Building Tenant Power in a Crisis: Organizing at Walnut Grove Apartments

Building Tenant Power in a Crisis: Organizing at Walnut Grove Apartments

In this update, an SOS organizer shares their experience restarting organizing efforts during the pandemic. 

About a year and a half ago, organizing efforts kicked off at Walnut Grove around a few issues: building security, lack of communal space, and management being disrespectful to some tenants and not maintaining their apartments at the 209-unit, 2-building apartment complex off 14th Street.  While these initial efforts at organizing broke down, interest in collective action has picked up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  Tenants have been willing to join calls to demand rent cancelation and are also interested in pushing for a meaningful response to longstanding building issues like plumbing, mold, and pest control problems.

The first action we began work on at Walnut Grove was a petition campaign to demand a response to the problems tenants raised to us at our first meeting: lack of 24 hour security staff,  absence of any communal space, and building maintenance issues. It’s around this time we lost momentum and we never got around to circulating the petition. Things picked back up this spring with a campaign to inform neighbors about their rights under the DC’s emergency covid laws and how they can access mutual aid and other resources. We developed a  know-your-rights and covid resources flyer that we circulated along with flyers from the DC Tenants Union promoting their citywide cancel rent petition. We flyered the doors of every unit and inside common spaces, such as inside elevators.

Our covid flyer asked tenants to contact us if they wanted to get involved with organizing. One tenant spotted the flyer in the elevator, got in touch with us, and is now one of our most active organizers!

Both access to, and comfort using the internet, is inconsistent among tenants. So allowing tenants non-internet ways to connect with our organization has been important. We created a virtual phone number for the association and have gotten calls and texts over it. We also use one-on-one phone calls with tenants to read the petition to them and get their consent to sign it that way. If we expect tenants participating in a video conference call may not have have internet access, we try to use an account which has dial-in access. We still use the internet to reach other tenants, through our email list and a recently established Facebook group.

The demographic makeup of the building has affected organizing efforts.  The building is a mix of younger white gentrifiers, Spanish-speaking families, and mostly black older residents, some of whom have subsidized rent. Of course this is speaking in broad strokes and doesn’t fully capture the diversity of the building. The gentrifiers are more likely to have been insulated by the employment crisis brought on by the coronavirus, and therefore less willing to take any measures which could put them at risk of retaliation from management.  The most immediately impacted by the unemployment crisis are the immigrant working class tenants, who tend to be stronger supporters of canceling the rent.

Much of the Spanish-speaking community in the buildings is employed in the service industry.  While this group has been the most affected by the pandemic employment crisis, communicating across language barriers has proved challenging.  The organizing committee is need of bilingual tenants that are willing to be a part of the organizing group. We have one bilingual organizer and are looking to develop more.

Building management has responded to the campaign by taking down flyers and threated one organizer that they are violating their lease by posting signs on their unit’s door. We have not backed down and management hasn’t further pressed the issue. They actually conceded in a way by installing bulletin boards in the lobby, which is something residents never had before. 

It’s a challenge because of social distancing to make contact with tenants who we don’t yet know. We have mostly relied on the contact list we developed last year. Flyering got us a few names and is a good place for new tenant organizing projects to start, but holding an outdoor town hall meeting and canvassing outside the building for petition signatures got us many, many more. The truth is nothing can replace in-person communication. In-person organizing can be done with respect to social distancing by keeping things outdoors and asking everyone to wear masks. But it’s imperfect solution. One tenant told me they wished they could come to our outdoor meeting but are immunocompromised. We will continue to use the phone as the primary organizing medium but I encourage other organizers to see what they can do outdoors. 

We will continue pressing our demands that management cancel the rent and to respect all the tenants at Walnut Grove. But this is just the beginning. There’s a lot we want to change around here with maintenance and other issues with the complex, and building tenant power is how we will get what we want and deserve!