TEN­ANTS WIELD THE RENT STRIKE

Fac­ing ris­ing costs for poor hous­ing, an­gry res­i­dents de­cide to play hard­ball

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARISSA J. LANG

By the time nine res­i­dents of this Bright­wood Park apart­ment had de­cided to stop paying their rent, sev­eral of their neigh­bors had fled — from wa­ter that soaked through the first and sec­ond floors, fire that burned walls from the in­side out and a boiler pipe that tore through two apart­ments in an overnight explosion.

For those who re­mained, the dis­as­ters were a wake-up call: If con­di­tions did not change, their homes might be next.

Res­i­dents of the brick apart­ment build­ing at 5320 Eighth St. NW in the Wash­ing­ton neigh­bor­hood of Bright­wood Park said they have lived in un­healthy and un­safe con­di­tions for years.

On top of the wa­ter and fire dam­age, there were bed­bugs, rats and roaches, crum­bling struc­tures, mold, faulty elec­tric­ity, and un­re­li­able heat and hot wa­ter. Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer at the Chil­dren’s Law Cen­ter who is rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral for­mer ten­ants, said the prob­lems were among the worst she had seen.

In April, sev­eral res­i­dents gath­ered out­side the build­ing to an­nounce their in­tent to with­hold rent un­til changes were made. A rent strike was born. Of­ten viewed as a last re­sort by ten­ant-rights groups, rent strikes have in re­cent

years be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon in the Dis­trict and other gen­tri­fy­ing cities around the coun­try, in­clud­ing Cleve­land, Hous­ton, Los Angeles and San Fran­cisco. Ex­perts say the trend is a sign of ten­ant des­per­a­tion amid ris­ing hous­ing costs in ur­ban ar­eas — and an at­tempt to fight back.

“Ten­ants are be­com­ing more willing to or­ga­nize around the no­tion that they’re paying too much for too lit­tle and they could still lose their homes,” said Michelle Wilde An­der­son, a Stan­ford Law School pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in hous­ing is­sues. “That cre­ates a kind of fear­less­ness be­cause you have less to lose.”

The strike in Bright­wood Park is be­ing co­or­di­nated by the Latino Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, a D.C. or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for renters’ rights and of­ten helps or­ga­nize ten­ants as­so­ci­a­tions.

Though the group has his­tor­i­cally stayed away from fa­cil­i­tat­ing rent strikes, frus­tra­tion with the slow pace of le­gal bat­tles and rapidly ris­ing rents in the Dis­trict prompted or­ga­niz­ers to guide res­i­dents through the process of strik­ing.

In­stead of writ­ing monthly rent checks to the prop­erty owner, EADS LLC, the ten­ants now hand their rent to ten­ant or­ga­niz­ers, who help them stow the cash away in es­crow.

As of this week, nine ten­ants were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the strike.

Prop­erty man­ager Delores John­son said the build­ing has 26 oc­cu­pied units, though ad­vo­cates with LEDC said they think the num­ber is smaller.

If the strike is suc­cess­ful, the group may be­gin to de­ploy rent strikes more lib­er­ally in build­ings fac­ing sim­i­lar strug­gles, LEDC ten­ant or­ga­nizer Rob Wohl said.

It could take years to reach a con­clu­sion.

Rent strikes date to the Sec­ond In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and have seen spikes in pop­u­lar­ity over the past cen­tury and a half that tend to co­in­cide with “pe­ri­ods of ex­treme in­equal­ity,” An­der­son said.

“In the early 20th cen­tury, we not only had or­ga­nized strikes in in­dus­trial fac­to­ries, but they started show­ing up in apart­ment build­ings where peo­ple felt they were paying too much money for too lit­tle qual­ity,” she said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, cities like D.C. were re­ally, for quite a num­ber of years, sub­ject to dis­in­vest­ment. So the build­ings were de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and there was this ris­ing con­scious­ness of poverty and race . . . . That pe­riod saw this kind of ten­ant or­ga­niz­ing as well, as a means to draw at­ten­tion to hab­it­abil­ity and in­tense eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity.”

The present day, she said, seems to be set­tling into a sim­i­lar pat­tern.

“Even­tu­ally, [ten­ants] get pushed to the point where they’re willing to take some risks and do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” An­der­son said. “That’s when we start to see these strikes.”

Ar­eas fac­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion are the most likely to ex­pe­ri­ence such strikes, An­der­son added, be­cause their res­i­dents are keenly aware of the risk of be­ing dis­placed.

Such is the case in Los Angeles, where more than 90 ten­ants in a com­plex in the West­lake neigh­bor­hood are lead­ing what the L.A. Ten­ants Union has said is the big­gest rent strike in that city’s his­tory.

Res­i­dents are de­mand­ing im­prove­ments to the build­ings, which, ten­ant or­ga­nizer Trinidad Ruiz said, have been be­set with roaches, rats, bed­bugs, se­cu­rity prob­lems, mold, plumb­ing prob­lems in­clud­ing sewage leaks, and more. But ten­ants are also protest­ing rent in­creases, which, ac­cord­ing to the L.A. Ten­ants Union, have in­flated rents by about 30 per­cent since the start of 2017, forc­ing ten­ants to pay as much as 70 per­cent of their in­come for hous­ing.

“There is a des­per­a­tion in these sit­u­a­tions like in L.A., which is a huge, sprawl­ing city, but it’s see­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion on a city­wide scale. If these peo­ple get pushed out of their com­mu­nity, there isn’t a com­mu­nity in L.A. they can move to in­stead,” Ruiz said. “They’re stuck. They can’t move any­where else be­cause they can’t af­ford it. So, be­cause they have noth­ing to lose, they start to fight back. And be­cause they’re not left with many tools, they use what they have — their rent checks.”

One of the last high-pro­file rent strikes in the Dis­trict in­volved nearly 10 times as many ten­ants as the num­ber strik­ing in Bright­wood Park: 100 renters in the 672-unit Mar­bury Plaza in South­east Wash­ing­ton launched a rent strike in 2008 over poor build­ing con­di­tions that came to light after the deaths of a tod­dler and her mother in a 2005 laun­dry-room explosion.

After nearly two years of res­i­dents lock­ing their rent away in es­crow, the owner set­tled, ul­ti­mately agree­ing to $5 mil­lion in build­ing re­pairs.

“These kinds of or­ga­nized rent strikes are still ex­tremely rare,” said Wohl, who is spear­head­ing the Bright­wood Park ef­fort. “Usu­ally, what we see are mor­e­in­for­mal strikes where a ten­ant or a group of ten­ants will be fed up with con­di­tions and just stop paying their rent. It’s not usu­ally so co­or­di­nated.”

In cities with few ten­ant pro­tec­tions, land­lords can use the strike to push ten­ants out over non­pay­ment of rent.

That is why, An­der­son said, it is im­por­tant that renters go about strik­ing the “right way,” which in­cludes be­ing “scrupu­lous” about putting the ex­act amount owed monthly into an es­crow ac­count.

Since the strike be­gan in April, EADS has sued sev­eral of its ten­ants, who are largely Span­ish­s­peak­ing im­mi­grants, for not paying their rent.

John­son said the strik­ing ten­ants are trou­ble­mak­ers who have stirred up prob­lems in the build­ing be­fore, in­clud­ing invit­ing too many adults to live in their apart­ments, chang­ing the locks on their doors, fail­ing to buy ten­ants in­sur­ance and bar­ring main­te­nance work­ers or ex­ter­mi­na­tors from en­ter­ing their units for sched­uled work.

“This re­ally isn’t a rent strike,” John­son said. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”

She said EADS will ren­o­vate the build­ing’s hall­ways and 13 apart­ments in com­ing months as part of an ef­fort to re­pair dam­age from a boiler explosion in Jan­uary and a fire in De­cem­ber.

On Dec. 14, 2017, a blaze ig­nited in­side a wall be­tween two units on the top floor of the build­ing. The fire de­stroyed the homes of six fam­i­lies, all of which have left the build­ing.

To put out the flames, the fire de­part­ment cut into the wall and doused the build­ing. Wa­ter dam­age ren­dered six units un­in­hab­it­able.

Lawyers su­ing EADS on be­half of the for­mer ten­ants al­lege that years of ne­glect con­tributed to the fire that ten­ants say was sparked by “de­fec­tive wiring in the wall.”

EADS has de­nied their al­le­ga­tions.

The fam­i­lies that oc­cu­pied those units lived for weeks af­ter­ward in ho­tels typ­i­cally used as emer­gency shel­ters. Five have found per­ma­nent hous­ing with the help of the Dis­trict’s De­part­ment for Hous­ing Ser­vices.

One fam­ily — a hus­band, wife and one child — re­mains home­less, Zeisel said.

Reina Flo­res, 48, did not think the fire would af­fect her base­ment unit two floors down from where the blaze be­gan. Then, one day in De­cem­ber, she said, pieces of her ceil­ing col­lapsed on top of her youngest daugh­ter.

The child’s older sis­ter pulled her from un­der the de­bris, Flo­res said.

Weeks later, in the early hours of Jan. 1, the build­ing’s boiler burst. A wa­ter pipe erupted, tear­ing through Flo­res’s kitchen wall.

“It’s not safe here,” Flo­res said in Span­ish dur­ing a visit to her wrecked apart­ment in May. “Every­thing that came out of the wall was so hot. We’re lucky no one was here in the kitchen.”

John­son said EADS gave Flo­res and her chil­dren the op­tion to move into a va­cant unit in the same build­ing, an ac­com­mo­da­tion John­son said the own­ers ex­tended to any fam­i­lies af­fected. But Flo­res de­clined.

“I want to be happy here in my home,” said Flo­res, who is stay­ing at her older daugh­ter’s place nearby. “They need to change every­thing.”

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Javier Gri­jalva sur­veys stalled work in his apart­ment in Wash­ing­ton’s Bright­wood Park neigh­bor­hood in May. Hot pipes in the floor forced him to re­lo­cate in the build­ing. Some res­i­dents have stopped monthly pay­ments to protest dis­re­pair and ris­ing rents.

TOP: James Jaramillo, 4, seen in his fam­ily’s kitchen, picks up a crois­sant con­tainer with a sticky roach trap cling­ing to it. His mother, Dania Rivera, is an or­ga­nizer of a rent strike at their apart­ment build­ing in Wash­ing­ton’s Bright­wood Park neigh­bor­hood. LEFT: Rivera walks in a gloomy hall­way in the build­ing.

PHO­TOS BY SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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