This interview aired on the Current Affairs podcast in August 2019. You can listen to it here. As always, the following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanessa A. Bee:
Hello everyone. This is Vanessa A. Bee, and I am so excited to bring [you] a very special episode of this week’s Current Affairs podcast. We’re going to talk about tenant organizing in the District of Columbia, which is the place I have called home for seven years. I am so fond of Washington. I think it is a wonderful place to live. Unfortunately, I have also long accepted that it’s the kind of place where the rent is too damn high, and it has felt that way for a long time. But people are doing something about it. In fact, they have for decades.
This week, we’re going to approach this episode a little differently. As you can tell, for starters, I’m flying solo today. We’re also going to have more guests than usual. I spoke to not one, not two, but three guests in order to get a more fulsome view of the housing crisis in D.C. My first guest is a lawyer. The second is a historian. And the third is a tenant organizer. Call it the perfect trifecta. On that note, let’s get to it.
My first guest is Amanda Korber. She is a housing attorney here in the District of Columbia. Amanda, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Generally, I represent tenants who live in poverty in the District of Columbia in eviction cases before the D.C. Superior Court. The majority of eviction cases that are filed in D.C. are non-payment of rent cases; tenants who have failed to pay some amount of rent. There are also cases based on alleged lease violations. You’re being loud, you’re annoying your neighbor, you have a dog, and you shouldn’t have a dog, things like that. I also work with tenant associations across the District. We work with groups of tenants that maybe aren’t as formal as tenant associations who are trying to enforce their rights to better conditions, their rights to purchase under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) when their landlord is trying to sell their building.
We also work on rent control matters. For buildings that are rent controlled, when landlords are trying to make extraordinary rent increases and tenants want to and can fight those, we will help groups of tenants do that. And so, we have a pretty broad range of cases that we handle.
What do tenant protections look like in the District of Columbia, at least on the books?
I’m glad you said, “on the books.” Because this is actually an area or a question that I often get frustrated by the answer to. A lot of people will say tenants in the District have a ton of rights, that they’re very protected. I think that the reason it frustrates me is because I think it causes our policymakers to feel like there’s not much they have to do because tenants already have so many rights. And that to some extent is true, but also, there has been a ton of displacement in the District of Columbia over the last decade. How strong can tenants’ rights actually be? And part of it is that a tenant’s rights on paper could be stronger.
…rights only mean something if you can enforce them.
But also, the other part of it is that rights only mean something if you can enforce them. For example, in the District of Columbia if a tenant doesn’t pay their rent and they get taken to Landlord-Tenant court, they could raise all sorts of defenses—that their landlord was not complying with the housing code and so therefore, not only should they not have to pay the rent that their landlord is alleging they owe, but in reality, their landlord actually owes them money for all of the months that they paid rent but they were living in substandard conditions. And that is a really powerful right, so people are [correct] to say that that is a powerful right tenants have.
But the reality is on the ground in Landlord-Tenant count, few tenants have a lawyer to actually raise and litigate that right. Some tenants are able to do it on their own, but in my opinion and what I see day in and day out is that the vast majority can’t. They either don’t know about it or the legal system is so complex, and structured for sophisticated actors who have gone to law school, that it’s really hard for tenants to actually get the outcomes that they should, based on the rights that are on paper.
Tenants have other rights outside of the non-payment of rent context. For example, in D.C., if a landlord alleges that a tenant has violated their lease, the tenant gets 30 days to cure that violation. A landlord would have to give them a notice saying “here is what you did wrong and here is what you have to do to fix it” within 30 days. And if the tenant fixes it, that’s the end of the conversation. The landlord can’t proceed with evicting them. That is a very important right.
I will say that it’s hard to know how many evictions it staves off because we don’t see the people who cure [the violation] and then don’t end up in court. But we do see a lot of folks who either say they have cured [the violation] or say they didn’t understand the notices—because a lot of times the notices are long and complicated and don’t make a ton of sense to somebody who doesn’t know the law.
I think some other rights that tenants in the District have: tenants who live in rent-controlled buildings are obviously entitled to protections about how much their rent can go up each year. That is great and that is important. But there are a ton of loopholes to that law. Landlords, for example, are entitled to a 12 percent return on their investment in rent-controlled properties under the law. And so, if a landlord isn’t making a 12 percent return on the equity… they can take as much of a rent increase as they need to to get them to the return that they’re entitled to. That means that tenants are facing rent increases of 40 percent, 60 percent, 100 percent.
So much for the free market, right? You would think things would just self-calibrate, so it’s interesting that there would be a law in the books that would just entitle them to this profit.
And a profit that no other investment would guarantee for you. Right? I think the 12 percent number was set at a time when—I think, and I could be wrong about this—but set at a time when interest rates were much higher and that’s what it was pegged to. It just has never been corrected from that moment in time. Landlords in the District are entitled to a rate of return that if anybody in any other sector were to tell you they can guarantee you that much money, you would think it was a pyramid scheme, and rightfully so. Or some sort of non-legal structure.
I want to talk about eviction a little bit. What does eviction look like in the city? What are the rates? Does the District of Columbia even track the rates of eviction here? And on the ground for tenants, what does it look like?
I don’t think that there is any master tracking of how many evictions occur in any given year or any given time. Certainly, it could be done and there are ways to do it. I think part of the struggle is that there’s probably between 30,000 and 40,000 eviction cases filed every year, and about half of them are dismissed at some point in the litigation. The question is why does that happen? Does it happen because the issue was resolved, and the tenant is still there? Or does it happen because the tenant wasn’t technically evicted but got scared, didn’t realize they could fight, and just sort of up and moved so it’s not technically an eviction but they were [still] forcibly displaced?
Another tenant protection in D.C. that is very important—and to the District’s credit, I think does prevent a lot of evictions—is the tenant’s right to redeem a tenancy. For tenants who are sued for non-payment of rent, a tenant can pay every cent they owe [and then not get evicted], up until the moment the marshals come and perform the formal eviction. And again, that right only works to the extent tenants know that they have it. But it is a powerful right.
“…it’s really hard for tenants to actually get the outcomes that they should, based on the rights that are on paper.”
But if a tenant gets to the point where there is a writ of eviction against them—their landlord has gone through the court process and has now been told that they can evict the tenant—what that looks like on the ground has actually changed in the last year or so. It used to be that the U.S. Marshals (because the District of Columbia is not a state so we have to use the federal marshals) would come to your apartment. The landlord would have to provide a team of some number of individuals who would literally pick up all of your belongings and put them out on the curb. And once that happened, the marshals would declare the eviction complete.
About a year and a half ago, the city decided to change that process. Now, what happens is that the marshals come, and they just change the lock on your door, locking all of your belongings on the other side of that door. Then the tenant is entitled to two 8-hour windows over the next week to go in and get out whatever they can before the landlord can then throw out or do what it wants with what’s left in the unit.
There were a lot of things wrong with the old process of just putting people’s stuff out on the street which would result in people’s stuff getting stolen, getting ruined while they tried to figure out a storage unit to put it in. There are still problems with the new process as well, frankly. You are asking a tenant to coordinate with their landlord who just evicted them to get access to their things, which is rife with all sorts of problems and can lead to tensions and situations that I don’t think are good for my clients or tenants across the District. Neither process is perfect.
There’s this idea that the District of Columbia is nothing but a playground for Congress, lobbyists and pundits, but I’m guessing that’s not the demographic of people who are getting evicted here. Right?
It is absolutely not the demographic of people getting evicted. The District is a real place where real people live who have lived for generations and generations. I [give] court tours to folks who are interns or new attorneys who are coming to our office. What I often point out to them is that when you sit in the Landlord-Tenant courtroom and listen to rollcall, which is the morning announcement where the clerk reads off every single case that is going to be heard that day and it’s usually somewhere between 100 and 150 cases, when you’re sitting in that room, you are sitting in a room of mostly all Black people, some limited-English-proficient folks. But it is a room that does not reflect what people think of the District. It is a room of low-income, majority-Black residents in the District who live east of the river.
I think it’s a really important thing to say out loud. You hear people talk about the District as a city of pundits, a city of lobbyists, and those aren’t the people in eviction court. But then you also oftentimes will hear people talk about the District as “Chocolate City.” And that’s true. There was a time when the District was majority Black. These days, I think that number has dipped to below 50 percent. But the folks in Landlord-Tenant court are overwhelmingly Black residents of the District.
Eviction and displacement is a racial justice issue. It is an economic justice issue. And it’s a huge problem.
Eviction and displacement is a racial justice issue. It is an economic justice issue. And it’s a huge problem.
Hey listeners, Vanessa here. Displacement in the District of Columbia is, as Amanda Korber tells us, very much a function of evictions. It also has a lot to do with rising prices across the city. A recent study published in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s policy research journal—it’s called Cityscape—confirmed what D.C. residents have long known. The price of rent is severely outpacing wages. Most of us feel that pinch here, but the poorest people in the city (who are often natives of Washington) are feeling it the most. These are folks who end up in eviction court represented by people like Amanda Korber. They are people who face homelessness and find themselves forced to move into cheaper suburbs.
In the last couple of years, two really interesting waves of organizing have surfaced, or maybe I should say resurfaced, sometimes with some overlap. The first is a very well-coordinated effort by the Metro D.C. branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, who have been conducting an aggressive knock-on-doors campaign to encourage people with eviction court dates to actually show up in courts. Underlying this tactic is the understanding that the eviction process depends on people not showing up, not fighting back, and not clogging the housing courts. I couldn’t bring Metro DSA in for this episode, but I encourage you to check out the show notes1 to learn more about their project.
The second tactic is the tenant strike. I wanted to know more about it, about what it actually looks like to organize a building of tenants into striking. So, I spoke to my friend Rob Wohl who is a D.C. activist and a professional tenant organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center or LEDC right here in Washington.
You’ve been organizing buildings around the District in the last couple of years. Can you tell us about the last two strikes that you’ve worked on? I know there has been one on Nicholson and then another one in Columbia Heights. For our listeners who are not from D.C., these are two areas in northwest D.C. which are rapidly gentrifying.
I’ll start with Nicholson because the Nicholson Street rent strike started earlier, in October of last year. So, 1320 Nicholson is a small rent-controlled building in the Brightwood, which is in northwest D.C. as you were saying. The building had been severely neglected for many years. It was just owned by an investor dude who was sitting on it. The tenants had been fighting about poor housing conditions for a while. Going back a few years, the landlord had petitioned the city to get a rent increase on the building. Because it is rent controlled, he needed special permission from the city. The tenants fought back against that and eventually forced him to lower the rent again and got a bunch of money back.
And then at that point, he made a settlement out of court where he agreed that he would do all these repairs to the building, pick up various deferred maintenance. There were lots of leaks and that led to mold and there were pest infestations of various kinds. So, there were all these housing condition issues. The landlord signed an agreement in 2016 that he was going to fix all of those things and then didn’t.
Last summer, the tenants started to get organized. Initially, last summer, he raised the rent. You’re allowed one rent increase a year under the Rent Control Program. So, he raised rent. Tenants were angry because he hadn’t done any of these repairs that he had long since committed to doing. And so, they refused to pay the increase, which is something they are entitled to do under D.C. law. There’s a bit in the code that says [a] rent increase is only permitted when a unit is in substantial compliance with the housing code. And this building was just a mess. Like I said, lots of water damage, lots of mold, lots of appliances just falling apart. It was a pretty unhealthy environment. So, tenants refused to pay the increase.
That was not enough to get the landlord to get in line. After a few months of escalating delegations and letters demanding that he come out and meet or do something about all of the housing code violations, tenants started to pay their rent into an escrow account in October of last year. The escrow strategy was something that my organization started doing in the last couple of years because we just found that it was really hard for tenants to get relief in any way if they were trying to get better housing conditions. Slum conditions are totally rampant across the District of Columbia and really anywhere in the world that poor people live.
Slum conditions are totally rampant across the District of Columbia and really anywhere in the world that poor people live.
We’re not talking about annoyances, inconveniences. We’re talking about things that cause real serious health consequences. Mold is a great example. It gives people respiratory problems, inflames asthma. It can affect the cognitive development of children. And mold is extremely common. We find lots of buildings that have mold, leaks all over the place, roach or bedbug infestations, lack of heat, faulty electrical wiring, lack of security. Those are critical problems, and nobody really does anything about it. The city does a terrible job enforcing the housing code. For many years advocates have complained about this. Various fixes have been proposed, but we’ve seen very little movement in terms of what the city does directly.
Is it a lack of resources or just a lack of interest? What do you think?
It’s really hard to say. It’s interesting because there are clearly problems with the staffing of the agency that does housing code enforcement. There aren’t enough of them to go around. But then even when you do manage to get them to come out, landlords just aren’t afraid enough of the enforcement to make substantive changes in response to inspections. What tenants will usually complain about is that inspectors will come and if an inspector cites a problem, the landlord will paint the apartment. They will fix cosmetic issues. But they won’t get down to the root causes or make big investments.
I think there are two things about enforcement. One is that I don’t think the fines are really high enough to create incentive to comply. The other problem is [the government] just doesn’t enforce them. There was an audit of DCRA, the agency in D.C. that does housing code inspections, and it found that they were collecting something like half of the fines that they assess. So, if you were a landlord and you got cited by the city, you have a 50/50 chance, a coin flip, of whether you would actually have to pay it. Landlords can treat this as a cost of doing business and not really fear that there are consequences for inflicting these conditions on tenants.
Tenants do a variety of things to try to take [on] their landlord in the absence of help from the city… Sometimes they don’t really do it the right way. People can withhold their rent, but people who are living paycheck to paycheck to paycheck are kind of prone to spend the money if they’re just saving up multiple months’ rent. We met people who would withhold rent on their own and kind of prevail. But it was a high-risk endeavor. If they did end up going to court and a judge forced them to pay a certain amount of money, that does lead to people [still] getting evicted sometimes.
We set up a strategy of doing a more concerted and organized rent strike with more protections. We started an account that tenants can pay into. And then if they get taken to court, then the money can be transferred to the court, or it can just sit there and wait for them. They go on paying their rent, but they just pay it into an account where it won’t go to the landlord. In D.C. they will usually get taken to court. And then in court they will have to fight it out in front of a judge or a jury about what ultimately, they have to pay. The courts can abate people’s rent and say you don’t owe the full amount. They can abate it down to zero in some cases, or settlements get reached.
Anyway, we set up this system. Nicholson was one of the first places that we helped people who wanted to start withholding their rent. Most of the tenants in the building got organized to start withholding and did so.
When you say that you organize tenants, logistically speaking, what kind of work goes into that?
Well, the tenants had formed a tenant association many years ago to contest the landlord’s attempts to raise the rent, like major rent increases over and above what rent control allows. So, there had been organizations in the building for a long time. There was a board of directors that had been elected. Part of what made it work is the building is extremely diverse. There was an elected committee of people who represented all of the different linguistic and ethnic communities in the building. Some Latinos, some African-Americans, some African immigrants—people from east Africa, Ethiopia mostly. Most of what it looked like was explaining to the core leadership in the building that this was something they could do. Then they got excited about it, and they went and talked to other people, mostly one-on-one. Or organizers from LEDC, me or my colleague, would go out with them and just answer questions and explain to people what it would take and what the risks were and what the possible benefits were.
It’s just a lot of one-on-one conversations to answer people’s questions, make them feel comfortable taking the step which is pretty high-risk. And lots of meetings in the lobby of the building where we talked about the logistics and did the same things, answer people’s questions. The leadership of the tenant association was really making the case for taking action.
In Nicholson, the landlord ended up deciding to sell pretty quickly. It was just a single individual who owned this one building. He held it as an investment, and he was always going to sell it at some point, I think, when the price was right. I don’t want to go into his calculus, but once this started, he moved very quickly to sell it.
The building in Columbia Heights is about the same size. They’re both about 25 units. [But] the one in Columbia Heights—[the tenants are] a very small group of people who are left there. There is much more unity among that small hard core of tenants who have stuck it out in the building. Everybody who is interested in leaving has been pushed out over the years. Whereas at Nicholson Street there was more diversity of opinion about what the best course of action is.
At Irving Street, 1454 Irving Northwest…if you don’t live in D.C., this is maybe the most gentrified block in the city. It’s a block away from the Columbia Heights Metro Station, which opened at the beginning of the 2000s and totally, utterly transformed the neighborhood. This mall went in by the Metro and then a bunch of high-end market rate housing went up around the Metro. What had been a very neglected, sort of blighted neighborhood that had suffered a lot from white flight suddenly had this huge influx of capital and affluent residents. It has really changed a lot.
It had been a sort of middle-class neighborhood. And then in the middle of the 20th century it became an overwhelmingly Black community. First, there was white flight and then in the 1970s and 1980s a wave of Black flight, a lot of middle-class Black people left too because things were going quickly in D.C. So, then in the 1970s and1980s when the wars were happening in Central America and there was a lot of migration, that then became a place [where] a lot of Central American migrants wound up.
And that’s who lives at 1545 Irving. The people in that building are all from Central America. The majority of them arrived in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It is people who have been around for 40 years, more or less, in that neighborhood. They’ve witnessed really incredible changes. They were there for a lot of the economic decline, the 1980s, the crack era, the extremely high rates of violence in the late 1980s, the 1990s, the extreme disinvestment from that neighborhood and then all the transformation and economic development that’s happened since the year 2000 basically and everything that came with the Metro.
They stuck it out for a long time. The building is owned by, again, an individual who lives nearby and owns a couple of apartment buildings and lives off of that. The guy has made it super clear that he wants to sell the building. He came to the tenants and told them, “I want to sell this building, so you have to move. Let’s talk about the amount of money.” And they just weren’t anywhere near…there just wasn’t a meeting of the minds in that negotiation.
Throughout this, they had been pressing the landlord to “please make these repairs. The walls are leaking. The heat goes out in the winter all the time. That’s really bad, we’re old.” There were all these other problems. The landlord has just made it known that he’s not going to do anything. So, after multiple failed attempts at negotiating, at the beginning of this year the tenants started withholding their rent.
The landlord has had real estate agents approach the tenants and try to make a deal… We have heard that the landlord is looking for a purchase price that is higher than anybody is willing to pay for this building. In some ways that might be a success because it means that anybody looking at it [will see], “Well, we can’t actually get these tenants out, so we can’t do a total turnover of the building.” There is no resolution yet. They are still withholding their rent. Trials are going to begin soon. The landlord is taking them to court. They were able to work with a legal service program. That’s great. Again, they’re going to have legal representation. I think they have a very strong case. We’ll see what happens.
And what would it mean for these tenants to win their case, practically speaking?
They have landlord-tenant cases. What that means is that ultimately a judge or a jury will have to determine how much rent they owe. Will it be reduced down to nothing? Should they pay $100 a month, $200 a month? Does the landlord owe them money back? I’ve seen that happen before, though it’s not extremely common. That’s the question at hand. Will they have to pay some of the money they’ve withheld? What will they have to pay going forward?
I promise we’ll get back to Rob and the Nicholson and Irving Street rent strikes in just a few minutes. But this is a good place to pause and get a little historical perspective. Amanda Huron was born and raised in Washington D.C. where she now teaches the history of the city to students at the University of the District of Columbia. She is the author of the book Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington D.C. I reached out to Amanda to learn more about past displacement and the first tenant strikes. Here’s our conversation.
One of the most important early forms of gentrification that we saw in D.C. was the gentrification of Georgetown. And Georgetown has a very interesting history. It was a separate city before it merged with the city of Washington. So, Georgetown has had its own unique identity for a long time.
In the 1930s, Georgetown was about 30 percent African-American. There had been many African-Americans living there of a range of classes for a very long time. It was in the 1930s that the New Deal started, and FDR had a huge increase in government programs and lots of progressive people moved to D.C. to work in New Deal programs. And many of them moved to Georgetown because they liked it. It was sort of shabby at the time. It was quaint. It was historic. It was the oldest part of the city. It was near the waterfront, and it was also relatively close to where they were working.
And so, Georgetown became this cool new place where these younger, mostly white educated folks were moving. It seems to be in the 1930s [where] we start to see the evictions of a lot of Black tenants. There were no laws protecting tenants at the time. And also, [we start to see] the sale of a number of Black homes under not necessarily straightforward circumstances.
Anyway, you end up seeing the Black population of Georgetown dropping dramatically from the 1930s through the 1950s until by 1960 there were hardly any African-Americans living in Georgetown still. This [was a] process of displacement of African-Americans, and of course, the poor people were just evicted from homes that they rented. But [Black] people who owned homes, as I said, were losing homes too. There’s a book called Black Georgetown Remembered that goes into more detail about this stuff which I would recommend.
In modern Washington history, that was what people tend to point to when they think about early cases of displacement in the city. There is other stuff too. The community of Reno City, which is up by Tenleytown, was a mostly Black community. That was actually razed to build Wilson High School and Deal Middle School, which at the time were all-white institutions. That community was razed to build those institutions and Fort Reno Park. That was another early instance of mostly Black displacement. So, this goes pretty far back in time.
The 1970s is when we see this trend of younger, whiter, more educated people moving back to the central city. They didn’t use the term “gentrification” at first because it was a relatively new term. People weren’t familiar with it. Instead, they used the term “Georgetownization” to describe what they saw. Because they were seeing a repeat of what had happened in Georgetown.
And when you say that people moved back, are you suggesting that D.C. went through its own round of white flight?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The city, like cities around the country—[it really starts] after World War II when there’s all this money available for mortgages for mostly white families in the suburbs. It just makes more economic sense for people to move to the suburbs. That’s part of what’s going on there. But yeah, there’s absolutely white flight in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
D.C. was the first U.S. city to become majority Black, which happened in 1957. But then it was in the early 1970s that it started being referred to as “Chocolate City.” And by the early 1970s it had about a 70 percent African American population.
What do we know about the first rent strike?
The first documented rent strike that I’ve been able to find out about was in 1964, which to me seems late compared to other East Coast cities. But that’s the first one. And these rent strikes that then really multiplied throughout the mid to late 1960s, they were really interesting. Every one I’ve seen was started because of terrible housing conditions in the building and tenants saying, “Why should I pay rent when I’m not getting a decent place to live?”
That very first one was assisted in large part by the Non-Violent Action Group, which was essentially the Howard University branch of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I don’t know if it’s right to call it a SNCC chapter exactly, but it was SNCC people at Howard [who] had formed the Non-Violent Action Group [NAG]. They were called in. The son of a woman who went on rent strike had been a member at least of SNCC. I think he was probably a member of NAG as well….
The point is that it seems that in a lot of these early rent strikes, young college students and SNCC members were really supportive of these rent strikes. Also, the Black Student Union at George Washington University was also supporting some rent strikes. SNCC was supporting rent strikes across the city. That’s interesting, I think, that people are coming out of civil rights organizing and really seeing housing as an essential piece of the civil rights agenda.
…people are coming out of civil rights organizing and really seeing housing as an essential piece of the civil rights agenda.
The exciting thing about the rent strikes too is that by 1970 there was a court decision… known as Javins. It was the decision that if you’re paying rent, that implies “a warrant of habitability.” This lease that you have is a contract, which says that because you have this rental lease and you’re paying rent… the place you live in must be habitable. That was not the law before that decision. When that law was passed in 1970, that made a big difference. Going on rent strike was a much more feasible option for people because their contract had been violated. Their housing was not habitable and therefore they didn’t have to pay rent.
You’ve mentioned that SNCC was involved in the organizing. Were there other forms of tenant organizing? Was some of it organic? Did we see tenant councils? Did it start to take various forms, or did it sort of peak with the Howard SNCC organization of tenants?
That’s an interesting question. What I’ve seen at this point is that in the 1960s, it appears that the rent strikes were mostly a building-by-building strike. The one exception to that was a city-wide tenants union that was formed of public housing residents. They were also organizing and going on rent strike at a larger scale across multiple public housing properties. But in terms of privately-owned housing in the city, it seemed like it was mostly these individual buildings that would go on strike and maybe get their demands met and maybe not.
But then it appears that it’s really in the 1970’s where we start to see a different kind of organizing that’s more “organization-based.” Instead of just a particular building, it’s an organization that [does the work] at a larger scale. One group that I’m really interested in is the Adams Morgan Organization, which was founded in 1972. They were specifically focused on the neighborhood of Adams Morgan, of course. And they did a ton of different kinds of organizing in the neighborhood, [including] a lot of housing work and a lot of support of tenant organizing in a neighborhood-based kind of way.
There is also a group called the Citywide Housing Coalition, which was founded in 1974. …They were a group of labor activists, also kind of community activists, who came together to try to deal with the housing crisis in the early 1970s.
Then there was Washington Inner City Self-Help, which was founded in 1978. They were founded as a membership-based organization that low- and moderate-income people would belong to and they as members would set the agenda for the organization and they would learn to advocate for their own interests at the city level.
Something that I’ve heard you talk about before that I found fascinating was the way in which neighborhoods organized decades earlier to obtain these restrictive covenants in order to basically [fence off] swaths of the city or entire blocks to restrict them from Black people and to maintain their whiteness. So, it’s interesting to see the city come full circle and use organizing to kind of reclaim for the Black community, and I think eventually Hispanic communities to reclaim their space in the city.
Absolutely. The project Mapping Segregation D.C. is a really great project done by Prologue D.C [by] Mara Cherkasky and Sarah Shoenfeld… They do an incredible job, doing this really fine-grained research in terms of looking at these restrictive covenants and how this segregation was created through these different kinds of racial restrictive covenants. When you look at their maps, it’s just so clear that… the areas that Black people could live in were so incredibly restricted. And that, of course, also led to relatively high rents in those areas. African-Americans didn’t have a choice. They had so much less choice in terms of where to live that they were forced to pay these higher rents.
A direct manipulation of the market.
At what point do we move from just having guerrilla tactics to having laws on the books empowering tenants? Does that happen at all and what does it look like? Why does it happen?
As you know, D.C. has this bizarre political history and present. We had a locally elected government when the city was founded. It operated in different ways over the early years, but certainly by the Civil War and by the period after Reconstruction, we had an elected mayor, an elected city council that only white men could vote for.
After the Civil War, indentured Black men started to vote and they voted in very large numbers. So… the white city fathers got together after a few years of Black men being allowed to vote and said, “We can’t allow this to continue.” Basically, the white business leaders struck a deal with Congress—the city was also in debt at the time—they struck a deal with Congress that Congress would make a substantial payment to the city, and in exchange the city would give up its voting rights for everybody. And that was in 1874, and then it was made permanent in 1878.
But from 1874 [onward], there were no local voting rights for mayor or city council, or anything actually, for decades. So, the history of our lack of voting is deeply rooted in racism. Many civil rights activists moved to D.C. in the 1960s—because it’s the national capital and they were working at a national scale—and realized that we might have just gotten the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, but it didn’t apply in Washington because nobody could vote at all.
So, there was this push. And “D.C. voting rights” is a real civil rights issue, so there was some very creative organizing done to get home rule. Michael K. Fauntroy, he’s a political science professor at Howard, has written a book all about it. It’s called Home Rule or House Rule? and it’s about the history of Home Rule in D.C. Really great. I’d recommend it.
The first elections we had after Home Rule was put in place were in 1974. It’s a very neat span of a hundred years that we didn’t have that kind of self-governance. We regained it in 1974, and the people who were elected, many of them had been SNCC workers or civil rights organizers. This is a long way of answering your question. They were very interested in the economic dimensions of civil rights and thinking in terms of D.C. really being a human rights city and thinking about what people needed to live, to survive.
They took office in 1975, and some of the first legislation they passed had to do with housing. Because it was at this exact time in the mid-1970s that we were seeing this new wave of gentrification; what people were calling Georgetownization but were soon recognizing it’s this [wider] thing that is happening in cities around the country… this thing called gentrification. There had been waves of evictions and people were really terrified, and the city rents had been going up. So, the city council passed rent control. And they also passed—at various times—moratoria on converting buildings to condominium or to market-rate co-op because that would result in the wholesale eviction of the renters.
They were very interested in the economic dimensions of civil rights and thinking in terms of D.C. really being a human rights city and thinking about what people needed to live, to survive.
One of the things they also did was pass something called the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA),” which was part of a larger bill on renter’s rights. This gave tenants the right to purchase their buildings if their landlords put them up for sale. That is a law that tenants continue to use today. It’s a real challenge because you are paying essentially the market rate price for the building. But many tenants’ associations have used that right ever since 1979 to buy the buildings and turn them into limited equity co-ops, which is what I wrote my book about.
A limited equity co-op is a way to provide affordable long-term home ownership; collective home ownership. People… buy a share for very low amounts and then their monthly payments are very low. And then when they go to sell their share, they can only get a very minor appreciation on the original price that they paid for the share. So, that’s the sense in which it is limited equity. That enables it to continue to be affordable for the next household, the next family who moves in.
Vanessa here again. By now, you’ve heard both Amanda the historian and Amanda the lawyer mention TOPA, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. As you might suspect, this law has come up in the tenant strikes that Rob has organized in the Nicholson and Irving Street buildings. Here is Rob again.
… The company that got a contract to buy the building at Nicholson Street is a very well-capitalized developer that has a practice in buying buildings, inducing all the tenants to leave usually by offering them money, and then flipping the building into luxury [buildings]. They buy up naturally affordable rent-controlled apartment buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods and “add value”. So, they were coming in very hard, offering [tenants money] to move out. Their offer was $30,000 but everybody has to take it. So, you could only take the money if everybody agrees to move out.
Then there was a large group of people in the building who were totally uninterested in that, who wanted to remain. They like the neighborhood. They just wanted the quality of the housing to improve. [The] tenants went through the TOPA process. Under TOPA you have a tenant association, the tenant association has leadership, the leadership of the tenant association will meet with different developers, get a lawyer, negotiate and then ultimately facilitate an election about who is going to buy.
There had been a very unified group. The tenants had been extremely unified in fighting the landlord. But the election was very polarized. People have different interests. For some people, it absolutely made sense to stay in the building. There was one woman who was like, “I just sent in a bunch of paperwork to get my Green Card and I need to remain at this address.” Personally, I don’t know anything about immigration law, so I don’t know if this is true, but she was just like “it’s important that I live in this unit for legal reasons because I’m under scrutiny right now.”
Other people were trying to buy a house and really wanted the $30,000. That would have been legitimately helpful to them in that moment. Tenants do have divergent interests and you have to have a process where you do things democratically. The process was conducted very cleanly and with a lot of equanimity on all sides. But also, people were very passionate about advocating for the side that they wanted to win.
In the end, there was a very close vote where the contract purchasers, the company that originally was going to buy the building and signed the contract with the owner, lost narrowly. And so, a different developer who was going to let tenants remain in the building ended up winning the vote. And now, hopefully we’ll move forward. Sometimes it does get tied up in legal challenges and stuff. We’ll see what happens, but it seems like it’s a done deal now.
The company that won the vote is still offering buyouts. That’s a very normal practice in D.C. when a developer buys a building. They will offer tenants money so they leave and the units they’re in can be brought up to market rate. And that’s what’s going to happen in this building. People are going to have the option to stay, but over time there’s going to be a slow conversion to market-rate housing.
Which is not the worst option, but at the end of the day, we’ll still be losing affordable units.
Correct. As an organization, we have a position that we want to reform the rent control law to make it harder to have these agreements where rents can go to market rate once a current tenant moves out. But you have to operate in the regulatory framework we’re in, and the developer was able to offer a significant renovation of the building on a pretty quick timeline. That was the most appealing offer to people who didn’t want to move out.
That building has really gone through a lot in the last year. And now, it should change hands and get a renovation. That feels like a significant victory. And in the meantime, people went through trials over the rent that they withheld. They’re making settlements. I’m not allowed to discuss the specific contents of the settlements, but I think [the tenants] feel good about them.
What about the Irving Street building?
Obviously, if the landlord sells, the tenants are interested in exercising their right to purchase and trying to find a way to stay in the building. Lots of…I wouldn’t say lots of, but some non-profit developers have expressed interest in buying but just can’t get to a price with the current owner.
There could, again, be a TOPA here if the landlord decides he wants to sell. It’s a problem for the tenants if the sale price ends up being extremely high. It makes it harder for them to find someone who would want to buy the building and keep them there. And the higher the price gets, the more difficult it is for a non-profit to come in and buy the building and get the contract assigned away from the original buy[er] to them.
Let’s move away from building-level organizations. The way I understand it, rent strikes seem aimed at improving building conditions and finding creative ways to keep tenants in their home. But how do we actually attack the rising rents and how do we slow down the flipping of affordable units into market rate units?
We can attack the problem on a policy level from a few different angles. One is reforming rent control. D.C. has a rent stabilization program, but it doesn’t cover all the rentals in the city. Even when it does protect units, it has these loopholes where either through an agreement with the tenants or a petition to the city government, landlords can relax rent control and do much higher raises than they would normally get. It’s possibly even under the rent control programs to raise rent by $1,000 in one year. And that has been a major way that affordable housing gets lost.
D.C.’s rent control loss is higher this year. LEDC is part of a coalition of groups that is trying to get the laws to be reformed substantially and improved when they are renewed next year. That’s a strategy that we have sort of borrowed from a similar coalition in the State of New York, the Universal Rent Control Coalition. They attacked similar problems that existed in New York State’s rent control and were successful this year. Rent control was renewed in New York with a dramatic expansion so it will cover more tenants and it is going to be hard to get out of. And we’re hoping to achieve similar things here in D.C.
So, reforming rent control is one thing. Another thing is that we need to take housing code enforcement much more seriously. Affordable housing is just physically decaying in many cases. And that makes it much more appealing for tenants to take money to move out, etc. It just makes it harder to organize tenants to preserve housing when it’s falling apart and is really horrible to continue to live in.
There are a few ideas around that ranging from increasing fines to changing how the agency works, giving tenants more private right of action. There’s this woman that I know who has an idea that I like a lot, which is creating a moratorium on rent process where tenants could petition the court proactively and make a case that the landlord should just lose their right to collect rent until improvements to the building are made.
Now, I’m not a wonk, per se, but I think that seems like a really interesting idea to actually attack the fundamental economics of landlord neglect. Now, would things like that on their own lower the cost of housing? I’m not sure. I personally am sort of sympathetic to YIMBY-ism and the idea that we just need to build more to meet demand. D.C. is growing a lot and the housing stock hasn’t as much.
Now, for the people with the most need, the market is going to do that. So, on one hand, we need to be putting a lot more resources into constructing non-profit housing, housing that’s not designed to generate a profit to meet the needs of the poor, even large sections of the working class. And then on the other hand, I’m sympathetic to the idea of just building more in general.
There is a lot we could do on the policy end of things. And then I think also, we need to build the capacity of ordinary tenants that contest on a building-by-building level the loss of affordable housing. Affordable housing doesn’t just magically disappear. It is taken over and has rent jacked up. It is turned over deliberately by the actions of property owners. Tenants need to have the proper tools to defend their rights and prevent them being displaced and keep their rent low, use all of the regulatory tools they have at their disposal and also to do things like rent strike and protest and resist eviction.
To that end, LEDC is trying to build a city-wide tenant union in D.C. We’re inspired by efforts to do that in a few other cities, notably Los Angeles. We’re interested in working with tenant associations and lots of different things and then organizing tenants to build an umbrella organization, a city-wide union that can provide material support and training to tenants who are fighting where they live. So, I think we come at the problem from many different angles.
There’s been a renewed wave of tenant organizing in the District of Columbia. [Amanda Korber], are you seeing the impact of those efforts in court?
We are very lucky in the District that we have a handful of different groups that do amazing tenant organizing work. I’ve seen the impact of that work very directly in the sense that if a building in the District is having a rent strike, an organizer can know to pick up the phone and call us if and when those tenants get sued so we can represent them and make sure that the result of their rent strike isn’t that they’re evicted for not paying their rent. That has been an amazing and powerful collaboration between us and organizers, but most importantly, the tenants who show up and fight in court and let judges know and see the conditions that they’ve been living in.
And of course, tenants will continue to do the work. They are the most important people in the fight.
…I do think more and more we are seeing tenants come to court knowing what their rights are. Of course, that’s starting from a place where barely any tenants come in knowing what their rights are. So, to say we see the impact means that we’re seeing it more often. But there is always more work to be done. We need to keep doing more work and organizers need to keep doing more work. And of course, tenants will continue to do the work. They are the most important people in the fight.
I asked historian Amanda Huron what she thought it would take to keep tenants in the city, what absolutely had to change. Here she is, followed by attorney Amanda Korber answering the same question.
I do think that we need a much stronger rent control… Because rent control covers thousands of units in the city… And there is organizing going on right now to try to really create a much stronger rent control for the city. We have rent control, it’s just filled, it’s riddled with loopholes. And it could be made to be a lot stronger. So, that’s one thing that would affect thousands of households.
I also think we’ve got to defend our public housing. Public housing is under a real threat right now because the city said we just cannot afford to make the really necessary repairs that many, many, many of our public housing units need. The mayor introduced her plan last week to essentially privatize big chunks of public housing in the city. Public housing houses people who are very low income, so we need to defend that.
I am excited about the existence and ongoing potential of limited equity co-ops too. We have about 4,000 limited equity co-op units in the city right now. It’s not that many. This taskforce would like to see that number double in five years. None of this stuff will happen unless we have strong political will. We have to demand that it happen. And we’re a rich city. There’s money there. It’s just how is it being spent; you know? I really do think it’s just about political will. It’s about organizing and making it absolutely necessary that we do this work to keep people in the city.
In my opinion, there are two main places that we really need to use our power to push our elected officials to make meaningful differences. For folks living in deep intergenerational poverty who either have very low or no income, what they need is subsidized housing. They need public housing. They need housing vouchers. They need help. They need a government program where the rent that they pay will be based on their income.
We have a city council that puts some money into those programs each year, but not nearly enough. We have a waitlist of 40,000 people waiting for subsidized housing. And that waitlist is closed and has been closed since 2013. And that is still the number of people on it. We have a desperate need for money from the government to subsidize folks’ housing.
But what we also need is housing on the private market that is actually affordable. We were talking about working class families… they just can’t pay $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. And I think that’s where rent control really comes in. Making sure that our city’s rent control stream is working and that landlords aren’t using loopholes to take their rent-controlled units to market rate. Because when that happens, and it happens often, it might as well not be rent-controlled anymore. If you have a rent-controlled apartment in Woodley Park that is $2,500 a month, who is that helping? I shouldn’t be so flip. It’s still important that it is rent controlled because it still controls how much the landlord can go up each year on rent. But it’s not helping people who I think we think of rent control helping, which is folks who need to afford a reasonably priced two or three-bedroom apartment in the District for them and their family so they can continue living and working here.
…the more people who join the fight, obviously, the more likely it is to actually work.
I think those are the two areas we really need to push as a city. And I think the hopeful part of all of this is that I think we are, and I think that slowly but surely, we’re making progress. But the more people who join the fight, obviously, the more likely it is to actually work.
I couldn’t have said it better. Amanda, Rob, Amanda, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us today. Listeners, I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode and that you feel empowered to go forth and organize your building, your friends, your neighbors. Or that at the very least, you feel a little more hopeful about our collective ability to reclaim our towns from developer hell.