Power in a Union: DCTU Comes to Oak Hill

Power in a Union: DCTU Comes to Oak Hill

A group of tenants and organizers holding inflatable cockroaches

In this post, an SOS organizer argues for the importance of building horizontal connections across the city through a citywide tenant union.

There are no locks on the doors at Oak Hill. The eight-building complex in Ward 8 had locks at some point, but Sanford Capital never bothered to replace them. After Sanford Capital stopped paying their mortgage and fled DC, a new management company (UIP) was appointed by the bank to extract as much money from Oak Hill as possible. The bank refuses to authorize spending money on repairs, while UIP blames all problems—the lack of locks, the roach-filled apartments, the multiple murders in the parking lot—on tenants. 

If you’re reading this blog, I assume you have a basic familiarity with SOS’s strategy. Knowing that landlords only care about money, we help tenants go on rent strike in order to extract demands (typically repairs). The landlord either sues the tenants in court and is ordered to make repairs, or bargains with the tenants to make repairs in exchange for payments. 

Over the course of the last year, it’s become clear that Oak Hill’s unusual financial background made this model difficult to implement. The bank does not aim to make a profit so much as minimize the amount of money they are losing on the building. While many tenants at Oak Hill had not paid rent long before coronavirus hit, UIP was slow to sue or even respond. When tenants were sued, the court-ordered repairs were still not made, even if there were financial consequences. Other tenants were simply never bothered about rent, especially if a government subsidy helped pay a portion. In short, withholding rent has not motivated the landlord to meet tenant demands, even in the face of tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

While we encourage people to withhold rent (and are delighted to find out when people independently start doing so), in early 2020, tenants and organizers decided to focus on planning disruptive visits to UIP’s offices, the bank’s offices, and executive’s homes. Tenants seemed motivated by the idea of taking action instead of sitting around at a meeting, and we expected UIP to respond when inconvenienced.

Then the global pandemic hit. A planned rally with Councilmember White was cancelled, tenants lost income, and the city shut down. For the first month of the crisis (late March-early April), organizing was mostly focused on arranging groceries for tenants in the building who couldn’t afford food. One member of the tenant association board, Lois, stepped up and called tenants from all over the property. She acted as a switchboard, checking in with me nearly daily to send in requests for food, cleaning supplies, and legal advice. Lois was wildly successful at getting in touch with tenants; while tenants would pick up outside organizer’s calls maybe 25% of the time, Lois could get me onto a conference line with tenants to work out what was needed, almost guaranteed.

Even though no one at Oak Hill has been able to afford rent during the COVID-19 crisis, there was little enthusiasm for a letter demanding UIP cancel rent. Lois noted that people hadn’t seen improvements after other letters and petitions, and they had no reason to believe that this would be any different. She stressed that people on the property would be motivated by action and results, not more conversations about how awful UIP is. 

Our initial plans for a public shame and disruption campaign couldn’t easily happen during COVID-19, so Lois and another tenant spoke with tenants from DC Tenants Union (a mass membership organization of tenants organizing their buildings across the city, which SOS works closely with). They had had success with “phone zaps”, a mass of calls reiterating demands to landlords on one specific day. On June 1, tenants at Oak Hill and other members of the DCTU called Peter Bonnell of UIP and David Peterson of Colliers bank (both of whom helpfully listed their phone numbers online) to demand repairs at Oak Hill. The wave of complaints to corporate offices instead of lower-ranking property managers resulted in a regional manager being sent to the property to “evaluate the situation.” A DCTU-organized protest outside of Councilmember Trayon White’s house led to regular phone calls with a member of his staff. Phone calls with less-involved tenants can now focus on recapping what we’ve done so far, instead of pitching what we might be able to achieve.

Every tenant at Oak Hill knows they are being exploited, and nearly half of them stopped paying rent because of it, but that wasn’t enough to form an engaged and active group of leaders. People would get involved because of an emergency—an eviction lawsuit, a lost job, a shooting—and then fade away. The same was generally true for COVID: tenants are still concerned about where their next meal or phone payment is coming from, but it has not pushed a significantly bigger wave of interest than any previous crisis.

What has made a difference is the connection to DCTU and relationships between tenants. DCTU allowed tenants to hear about real success from tenants in other buildings, and inspired the phone zaps that finally brought management to the table. Lois’s ability to talk to her neighbors (those she knew and new ones) and distribute grocery and supply delivery built trust and a network that can be activated for organizing.  

The morning I sat down to finish this blog, there was an electrical fire that destroyed a unit in one building (luckily, no one was harmed). Lois called me to tell me what was happening, and passed her phone to one of the tenants from the building. I introduced myself and discovered the tenant was Jamie, who had gotten involved in the tenant union when she was sued for eviction in 2019, but had faded away when she started a new job. While we’d connected her with a lawyer in the past, and she’d shown real enthusiasm in reaching out to her neighbors to get them involved, other commitments took priority over meetings. In this new crisis, the tenants association had concrete things to offer her: a way to get groceries, and an opportunity to speak directly to management at our next meeting. She’s back in, ready to meet with management next week and get more neighbors on board.