Pressure from All Sides: Maple Grove Apartments
In this update, an SOS organizer reflects on the success of a multilateral approach that combines organizing around basic needs with a targeted pressure campaign that threatens the landlord’s reputation. Identifying details in this piece have been changed due to ongoing negotiations.
We started working with the tenants at Maple Grove in early April after some tenants called our hotline number. They had seen one of our organizers go on local Spanish TV to talk about people’s problems paying rent. The building is in Columbia Heights and home to mostly working class, Spanish-speaking tenants. It’s managed by Legacy Properties, whose business model (at least in this building) seems to be partially predicated on displacement of long-term, lower-income residents via disrepair, renovating units as vacancies arise to target higher income tenants.
From the beginning, tenant concerns have been focused on both rent and improving the conditions in the building. Many tenants are not working now, and paying rent was a stretch for a lot of people even before COVID. The issues in the buildings have long been ignored by management–tenants have dealt with mold, infestations, losing heat in the winter, broken appliances, etc. The on-site property manager has alternated between ignoring tenants and treating them with disdain, consistently dismissing their concerns about upkeep of the building. COVID worsened these conditions, as the lack of cleaning of commons spaces became a more immediate threat.
A lot has happened over the last couple of months, culminating in our first negotiating conversation with Legacy and some early wins around repairs and management. We are excited about the precedent this sets: a rent strike leading to a collective bargaining process with the owner, rather than the typical resolution through state intervention or court proceedings. The success so far is a reflection of the strong leadership in the building and the level of agitation amongst tenants, who both cannot pay rent and have long-dealt with conditions issues and mistreatment. Much of the organizing has been led by a group of tenant leaders who have been critical in reaching other tenants, helping to keep momentum alive, and handling conflict as it comes up.
We started by circulating a petition asking Legacy to cancel rent and flyering the building, ultimately reaching 35 apartments, and creating a very active WhatsApp group. The majority of tenants in this group have withheld their rent since April, by choice or because they don’t have the money to pay. It’s worth noting that even those who do not have money for rent are making an active choice to support the rent strike; tenants decide to pay for food not rent, to not get a payday loan or borrow money from a relative, and to not sign an individual payment plan. The rent strike has been led by the tenants, who have consistently made phone calls and knocked doors to tell people to withhold rent and to not sign individual payment plans–stressing the importance of staying unified until we can reach a collective agreement with the owner.
Since April, tenant leaders have also coordinated cleaning shifts of common areas and meal distributions, in partnership with local churches, non-profits, and mutual aid groups. This has been very positive for morale and community-building, and strengthened tenant leadership in the building. Tenants have stepped up to organize the food distributions, communicating with each family in the group on an almost daily basis. This constant communication and follow-through has helped build trust between tenant leaders and the rest of the group, and made coordination easier for organizing around rent cancellation.
Things escalated when a tenant passed away from COVID-19, and his family reported being threatened by eviction–deepening a sense of grief and fear in the building, and making the need to improve conditions even more immediate. We started hanging Cancel Rent banners from the windows, organized a phone zap, and put up social media posts targeting Legacy. This resulted in some media coverage in Spanish-language news and a visit from a representative of the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs. Legacy responded with intimidation, calling the police on the tenants and taking down flyers. The property manager even brought family members to the building to threaten one of the tenant leaders, which agitated tenants even further.
While our petition and the rent strike did not elicit an immediate response from management, the banners and media coverage seemed to be effective in bringing Legacy to the table. We finally received a call from Legacy, asking us to “tone down our inflammatory language” and sharing that they: 1) were not the owners, just the managers, and 2) that they were unaware of any conditions issues in the building. Legacy seems very concerned about maintaining their reputation as a “tenant-friendly” company and quickly wanted to “diffuse tensions” in the building. They agreed to a phone call with tenant leaders about repairs and to “begin a discussion about rent,” while trying to deflect responsibility and make it clear that this decision would be made by the real owner, who lives abroad. Our first discussion went well — Legacy agreed to make repairs, address the issues with the property manager and maintenance, to stop sending tenants letters about back-rent owed, and to facilitate a conversation about rent cancellation with the actual owner.
Legacy asked us to submit a written proposal around rent cancellation to use as the basis for our discussion with the landlord. We proposed rent cancellation for March, April, and May, and then a plan for repayment for the remaining months of the public health emergency, to be implemented once tenants begin working. For example, if tenants begin working in July, they could add a portion of June’s rent to the July payment, and pay the additional increase for a year, with anything left beyond the year forgiven. We argued that rent cancellation is also in the owners interest, for avoiding a large number of lengthy and costly eviction cases and ensuing vacancies, to bring an end to the rent strike, and to ensure greater financial viability for the long term. It’s also worth noting here that a new DC law requires landlords to offer payment plans for COVID-related rent-owed. The landlord has tried to use this new law to individualize the problem and de-organize tenants, so we’ve focused our language on collectively negotiating the terms of those payment plans.
As Legacy dragged their feet, we began planning ways to escalate and increase pressure on Legacy to continue the negotiations. Tenants reached out to their contacts at another Legacy building, where we have since begun another organizing campaign around rent cancellation and conditions. Last week, tenants held a very successful protest outside of their building– we had tenants from other buildings show up to support, were able to link the Maple Grove Cancel Rent protest with a concurrent Black Lives Matter protest, and marched around a polling site and the location of DC’s first rent strike. The protest also received more media coverage in Spanish Language news. In general, the huge show of support from the community was very helpful for building morale and re-energizing tenants.
At this point, we’re planning for our next meeting with Legacy and the owner’s representative about rent cancellation. The challenges now include maintaining cohesiveness and momentum, as the process feels lengthy and patience wears thin, and continuing to keep engagement of tenants beyond our core group of tenant leaders. We’ve also had trouble maintaining contact with non-Spanish speakers at the building and ensuring inclusion across language divides. Stress and anxiety among the tenants rises as the first of the month approaches, but tenants have been firm and united in continuing the rent strike through June.
Our experience at Maple Grove has been instructive for organizing during the time of COVID and for seeing what’s possible with a unified, militant tenant group. We’ve seen how strong tenant leadership and a solid tenant organization can bring a landlord to the bargaining table, and the importance of tenant organizing to both meet direct, immediate needs (food distribution) and to build unity for longer-term campaigns (rent cancellation). We’ve learned more about what tactics work with a self-described “friendly” company; for Legacy, the more public tactics that could tarnish their reputation have been especially effective. Legacy’s fear of confrontation is evident, as well as their strong desire to treat things as individual tenant issues rather than a collective problem. The tenants see this clearly. Until their demands are met through a collective process, the tenants are advocating for continued escalation and for maintaining the rent strike.