A New Organizing Drive Under COVID: Santa Maria Apartments
In this post, an SOS organizer reflects on the challenges of starting a new organizing drive under pandemic conditions. Identifying details have been changed.
This set of buildings is one of our new, post-pandemic organizing projects. The property is located in the predominantly working class immigrant neighborhood of Brightwood, one of the major “frontiers” of gentrification in DC. We’re facing not only the standard difficulties of getting a campaign up and running in a new building–assembling a contact list, developing tenant leadership, and generating buy-in from tenants–but also a much less familiar set of issues. How do we generate the rapport we need with leaders if we can’t do one-on-one conversations in person? How can we hold meetings if not everyone is comfortable with videochat? How can we pressure the landlord when confrontations happen at a distance?
Tenants in Santa Maria Apartments have suffered tremendously from the pandemic’s economic fallout, and they have enthusiastically embraced the demand for their landlord to cancel rent. Many of them are cab drivers and other low-wage workers; a majority of the tenants are now unemployed. Most of them speak only limited English and have trouble understanding their rights and the unemployment benefits available to them. At the same time, they belong to a close-knit Amharic-speaking community and people in the building tend to know and look out for each other.
These features of the building make organizing harder in certain ways and easier in others. The organizers working in the building don’t speak Amharic, although we work with bilingual tenant leaders. This creates an inevitable distance between us and the tenants, one exacerbated by pandemic conditions because of the lack of body language. Conference calls are particularly challenging: most of the tenants aren’t used to using the medium and struggle not to speak all at once without visual cues, and the uneven levels of English proficiency make it difficult for everyone to stay on the same page.
But because the huge majority of tenants are Ethiopian immigrants, they have a stronger shared identity than many of the tenants we work with and certain forms of practical solidarity come more naturally. Many residents have extended family in other apartments and are used to relying on neighbors to confront the various challenges of living in a foreign country. Our first contacts were able to sign up a majority of their neighbors quickly because they worked through pre-existing bonds of kinship, friendship, and mutual aid. (This also means they feel comfortable arguing, which means we often have to mediate to keep things on task.) Indeed, the tenants found us through the local Ethiopian rumor mill: a tenant from Santa Maria called us at the recommendation of a friend who’s on the organizing committee in a nearby building.
Of course there are difficulties within the group, despite strong social connections and sense of common interest. Most of the tenants have manual jobs as cab drivers, food service workers, cleaners, etc, while our first contact in the building and one of the preeminent leaders in the campaign has a higher-paid, higher-status administrative job at a school and is clearly more comfortable than her neighbors when it comes to communicating in English and navigating American institutions. This tenant is smart, motivated, energetic, and well connected, but she broadcasts a sense of superiority to her neighbors, speaking over them on calls, reprimanding them, and giving out orders. This has led to overt conflict in the organizing group, and it’s an issue we will need to confront if we want to keep the building organized in the coming months. Supporting a strong natural leader while also creating space for others can be challenging. Practically, we think that if the tenant organization can adopt more of a structure, more people will feel encouraged to step forward as leaders.
Unlike most apartment buildings we have experience organizing in, this one is owned by an individual landlord. It remains to be seen whether this will make organizing in the building easier or harder: individual landlords are more precarious and hence less willing to offer concessions, but they may also be more vulnerable to collective pressure.
More generally, what we’re learning at Santa Maria Apartments is that pre-existing community and economic desperation don’t, by themselves, mean that people can take radical collective action. Before we showed up, there were strong social networks in the building but it didn’t occur to most of the tenants that if they worked with their neighbors and made collective demands, they might be able to get more far-reaching concessions from their neighbors. Even as they have gotten organized, the tenants at Santa Maria have hesitated to take the more militant actions we see in other buildings. There are some vocal proponents of a rent strike, but most tenants are afraid of the possible consequences and want to try to work through legal and political channels, at least for the moment. Building trust, agitating, inoculating, and consciously developing leaders remain as essential for organizing in the age of COVID as they have been in any other era.