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Mount Pleasant Housing Collective Faces Eviction

The Lamont Street Collective (LSC), one of D.C.’s longest standing cooperative houses, is under threat of eviction. Tenants are currently weighing their options to keep the house open and continue serving D.C.‘s activist and artist movements.

A 'Free Market' set up outside the LSC for neighbors to take what they need.

A ‘Free Market’ set up outside the LSC for neighbors to take what they need.

Established in 1974 by prominent D.C. socialist John Acher, the LSC originally served as a testing ground for explorations of communal living. Over subsequent years, hundreds of social justice activists, artists, and musicians have called the LSC home.

“It’s an organic, intentional community that fosters creativity and social action,” says resident Seth Campbell. “We offer the kind of community space that is in jeopardy across the city.”

The current tenants were served official eviction notices in February 2013, but are refusing to give up the house without a fight.

Housing rights challenge

The residents of 1822 Lamont Street NW have entered mediation with the new building owners, to see how they can keep the LSC running. But they fear, despite assurances to the contrary, the new owners intend to “flip” the house – renovating with the intent to resell – for a potential $400,000 profit.

Collective members have faced, and creatively opposed the threat of eviction since 2001, when home owner Marion A.W. Morrison died. Branch Banking and Trust Company (BB&T), the default trustee to Morrison’s Revocable Living Trust, put the house on the market upon her death.

Under D.C. law, tenants have the right of first refusal if their home is put up for sale. LSC members claim that the 2001 residents were not made properly aware of how to exert these Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) rights. Their attempts to place a counter bid were incorrectly litigated and rejected by the bank overseeing the sale.

The bank accepted a third party bid, but a lis pendens, or notice of pending action, made by Morrison’s children—representing the LSC—stalled the sale. In August 2011, following nine years of legal wrangling, the D.C. Court of Appeals found in favor of the third party bidders, Jeffrey Logan and Lina Bahn. A number of summons and notices arrived at the house while the case was ongoing, but were deemed illegitimate and returned by tenants following legal counsel. With the case settled, however, the relevant eviction papers arrived at the LSC last month.

Campbell, who has lived in the house for eleven years, said, “The whole legal process has been incredibly convoluted. It’s been difficult to keep up with where the LSC stands even for those of us involved from the onset. Every time someone joins the collective we do our best to explain it to them, but it takes time and experience to put all the pieces together.”

Fighting eviction

Current tenants discuss the house in a radio interview with Justin Smith radio host for the Voices of the 99%.

Current tenants discuss the house in a radio interview with Justin Smith radio host for the Voices of the 99%.

John Acher died in 2004. None of the other collective members living in the house in 2001 remain. Although the LSC keeps extensive archives of its activities, few details exist concerning Acher’s agreement with Morrison over the use of the house and intended future of the LSC.

Now the building is under the ownership of Logan and Bahn, current LSC members are meeting with a volunteer legal team to consider their options. “We have very limited resources, but immense local support from our neighbors with legal expertise,” said Daniela Aramayo, who has lived in the LSC for just over a year. “We are reaching out to the community in hope that we can find financial support to buy the house at a reasonable price,” she continued.

The collective is looking for an “angel investor”, who would place an offer to buy the house on behalf of the LSC. If they are successful, the group hopes to incorporate and become a community land trust. If an angel investor can’t be found, and if current tenants can’t assert their TOPA rights as lawyers claim may still be possible, they face either eviction or buy out.

“A buy out is not an option,” said tenant and newest LSC member Natalie Camou. “We have an obligation to maintain the legacy of the LSC. For the past 39 years this house has been a space for those who are challenging systems of oppression to find solidarity. We’re not going anywhere,” Camou asserted.

Collectives decline while house “flippers” profit

House flipping is promoted as quick way to make money - and has been implicated in the housing market crash.

House flipping is promoted as quick way to make money. But the practice has been implicated in the housing market crash and D.C. Council is attempting to clamp down on the practice.

The LSC is well-known in D.C., a city home to a vibrant, if underground counter-culture movement built around a diminishing number of communal homes and intentional communities.

In 2012, the Washington Post Express ran a story on the importance and decline of collectives, which prominently featured the LSC. In it, reporter Erin Bylander noted, “Rent prices are up all over the city, and group houses are no exception. Even in up-and-coming areas, rooms that once rented for $500 a month are approaching $700 to $900… And houses that had been rented out to groups for years are being sold off to single families.”

Recognizing that “[t]here is a continuing housing crisis in the District,” The D.C. Council has introduced measures to, “discourage the displacement of tenants through conversion or sale of rental property, and to strengthen the bargaining position of tenants towards that end.”

Researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have shown that “flipping” was a major contributing factor to the housing crisis. Following the real estate market crash, predatory buyers have been snapping up cheap residences, evicting low-rent tenants and, as the market re-stabilizes, selling at a substantial profit.

Bahn has a history of flipping houses. Current LSC member Darren Watkins explained, “Ours would be the fourth house purchased by Bahn in the Mt. Pleasant area since 2000. She has already sold the other three.”

Watkins continued, “They don’t have a presence in the community. They are Colorado residents and aren’t holding the interests of the community at heart. [By buying the LSC] they will further drive up property values in the area, while removing a longstanding community oriented house.”

“If the house is being bought only to be flipped and sold, we’d all be devastated,” said Sariel Lehyani, a longtime friend and current resident of the LSC. “Mt. Pleasant may look like a good financial investment for Bahn, but buying this house comes at a high price: she is putting an end to decades of social, political, and emotional investment in the wider community.”

Four decades of arts, activism and community

A poster advertizing Salon de Libertad at the LSC in 2007

A poster advertizing Salon de Libertad at the LSC in 2007

The LSC has had a strong, long-term presence in D.C.’s counter-culture community. Former LSC resident Hillary Lazar explained, “in the 1970s and 80s, members focused on environmental, anti-nuclear and feminist activism. Then, in the 90s and early 2000s, when the DC hardcore music scene emerged, it became more of a center for anarcho-punk and global justice movement organizing.”

Lazar noted changes in recent years: “In the last decade, the house evolved towards more of an art-focus. But with the emergence of the occupy movement, it once again became a hub for political activism and social justice organizing.” Lazar is working on a project to document, archive, and preserve the history of the LSC. “Given the uncertainty of the community’s future, we want to ensure that its memory and legacy are preserved,” she said.

“Our neighbors continue to show a great deal of moral support,” Aramayo added, “which only speaks to how valuable our presence is in Mt. Pleasant.” At their most recent annual art exhibition, Salon de Libertad, local residents and businesses donated $600-enough to cover the collective’s legal fees at the time.

A Salsa Class offered to guests at Salon de Libertad in 2012

A Salsa Class offered to guests at Salon de Libertad in 2012

LSC members past and present remain determined to highlight the importance of the LSC to the local community over the coming months. They have already set up an online petition, recorded radio interviews and begun a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness of their current situation.

A series of events are also planned, including documentary screenings, bike maintenance classes and another Salon de Libertad. These events are designed, residents explain, not only to raise awareness of the possible eviction, but to bring together members of the counter-culture movement, and re-inject radical ideas into the community.

“We won’t let this [possible eviction] stop our momentum to keep stressing our roots and host community and art centered events,” explained Camou.

Campbell appeared to sum up the sentiments of all LSC residents by stating: “If these really are the last few months of the LSC, we need to make sure they are the best few months we’ve ever had.”

For more information about the LSC, its history and its upcoming schedule of events, visit their facebook page.

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