#students | #parents | DC’s new tenants union wants to help renters stay in the city – Greater Greater Washington

The first meeting for the DC Tenants Union. Image by Latino Economic Development Center used with permission.

As the District continues to struggle with rising rent costs and a lack of affordable housing, a new tenants’ union wants to help low- and moderate-income renters keep a foothold in the city. It’s a coalition of 17 local housing groups, religious congregations, and more working with about 100 tenants from across the city.

Recent Census data shows that almost 60% of DC residents are renters, but some have difficulty getting timely redress for abusive and illegal behavior from landlords through existing avenues. The union wants to end practices that reward landlords for neglecting rental housing and advocate for other tenant-friendly policies.

The union’s first move is Reclaim Rent Control, a campaign it unveiled on October 2 to revamp and expand DC’s rent control law, which is set to expire in 2020. Currently, there are 80,000 rent control units in the District, and they make up about half of the overall rental apartment supply.

What is a tenant union?

Historically, unions were a vehicle for industrial workers to assert rights and ensure safety in the workplace. The United Mine Workers (UMWA), for example, were instrumental in making sure that mining companies helped cover the costs for miners who developed black lung.

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Today, the US is a service-based economy, but we still have unions. For example, graduate students at universities across the country are unionizing. Their unions help graduate student workers get health care and better pay.

Being a renter isn’t a job, of course, but renters do have something in common with workers: they don’t have full control over places where they spend a lot of their time. In this regard, a tenants union is similar to a workers’ union. It represents tenants’ interests to landlords and the municipalities that regulate them. This tenants union is technically more of a coalition. It wants to connect renters across buildings and across the city, and harnass that power to advocate for tenant-friendly policies.

In DC, renters may have different landlords, but they often have similar concerns. They want fair rents and predictable increases, repairs made in a timely manner, and safety in common spaces, for example. The Post reported that DC Tenants Union organizers say “having the ability to reach renters in all corners of the city will better equip the group to lobby council members.”

Why is DC getting a tenant union now?

Renting is not new in DC, nor are struggles between renters and their landlords. So why DC is getting a union now?

More people have been moving in, while little new housing is being built. A study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) shows that between 2000 and 2013, DC saw the most intense gentrification of any city in the US. In 2000, almost half of the city’s neighborhoods had conditions that were ripe for gentrification, and by 2013, 41% of them had gentrified.

Gentrification can lead to displacement when policies aren’t put in place to ensure that low-income residents can stay. In DC, restrictive zoning in wealthy swaths of the city pushed the pressures of growth into neighborhoods with more permissive zoning. The NCRC report found that during the study period, roughly 20,000 residents were displaced from the District.

Plus, there isn’t enough housing from being built in DC and the region as a whole, and there’s a dearth of deeply affordable homes in particular. This creates a precarious situation for low- and moderate-income renters who have managed to stay put. If the landlord decides to raise the rent, these tenants may have difficulty finding an affordable apartment to take its place.

Renters in buildings owned by Sanford Capital provide a good example of the desperation many low-income tenants face. In 2017 Washington City Paper described Sanford’s strategy as “allowing buildings to become so squalid that residents were forced to leave.” Sanford tenants told the paper they spent winters without heat, grappled with building-wide bedbug infestations, lived without working appliances, and saw sewage back up into their units. While many tenants gave up and left, others hung on because they have nowhere else to go.

After years of court battles, Sanford Capital promised in 2018 to relinquish its rental properties in the District. Up until that point, however, the company was busy trying to turn its low-income properties into high-end rentals by showing their low-income tenants the door.

However, it’s not just very low-income people who struggle to find decent housing in the city. In a recent thread on Popville, a reader wrote in for advice about how to deal with problems at his 16th Street apartment building, including human feces in the stairwells. He described the building as “a pestilential nightmare” and pronounced the landlords “slumlords of a truly spectacular caliber.” The writer wanted to know if the DC tenant advocate office could help.

Most readers responded with variations of “Move.” The letter writer never piped in to explain why he hadn’t moved, but a reader named Lindsay suggested the obvious—it’s a landlord’s market in DC. As she explained, “Not everyone is able to or can afford to move. The landlord has little incentive to fix this, even if the person moves. Someone else will just fill the unit.”

Current avenues for redress don’t always work (or work quickly enough)

So, what can tenants do when it’s a landlord’s market and some landlords are willing to resort to unethical and even illegal means to get their way? Tenants usually have two options: work through the city’s bureaucracy, or sue.

Both solutions are slow.

Again, Sanford Capital is a good example. The city’s problems with Sandford stretch back nearly a decade. Thousands of tenants have filed complaints against Sanford. Housing inspectors would come and issue citations, but they only got resolved when there was pressure from the city.

Plus, even when the city put on the pressure, the repairs were often cosmetic. Instead of patching a leak, they put up new drywall. For tenants trying to hang on in a city increasingly out of their reach, the wait was often too much to bear. While city officials were decrying Sanford’s slumlord ways, they were also relying on the company to provide low-income housing.

Sanford was one of the few landlords in the city who were willing to take housing vouchers from the city’s rapid rehousing program, which provides time-limited subsidies to families leaving homeless shelters. As Washington City Paper explained in 2017: “the city is simultaneously enriching and suing Sanford.”

DC’s Attorney General Karl Racine finally ended the city’s relationships with Sanford Capital, but that’s cold comfort to all of the folks who left the properties before 2018, or lived in squalor until then. Since the legal process takes years, not weeks to resolve, tenants can’t count on it for timely help.

What can a tenant’s union do in DC?

When you feel like it is just you (or your building) dealing with abuse, it can be easy to give up. Meeting other tenants in your situation allows you to join forces, as many renters did at the union’s launch in July.

The DC Tenants Union in particular aims to give tenants a bigger platform to address their issues. At the moment, that mostly means public advocacy. When there’s a news story about one building or one slumlord, some may assume the problem is a one-off issue. A union can push back in the press by showing multiple stories that illustrate patterns of abuse, and use them to create a collective voice for change.

The union could also advocate for tenant-friendly legislation. Whatever you think of rent control, efforts to protect and expand it are getting a boost because the union is magnifying the issue and making an argument for why it’s necessary using the stories of actual tenants. Skyrocketing rent feels more real when you put a name to someone affected.

The DC Tenants Union could also organize rent strikes in buildings where landlords aren’t making sufficient repairs to heating systems, dealing with rodent infestations, and the like. And, it can connect tenants to lawyers willing to represent their cause.

The rent control issue marks the first political test of the union’s power. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Carolyn Gallaher is a geographer and associate professor at American University.  Her research interests include gentrification in DC, the emergence of “ethnoburbs” in Maryland and Virginia, payday lending, and tenant empowerment.  Previously, she studied the militia movement in the US and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.  She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and son.


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