housing.

Elia says the law is an invaluable tool in protecting a diminishing stock of affordable housing across the city — but not enough people know it exists. That can have consequences, says Farah Fossé, who works with the Latino Economic Development Corporation, the group that helped Pineda and her neighbors through the process.

"If you’ve just moved to D.C. from anywhere else, you wouldn’t know about it. That’s what we see a lot: Because people don’t know that there’s actually additional protections, when they hear, ‘Hey, here’s $1,000, you should move,’ then they’ll take that because it seems like a good deal. Lots of times it’s just combating lack of information, misinformation," she says.

Even when the law is invoked, tenants have to organize quickly and find the money to purchase their building. It often comes from D.C.’s Housing Production Trust Fund, but the recession left that fund all but empty. Housing advocates say that during those years, fewer low-income tenants were able to use TOPA.

According to Reed, in 2012 45 tenant associations were registered across the city as part of the TOPA process. But of the 5,000 units on sale in 99 buildings that year, only 105 units of TOPA-assisted housing were maintained, many of which had started the process the year prior. Last year, only 50 units of affordable housing in two building were preserved through TOPA.

Pineda and her neighbors were all too aware of the realities — and the challenges. A building just across the street was put on the market at the same time and sold to a Virginia developer who turned it into luxury rentals. The building was renamed "The Fitzgerald" (it was originally "The Ricardo"), and advertises "boutique living" and an on-site dog park. The starting rent for a one-bedroom: $1,750, though a 730-square-foot unit is being advertised for as much as $2,150 a month.

Even worse, the D.C. government wasn't responding to Pineda's requests for money to cover the $1 million sale price, potentially leaving residents with no means to actually buy the building.

"For a program like tenant purchase, that's a really big problem because those purchases under tight timelines," says Reed.

Pineda helped keep the group focused, and they instead received a bridge loan from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a non-profit lender. With that money in hand, Pineda and members of the tenant association signed the final paperwork on Feb. 10, that last day of eligibility of the TOPA process.

Signs around the building remind residents they're owners now. (WAMU)

"There was always the doubt that we could succeed, because there was always fear over whether people like us, people of few resources and jobs that don’t pay us much, could actually do it, given that there are so many buyers that have so much money, not only to buy this building. One is always with the fear that they won’t be able to do it, but we were always clear that it wouldn’t be good for us if anyone else bought," says Pineda.

Now Pineda is president of the cooperative that owns the building, and she's adapting to the challenges of homeownership. The building needs roof repairs, among many other renovations. She's hoping that the D.C. government comes through with money to cover the bridge loan and needed upgrades to the building.

"The last thing you want to see is that people who have been struggling with poor housing conditions for so long become their own slumlords," says Fossé. "They need renovation funds, it needs to be seen as part of the whole package."

But even if the building needs some work, Pineda and her neighbors are relishing the reality that it's theirs. It will remain affordable for 40 years, which means they won't be forced from a neighborhood that has seen extensive development over the last five years. They've posted signs around the building urging residents to help with the cleaning; "We Own This!" say the signs.

"I think it’s something very satisfying to say that in this place I have memories, I have neighbors, I see them as family, a community that is kind, everything is accessible, the schools, the stores, the buses. Everything is nice, and one gets fond of the place they live because it has great sentimental value, no matter than the building is old or falling apart, there’s a history here. I feel happy," says Pineda.

Housing advocates say other tenants could soon share in that happiness, as D.C. has set aside more money for the Housing Production Trust Fund, one of the principle means of paying for TOPA purchases for low-income residents.

For Reed, that's good news. She calls TOPA one of the few "anti-displacement tools" that D.C. has at its disposal.

"The great thing about tenant purchase is that it helps people stay right where they are, right in the neighborhood they're in. Usually it's a neighborhood that's changing, that is becoming pricier," she says.

Music: "Solitude Rotation" by Star FK Radium from France

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