Ward 4: Columbia Heights Residents Push Back Against Displacement -- And Win (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So clearly education is among the top issues in this year's mayoral race, but another hot button topic, the cost of living. More than 1,000 people move into the District each month. And as a result, we're seeing more competition for housing in many fast-changing neighborhoods. Like, Northern Columbia Heights in Ward 4. Martin Austermuhle takes us there now to meet a woman who resisted the tide that swept many low-income resident out of the area.

MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE

00:00:29
Ana Margarita Pineda has lived in the same building for close to 15 years. For most of that time she turned to the managers and owners when she had complaints about cold showers and holes in the walls. But now she's the one hearing complaints -- she's one of the building's owners, after all.

MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE

00:00:50
Pineda is standing in the stairwell of her 13-unit building on Spring Road Northwest, talking with a Vietnamese neighbor about a leak in the roof. Last month residents here closed on the sale of their building, becoming homeowners in a neighborhood of rapidly rising rents. They took advantage of a D.C. law that allows tenants a first shot at buying a building that's going on the market.

MS. ANA MARGARITA PINEDA

00:01:09
(Through translator) For everything we were told, what was best for us was to fight to see if we could buy the building. 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.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:01:27
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.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:01:41
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 chose to buy.

PINEDA

00:01:52
(Through translator) Here in the city it's too expensive. And we make very little and few resources. The desire to stay here is to keep the low price so the families can have a good life.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:02:05
To buy the building, Pineda and her neighbors invoked the city's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA. It's one of the few laws of its kind in the country.

MS. ELIZABETH ELIA

00:02:12
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.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:02:29
That's Elizabeth Elia, an attorney who specializes in affordable housing. She says the law is an invaluable tool, but not enough people know it exists. And that can have consequences. Farah Fosse is with the Latino Economic Development Corporation, the group that worked with Pineda and her neighbors.

MS. FARAH FOSSE

00:02:43
And that's what we see a lot, is that because people don't know there's actually additional protections, when they hear like, "Hey, here's $1,000, you should move," then they'll take that because it seems like a good deal. So a lot of times it's just kind of combating lack of information, misinformation.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:02:59
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 the fund all but empty. Housing advocates say that during those years, fewer low-income tenants were able to use TOPA.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:03:13
Pineda and her neighbors were all too aware of the realities. A building just across the street was put on the market at the same time and sold to a developer who turned it into luxury rentals. The starting rent for a one-bedroom apartment? $1,750 a month. They stayed focused.

PINEDA

00:03:27
(Through translator) 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.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:04:01
Now Pineda is president of the cooperative that owns the building, and she's got another fight on her hands, getting the D.C. government to loan her the money to renovate the building. But even if the building needs some work, Pineda says it's home. And that's what matters most.

PINEDA

00:04:12
(Through translator) 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 busses. Everything is nice, and one gets fond of the place they live because it has great sentimental value, no matter that the building is old or falling apart, there's a history here. I feel happy.

AUSTERMUHLE

00:04:43
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. I'm Martin Austermuhle.
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