By Lori Montgomery and Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 5, 2005; A01
Of the 650 people who live in Sursum Corda, about 35 showed up for the first big meeting. Quiet as lambs, the elderly men and weary-looking women listened to lawyers and developers talk about the $80,000 each family will get and how they can use the money to buy a home. Only two people asked questions. The rest nodded, scraped back their chairs -- and walked away still baffled by the complicated deal that is supposed to change their lives.
"I was sitting there listening, and all of a sudden, the information started going over my head and I'm lost again," said a slightly panicky Gail Stewart, 45, who is unemployed, cares for four children and an ailing mother and just wants to "keep a roof over our heads."
To the outside world, it might seem that this would be a happy time for the families of Sursum Corda, the notoriously drug-ridden, low-income housing complex just north of the U.S. Capitol. It might seem that they would be basking in a deal that not only saves them from eviction but also gives each family a big pot of cash and a chance to become homeowners once the complex is razed and rebuilt.
But jubilation is not what most residents feel. Many are suspicious of the developer, KSI Services Inc.: The company is promising the moon, they say, but is it actually trying to push them out? They are confused about the money: When will they get it? How can they use it? Will it threaten their government benefits? And they are skeptical of the new life they are told awaits: How can KSI make mortgage holders out of retirees, teacher's aides and laundresses who mainly scrape by on less than $25,000 a year?
At bottom, people are fearful about what will happen to them and to the community where many have lived all their lives. Sursum Corda is Latin for "lift up your hearts." But the future, and their place in it, is weighing on all who live there.
* * *
Beverly Estes helped save Sursum Corda, but she probably won't be able to buy one of its new homes.
As president of the co-op's resident board, Estes, 52, helped engineer the deal with KSI. She pressured the developer to cooperate with District officials on a neighborhood redevelopment plan that is intended to serve as a model for saving low-income homes in areas where property values are soaring.
But even if KSI succeeds in winning government subsidies to rebuild Sursum Corda, residents are likely to need an annual income of at least $15,000 to buy one of the new $235,000 condos. And Estes has no steady income.
A tall woman with long dreadlocks who speaks with deliberation, Estes shares a townhouse with her three adult children, who all work and pay most of the bills. She could ask them to buy her a place, but Estes said she would rather push them out of the nest and find a way for them to buy homes of their own.
Although the KSI deal may leave her at least $80,000 richer, she may end up still renting. "I don't think anybody will be able to make a decision until everything is hashed out," she said.
Estes sits at a vast, new conference table on the top floor of Sursum's community center, a place transformed by KSI's money. New walls have gone up to create a spot for residents to use four new flat-screen computers. Huge whiteboards are scribbled with meeting dates at which KSI-paid consultants will give residents more information. Three stories down, KSI-paid security guards patrol the grounds.
The place looks much better than it did a few years ago, when trash blew through the maze of tan concrete townhouses, vagrants squatted in empty units and residents had to dodge knots of drug dealers to get inside their homes. Until buyout talks began, Sursum Corda was best known as the place where 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen was shot to death last year after witnessing a homicide, a case that drew public outrage and forced city officials to focus on problems there. These days, the place is buzzing with talk of equity and credit ratings.
"We don't know anything about business, and we're taking crash courses," Estes said.
Estes was a teenager when she moved into the complex in 1977. The place was barely 10 years old then and decked out with air conditioning, garbage disposals -- all the modern conveniences. She reminisces about the old days, when there were teen dances on the weekends, Halloween parades in the fall and an ice cream truck that jingled through the grounds all summer.
For a while, Sursum Corda seemed a good place to raise a family. After she dropped out of Cardozo Senior High School, that's what Estes did. She earned her GED and took a few English courses at the University of the District of Columbia and Prince George's Community College to sharpen her writing skills. She wrote children's books, three of them, that she hopes one day to publish. For extra cash, she took on sewing projects, but mostly she chose to get by on welfare so she could stay home with her children.
That decision paid off in the mid-1980s, she said, because she was able to protect her children when "crack hit the District of Columbia."
Sursum Corda "went downhill from there," Estes said. Dealers moved in. "They just came -- you just wondered where they came from."
Along with the dealers came shootouts in the parking lots, police raids that sometimes targeted the wrong apartments -- and a well-deserved image as one of the District's most dangerous neighborhoods. A slumlord owner let the place deteriorate. Bathroom ceilings began to collapse, drains didn't work and at least one prostitute set up business in a vacant apartment. Residents were afraid to let their children go outdoors. People who could moved out.
Estes said she never felt unsafe. But "with the drug dealers here, you just had to be on your toes. . . . I remember once they stole a pair of my son's pants off the line. We found the culprit -- he explained the situation. We laughed him out."
Still, Estes became even more vigilant about her own children. She was particularly worried about her son, then 14.
"Mostly all his little friends was dipping and dabbing," she said. "His mother was the spy from hell. I would clean his room from top to bottom. I was fierce. I was not going to let my only son get caught up in all that. Not my only son going to jail. Oh, no."
By 1992, Sursum Corda was so badly managed that residents demanded and received approval to buy the property for $10, supported by a mortgage from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and $65,000 a month in HUD rent subsidies. For a while, conditions improved. But then a new management company let the complex fall deeper into debt and disrepair.
Urged by a longtime community activist "to help save Sursum Corda," Estes was elected to the board of resident directors in 2003. She found that money had been misappropriated, that records were incomplete or lost. Critical bills, like for water, gas and electric, hadn't been paid in months.
Worse, from HUD's perspective, many families were "seriously delinquent in their rent," according to a scathing 2004 management review. In January 2005, HUD announced that it would foreclose and evict the residents, sending them off with housing vouchers, unless the board found a suitable development partner to pay the bills and correct more than 300 pages of health and safety violations.
Estes, by then board president, set out to find a developer.
The first offer came from a nonprofit organization already trying to help clean up Sursum's finances. But that group wanted to sell off part of the property, and Estes said no. Then the city wanted to buy Sursum Corda, but Estes and the board had no faith that city officials would let every Sursum resident stay. In April, a contact at Georgetown University, whose students have tutored Sursum children for decades, put the board in touch with three former Washington Redskins. They contacted KSI, one of the region's largest residential developers. With a HUD deadline looming, a partnership was struck in June.
The deal guarantees that every Sursum resident can stay, regardless of credit history or criminal record. KSI will replace Sursum's 199 units with more than 500 townhouses, condos and apartments, most of which will be sold to wealthier people for $400,000 and up. The current residents have been told that during construction, which will be done in phases, they will live in on-site transition housing or be moved to other KSI properties in the District. After construction, they will get 49 percent of the profits.
Each family also will get $80,000, which can be invested for those who want to keep renting or used as a down payment for those who want to buy a home.
Or people can take the money and go.
Estes knows that rumors are burning like brush fire out in the concrete courtyards of Sursum Corda. But she cautions people not to jump to conclusions. "Things are changing for the good here," she said. "If you didn't leave in the '80s, when we were having shootouts in the parking lot, now is not the time to go."A Question of Trust
Once the partnership papers were signed, KSI started pouring money into Sursum Corda. It patched roofs, painted walls, replaced ancient refrigerators. It installed new locks on every door -- and delivered copies of the keys to the leasing office.
That's when Pinetta Fletcher started hiding her important papers. Rent receipts, occupancy agreements, meeting notices -- she stuffed them all into plastic grocery bags and hid them in her laundry basket. Later, the 47-year-old school bus driver decided that wasn't safe, either, so she gave the documents to a friend who lives outside Sursum Corda.
Fletcher does not trust KSI. She doesn't trust its hired consultants. She thinks some of her neighbors have turned foolish since KSI came on the scene, waving cash. She thinks the deal is risky, and she knows that it's dividing people, putting "dollar signs in their eyes."
At community meetings, Fletcher has spoken her mind, demanding to know how developers can give $80,000 apiece to poor families without affecting their government benefits, how KSI is going to turn people without jobs into homeowners. After every meeting, she said, her car suffered new dents and scratches.
The message was clear, she said: "They want me out."
That's why Fletcher hid the papers that prove her good standing in the cooperative, thus her claim on the profits. She was worried someone might use one of those new keys to slip into her house and make 20 years of rent receipts disappear.
"This is how Miz Fletcher feels: If you're on their good side, you're going to come back, you're going to get to stay," she said. "They're going to work with you. Help you do everything they can. But if you ain't doing what they want you to do and you ain't on their good side, you ain't coming back in here."
On a recent evening, Fletcher sat in her cozy living room, under a portrait of a heavily muscled Jesus, and laughed with a friend about the old days at Sursum Corda, when everybody knew everybody's business. Back then, if a person didn't pay rent, the note was taped on the front door. It never happened to Fletcher, but last summer the leasing office did accuse her of owing back rent. After she produced her receipts, the accusation was dropped.
Fletcher thinks it was a sign of things to come.
"I'm just sick of the whole thing. I just want everything to hurry up and get over with," she said. "If you're going to give me $80,000 and some shares, then give me my $80,000, sign me up for my shares and I'm gone. . . . Even if I'm putting a down payment somewhere in somebody else's neighborhood, I'm going to have some peace. It won't be nobody dictating nothing to me, making decisions on how I'm going to live."
Since she moved to the District as a teenager in 1978, Fletcher has never lived anywhere besides Sursum Corda. She came from Sumter, S.C., to be close to her father. She stayed first with an aunt, then qualified for her own townhouse in 1985. But unlike a lot of young mothers, she said, she always had a job and always paid the "big rent," never qualifying for public assistance.
Fletcher still pays the "big rent." After raising two children on her own, she got married in 1998 to a man who has worked for 25 years at American University, currently as support services supervisor. Together, they make more than $25,000 a year, Fletcher said, placing them in one of Sursum's higher income brackets. Fletcher, who recently received a bachelor's degree in divinity, also plans to be ordained as a Baptist minister Saturday.
In the meantime, the couple is raising two nieces in their three-bedroom townhouse. It's familiar and convenient, and all their friends are nearby. But Fletcher is tired of living with the constant threat of financial disaster. It may be years before people have peace at Sursum Corda. That's why, when the deal is done, she and her family will pack up and go.
She predicts that they will not be alone.
"Oh, this is the end," she said. "You might as well kiss everybody goodbye."Dividing Residents
By their own account, Estes and the board and KSI are making every effort to help people stay at Sursum Corda. They have a long way to go. HUD, which pays most of the rent for most families, would have to approve the plan and authorize millions in new subsidies. The city's approval is also required, and it would have to pledge more money.
At the big community meeting in late November, residents' suspicions flared. Although most people sat in silence, Fletcher peppered Estes with questions about some latest twist in their relationship with HUD.
"Why don't we never know nothing about that?" Fletcher demanded. "The members don't know. Y'all, as the board, know, but we didn't know."
Estes tried to soothe her. "We are your neighbors. We're learning as we go along," she said. "The more you understand, the better we all do."
"You ain't giving me nothing to understand," Fletcher grumbled.
A public-relations consultant -- hired to build a Web site, print calendars and find other ways to keep residents informed -- tried to move the meeting along. Later, KSI's on-site representative, Stephan Rodiger, urged people to keep their "eyes on the prize -- and I think what the prize is, is moving into your own house and having profit-sharing with KSI."
The next evening, residents were summoned to an orientation session with HomeFree-USA, a local nonprofit group hired by KSI to help residents clean up their credit records, save money and prepare to buy a home. HomeFree will provide classes and counseling sessions for at least three years. Participation is mandatory for those who want the $80,000 payout.
About 30 people showed up and sat nervously eyeing their shoes.
"We want to increase your confidence," HomeFree executive Jim Griffin told them. "I know you all know what I'm talking about here: When you go into a store and you apply for credit and you sort of slide the application forward and you wait for them to slide it back with 'No' on it. You know about that. All of you have been through that. Because there is a certain level of discrimination we all face as people of color dealing with the financial market. We don't feel we understand the system." But with advice from HomeFree-USA, Griffin said, "you will be able to throw that application down and dare them to say no to you."
Griffin paced the front of the room, painting glorious pictures of the possible. "For those of you who want to own a home, you're in the right place at the right time," he said. "We'll get it done."
Afterward, Lorraine Rooker, 68, said she thought the classes were "a good thing." A retired Pentagon worker, Rooker is one of the grande dames of Sursum Corda, one of the first to arrive in 1968 and one of the first to be consulted on important matters.
Rooker is not sure what she will do in the new Sursum Corda. She may be "too old" to buy, she said; she might just stay and rent. But she said she has faith in KSI and in the future.
"We know it takes time to work things out," she said. "This didn't happen overnight, so it's not going to work out overnight. That's why you've got to stay prayed up on a lot of things."