“People are More Militant Than We Imagine”: Interview with Mariel Mendez

“People are More Militant Than We Imagine”: Interview with Mariel Mendez

One of our most far-reaching campaigns, 3435 Holmead Pl. has been covered extensively by citywide media. Local politicians have appeared at rallies, and some residents have been on rent strike for months. In this interview, Stomp Out Slumlords organizer Mariel Mendez reflects on the challenges, losses, and opportunities of organizing at Holmead since the pandemic.

Stomp Out Slumlords: Tell us about your building.

Mariel Mendez: The building I’m helping organize is 3435 Holmead Pl. It’s a building that’s been on rent strike since December 2019. It has 101 units and is located in the heart of Columbia Heights, which is a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying and has seen a lot of changes over the years with Hispanic and Black tenants moving out and wealthier and whiter people coming in.

The building is owned by UIP (Urban Investment Partners). They are a slumlord whose business model we know—neglecting rent-controlled buildings with working class people, so tenants get frustrated and move out, then turning the building into market rate housing. We first heard about what was going on when two tenants there who are now leaders in the tenants association at the building came to the town hall meeting to launch the citywide DC Tenants Union in July 2019. They wanted support organizing in their building because of the despicable living conditions—they told us about a lot of housing code violations, from mouse and cockroach infestations to mold to units without functioning heat and cooling systems. They also told us that they felt disrespected by management in the way they interacted with them. 

So we started organizing and had the first building-wide meeting in mid-September, had an action at the slumlord’s headquarters mid-October, and launched the building-wide rent strike in December with more than a dozen rent strikers. Now, we know of more than 40 people not paying rent. 

In the beginning of the organizing, we would do most of the calls and tenants would do in-person outreach themselves by door-knocking with us or convincing their neighbors to be on rent strike through their own networking. But due to COVID and the campaign being further along, the organizing mostly comes from a committee of tenant leaders who do the phone calls and outreach themselves from the master tenant list we’ve compiled, and then we check in with those leaders. 

SOS: How badly are tenants affected by COVID?

MM: This pandemic has caused a lot of tragedy in the building. We know of at least one person who died. He was well-known in the building. He left behind his wife and two daughters. When we would knock on his door, his daughter would say “the tenants union is here!” It’s really tragic and hard to process. And tenants have told us they think other people in the building have been  hospitalized for COVID-19. Tenants also tell us that they find it unacceptable and infuriating that the landlord has not done anything to address the COVID-19 cases.

The situation is dire. A few months ago, we started calling tenants asking if they had food and what their job situations were like, and some people had jobs. But now we’ve learned that most people have lost their jobs. A lot of folks in the building work or worked in the restaurant and hotel industries. I think there are six members of UNITE HERE Local 25 (the DC-area hotel workers’ union). Of the people we’ve talked to, only two people had work.

I think what’s happening to the residents of this building is what’s happening to a lot of Black and brown working-class people across this country. It’s honestly been difficult for me to process that—just the level of despair this is causing people. What’s making me push through is seeing that people still feel ready to fight—some people do. I have seen more militancy from people and readiness to demand what we need to survive. But to answer your question, the virus has hit the people living in this building very hard. 

SOS: You mentioned the bad conditions in the building, and that was the main focus of the rent strike. How have those demands changed since then?

MM: The demand to have better living conditions is still relevant to tenants because they have to endure quarantine under slum living conditions. One tenant says she hears mice all day, running around everywhere, and was attacked by a mouse flying across the room. Life is really hard for people right now. 

With the pandemic, tenants are now fighting for rent cancellation during the state of emergency and more serious cleaning measures from the landlord due to the fact that people have gotten sick in the building. In April, we sent a letter to UIP saying that tenants were choosing food and survival over rent and demanding that UIP cancel rent for the duration of the state of emergency. Tenant leaders worked hard to have 42 tenants sign that letter and we forwarded it to Councilwoman Nadeau for her to exert pressure on her end. Now, tenants are organizing to demand that UIP clean the building and make it more hygienic. They also had a rally for the Reclaim Rent Control campaign in their building in late-February. A tenant leader spoke at that rally in support of the platform and when we did outreach for the rally, almost everyone we talked to agreed that we need stronger and more aggressive rent control laws. 

SOS: Tell us more about the letter that was sent and other actions that the tenants are doing.

MM: We drafted the letter after realizing that most people had lost their jobs and needed support in getting food and other necessities. To get people to sign on and go on rent strike, the tenant leaders reached out to their neighbors on their floor by calling them. They told us they found it less difficult to convince people to sign on to the letter and go on rent strike this time around because people literally don’t have money to pay rent. 

The April letter showed that almost half the building is on rent strike, but UIP still has not come to the table. Tenants are continuing to stay connected and have been able to assure everyone that no one can get evicted right now or have their utilities turned off after pressure from the DC Tenants Union on the city council. The tenant leaders and the SOS organizers have also been able to connect tenants to resources, like grocery deliveries and other mutual aid network help. We also had to regroup with the rent strikers and figure out how we would work out legal matters during this pandemic—since they have Landlord-Tenant court cases and protective orders. But like I said, most people don’t have money for rent so there was not much to figure out. This is the reality right now. Lately, tenant leaders have been checking in on their neighbors and are organizing to escalate the fight for rent cancellation and more cleaning in the building. The tenants I’ve talked to agree that we need to update our demand for rent cancellation and ask that UIP cancel rent for the duration of the state of emergency plus an additional two months. 

We’ve also been trying to continue to connect the struggle at Holmead Pl. to the larger tenant movement in the city. A couple of tenant leaders have joined DC Tenants Union calls and supported the rent strikers at Southern Towers in Virginia. They share that seeing other tenants fighting like them has motivated them to keep going. We also took inspiration from the LA Tenants Union in drafting the April letter, and we are planning to fly more DCTU-made banners in the building soon. The most important things, though, are that a lot of tenants are withholding their rent and everyone is staying connected and feels supported. 

SOS: Are you zooming with people, are you making calls, are you knocking on doors? How are you actually organizing?

MM: For the most part, it’s been phone calls. We made a WhatsApp group some time ago with the initial group of rent strikers and folks have been adding more tenants and sending reminders through there and checking in with each other. We’re going to try Zoom later this week because we want the tenant leaders to see each other and feel as if they’re in the same room again maybe. But the organizing is mainly through the phone calls that tenant leaders make to their neighbors on their floor or floor above them. 

It goes without saying that the virus is very serious and should be taken seriously. So we, the SOS organizers, are trying to abstain from going outside at all and have only stopped by the building a few times to safely drop off or pick up some things. Tenant leaders also feel afraid to leave their homes and knock on doors. But the phone calls they’ve been making have been really successful because I think it’s easier to join the rent strike when you don’t have money for rent and because there are pre-existing social networks that allow leaders to reach and convince people they already know. We’ve also been able to form an expansive contact list for the building after identifying what units we hadn’t reached yet and asking tenants leaders if they themselves knew who lived there or could find out from their neighbors. 

SOS: Do you think this contact list reflects a pre-existing community in the building or is this the result of the organizing you’ve done over the last 6 months?

MM: People in the building knew each other well and had a lot of connections before we went in and started helping organize. A lot of the folks there are long-time residents—which explains why UIP is so aggressive in wanting to displace them—and have naturally formed relationships with their neighbors throughout the years. But I have seen tenants both grow a lot closer through the organizing they’re doing together and have disagreements with each other or perhaps rehash some old beef. It’s complicated. 

SOS: Could you talk about your team and how, for example, your language abilities have had an effect on organizing in this building? 

MM: There are four core SOS organizers, but I should note that we’ve received a lot of support within SOS and from the community throughout this fight. Three of us are college students with some experience organizing workers on campus, and a “veteran” SOS organizer has been advising us throughout the whole thing. Honestly, in the beginning the three of us were pretty green when it comes to organizing, but our mentality was that we would present tenants options to fight and simply run with what they wanted to do. We’ve grown a lot since then because it took actually talking to people through one-on-ones and organizing alongside them to know how to lead this type of campaign. 

In terms of language abilities, it’s been helpful that we’re all fluent Spanish speakers and that for three of us Spanish was our first language, because the building is majority Spanish-speaking. I think a lot of tenants are Central American—there are a couple of Black folks living there and even less white people.

We decided early on we would need to do simultaneous interpretation for meetings, especially since we were really aggressive about outreach in the beginning and had high turnout (before getting a little more burnt out as the campaign has continued). We figured if we did consecutive interpretation, meetings would last more than four hours. But we tried to make sure everyone was conscious about how fast they spoke and whether they were interrupting anyone because we wanted everyone at meetings to understand what was happening whether they spoke the language most people spoke or not. It’s less difficult to hold meetings with three organizers and we’ve supported each other in doing that, but going forward I think we want to get to a place where the leaders of the tenants association lead meetings themselves and set the agenda for what needs to happen in the campaign.

SOS: How would you describe the landlord’s response especially in the last couple months?

Well, their response has been that of the typical slumlord. In fact, I think for the first letter they sent out to tenants, they used the template that AOBA, the Apartment and Office Building Association, was telling landlords to use.

What’s interesting, though, is that in the beginning of the organizing, they were dismissive, rude, and tried to make tenants feel small, just like any boss does. They would also illegally tear down tenants’ signs, they tried to kick me out of the building once, and told lies about evictions and tenant laws. But now, although they are still aggressively trying to undermine the organizing efforts, they’ve dramatically changed the way they engage and interact with tenants. Whereas before they were extremely disrespectful, now when they send letters out regarding the pandemic and what rent will look like, they talk about tenants and UIP being part of a community, having similar interests, and everybody deserving to live comfortably. But back in February, UIP was quoted saying something to the effect of this fight being “more about drama” than anything else, and they’ve tried to paint rent strikers as oddball, fiery Latinos who just want to pick a fight. So it’s interesting to me that now they’re talking about everyone deserving a good place to live and how they’re open to having a dialogue and rent payment plans that are beneficial to everyone. 

Their rhetoric has certainly changed and tenants say they don’t feel as disrespected anymore, but the fight continues because they haven’t adhered to the demands. They’re still expecting people to pay a minimum of $200 to install an A/C that tenants bought themselves and could only have for a few months, they refuse to negotiate with tenants collectively so that they don’t have to pay for rent during a literal global pandemic that’s ravaging the world, and they have not responded at all to the news of COVID-19 cases in the building. At the end of the day, they are still a slumlord, exploitative, and awful.

SOS: More generally, how has this whole pandemic experience changed your understanding of organizing or what you think the potential for organizing is?

MM: In the beginning I was super pessimistic about the world and the future. I had seen a tweet that I think was asking for pitches for an article about “the revolutionary potential of this moment.” And I remember thinking, “What the fuck are people talking about?” People are dying en masse and we can’t even meet in groups. I also grew up working class, and I thought that if I were growing up right now, I would feel debilitated and defeated. But in helping support this building organizing, I’ve found that a lot of people are ready to fight despite how awful the world seems. The tenants at Holmead Pl and honestly across the city that the DCTU is helping organize have given me hope after seeing how hard they’re fighting for what we all deserve and need to survive. 

People are simultaneously grieving and struggling and fighting. At first, I thought only the first two were possible, but the many tenant struggles starting across the city and the fact that the one at Holmead is rapidly escalating have proven me wrong. I think people are more militant than we imagine, and maybe it takes being more intentional about building up people’s leadership so they are capable of getting to that place. 

Although I am hopeful and organizing is inspiring, this is also a global pandemic. Other SOS organizers have helped me realize that being too ambitious in our goals will not result in campaign wins and will only cause us more stress and take a toll on our mental health. I think this pandemic has brought out more militancy from tenants and working-class people, and it’s reminded me that I need to care for myself too, especially during hard times.