Organizing with A Newsletter: Richman Towers

Organizing with A Newsletter: Richman Towers

In this post, an SOS organizer reflects on a quick device to get in touch with tenants: a rapid-turnover newsletter in English and Spanish.

In early April we got connected with tenants at Richman Towers, a 57-unit building at the corner of 16th St. and Irving St. NW. The large majority of the building consists of working-class Central American immigrants, with a few immigrants from other places and a small scattering of white professionals. Most of the tenants seem to have lost jobs because of the pandemic (except those who work construction), and large numbers are undocumented and therefore have not received unemployment or stimulus payments. Several tenants have become sick with COVID-19 and at least one has died. Richman Towers is a rent-controlled building that was just purchased by its current owners, the Van Metre Companies, seven years ago, when the company was buying up a bunch of large rent-controlled buildings along this stretch of 16th St.

We started organizing by identifying a tenant leader who distributed DCTU flyers in the building in order to find others interested in organizing. Two strong leaders quickly emerged, and within days one of them had put together a list of 40 tenants (names, unit numbers, and phone numbers) who wanted to organize to try to cancel rent. She created a WhatsApp group for them all to communicate, and we then started trying to pressure Van Metre to cancel the rent first through letters, then a community call-in day to the Van Metre offices, and next a demonstration outside the building. In the meantime, we were able to connect tenants to desperately needed food, which to date has been distributed to them by Ward 1 Mutual Aid, the Columbia Heights Village Tenants Association, and a Mt. Pleasant group working in conjunction with World Central Kitchen. 

On June 2, Van Metre sent a confusing “payment plan application” to tenants, and we realized we needed to communicate about it quickly with all the tenants–not just the ones on the WhatsApp group.We’d discussed creating a newsletter anyway, but this pushed us to work quickly; we were able to distribute it to all apartments the very next day. The time constraints forced us to use Google Translate to create the Spanish version. One of the tenant leaders thought the Spanish was fine, so we just went with that. If we had more time we’d definitely want an actual bilingual human to translate it!

The purpose of the newsletter was to a) give all tenants an update on the organizing to date (especially since the tenants had just elected a leadership team, and we needed to communicate that to all); b) make clear how the tenant leadership group thought tenants should respond to the Van Metre payment plan offer; c) let tenants know their rights and how to connect to the organizing and food distribution in the building; and d) create a written record of organizing in the building. In the five days since the newsletter was distributed, three new tenants have reached out to the tenant leader in response: this represents about 20% of the tenants in the building who had not previously been connected to organizing efforts. Beyond that, it’s difficult to know at this point the effect the newsletter may have in terms of educating tenants about what’s going on in the building, and encouraging them not to apply for individual payment plans. 

But in general, distributing paper newsletters seems like a good organizing tactic, to make sure folks know what the hell is going on and how they can plug in, regardless of their access to phones or the Internet (though of course newsletters assume literacy — a very important caveat). In retrospect we probably should have talked more about DCTU’s work specifically, but this is probably just the first of many newsletters to come. And it seemed important to keep the newsletter to one page, so we only included what seemed like the most pertinent stuff. Photos are important too! Probably should have included a caption here — oh well, next time.