The First Thing That I’ve Learned Is to Lose Fear: Interview with a Tenant at New Hampshire and First
In this interview, conducted in Spanish and translated by SOS organizer Katharine R., a tenant at a medium-sized building in Fort Totten reflects on his experiences with organizing and building tenant power. (His name has been changed for this post.)
Tenants at New Hampshire and First Apartments started organizing back in April, shortly after the state of emergency began in DC. Most people at the building are out of work—many held jobs in the restaurant industry, construction, or as cleaners—and many are ineligible for assistance from the federal or local government. As such, rent cancellation has been the primary objective of the campaign at the 70-unit complex. Tenants have used a variety of strategies to move their campaign forward, including a now five-month-long rent strike.
The tenants’ struggle is finally bearing fruit. Several weeks ago, the landlord agreed to offer a partial cancellation of rent through a long-term payment plan. This initial victory has fueled the campaign further and sparked greater optimism amongst tenants. Jose M., one of the main leaders at the property, offers his reflections here, providing his thoughts on the challenges faced by tenants, his motivation to organize, and what he thinks we can win.
Katharine R.: How did the fight begin at New Hampshire and First Apartments?
Jose M.: We were worried and didn’t know what to do about everything happening with COVID-19 and the economy shutting down. Until we found the tenant union number and called. At the time, we were really worried because, the truth is, we didn’t know what to do, without work, without rent, without anything.
But after that call, we communicated with the union and had conversations as a group, and started to have more of an idea about what we could do. We left flyers in the doors of everyone’s apartment and walked through the building talking to people. At first I was a bit worried because there were people who didn’t want to get involved or who didn’t understand, or people who didn’t want to join because of fear.
But that’s how we started, how we began to know how to organize as tenants. With the meetings, we became informed of our rights, and we calmed down…because the truth is we were really worried. But now, well, we’ve advanced a lot. We’re calmer, because we’ve advanced with this, with this fight to cancel rent. We don’t want just a negotiation, or just what they’ve offered so far, which is only help for people that qualify. We’re looking for the cancellation of rent… We walk together in the fight.
KR: Can you talk a bit more about the tools we’ve used to pressure the owner?
JM: The meetings. The flyers. Letting people know about meetings we’ve had, so that people come and understand what we want to do and everything we’ve discussed to reach an agreement with the owner. This has helped us a lot. Now there are more people who are interested.
KR: We’ve advanced a lot. We’ve achieved something.
JM: We’ve achieved a lot. We’ve pressured the owner. She’s seen how we have more people in the group, and now she seems to be feeling more pressured. And because of the rent strike, we’ve arrived at a negotiation. But like I said at the beginning, we’re not in agreement right yet. We’ll see what happens.
KR: Because she’s offered a cancellation of a portion of rent, so far, right? What do you think about that?
JM: This offer that they have given is only if you qualify. And the truth is that many are not going to be able to qualify. What we want is the complete cancellation of rent, since this all began, for everyone.
KR: You’ve done so much here, getting the group together, so that everyone knows what is happening. What motivates you personally?
JM: My personal motivation is, well, my situation. I’ve been without work. But I’ve been motivated to continue with the group we have now, so that they can cancel rent.
And the protest that we had motivated me even more. Before I thought it was only here that this was happening, you know, mostly just us in the fight. But when we got there…it was everyone, it’s global. So many people there supporting, helping, and people in worse situations. This motivated me even more to continue forward. Because truly, I was afraid. But the union is here, always assessing and informing, giving us courage to continue forward. And this is motivating. We need to move forward.
KR: And what did you do before this?
JM: I’m from El Salvador. I got here in 2000. And look, I like the city. I’ve only lived here. It’s a city where they pay you a bit more for the work you do, depending on your work. I’ve liked it all the time I’ve been here. And I don’t want to move to another location.
Before all this, I worked for the owner and a management company in maintenance, but I lost my job because they sold the building. Supposedly they were going to call, but they never did. So I was without work for a couple months, and I had to put my whole paycheck toward rent. Later I found work but with lower wages, working on cars and in a restaurant.
So even before this pandemic, I had a tough time because I was without work, and I had to pay my rent. I had to borrow money with 10% interest to pay rent.
KR: Where did this money come from? From the office, or a person?
JM: A person I know that lent me the money because I needed it to pay rent. For those months, it was a lot of money—almost $5000 with almost 10% interest.
KR: That’s a lot of interest, like $500, right?
JM: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s what you have to do. And in my family, I also have my mom, who is sick. I have to send her money for food every 8 days to El Salvador. She’s 75 years old. I have to make sure someone goes over there to see her. And things are hard here but even worse over there. I need to pay for medicine, her doctors visits, transportation. I have to pay 25 dollars to drive her an hour to her doctor’s office. It’s really hard.
KR: That is hard. I know there are also other people in similar situations here.
JM: Yeah, there are a lot of people here in the same situation. So many people. I know another guy. He’s used all his savings to pay the rent. We have to look after things, but instead the owner wants us to pay the rent. We need the owner to be conscious of this, and help us with the rent. So many people are in this situation.
KR: There are so many consequences from this pandemic, right? And to use all your savings to pay for the profit of the landlord…
JM: Imagine. There’s also health care. If you go to a doctor, you need to pay for the visit, for medicine. It’s expensive. Imagine being without resources for healthcare….instead only paying the rent, the rent, the rent.
Many people here before have said, “first we pay the rent, even if it means we go without food. But at least I will have a secure roof over my head.” But they go without food. Always paying the rent, rent, rent, even without the food. Imagine.
KR: But some people are choosing their food over rent, right?
JM: Now, yeah. I am choosing food over rent. Even if they evict me, I am choosing food for my kids.
KR: I think people don’t always understand that this is a political act too, to choose their health over rent. People say this, it’s not just that we don’t have money, we have a choice. We’re making a choice to fight.
JM: Yeah, we have to fight. We’re going to fight. And we’re helping each other with food. My neighbor shares her food with us sometimes. She’s helped me a lot. We don’t save things just for ourselves, we share.
KR: You’ve told me before that when you worked for the landlord, you saw some evictions. How did this affect you?
JM: It really affected me. I saw people in situations like the one I’m in now, where you can’t pay the rent. The owner tried to offer negotiations, to pay half, something like that, but unfortunately, that didn’t always work out and there were situations in which we evicted people. People had to take everything out of their apartment in 15 minutes, put it on the street, and in 24 hours, if you didn’t come to pick up your belongings, it all went to the trash.
It was brutal—to see this, to see people with families, young kids, all their things tossed out. It’s never happened to me, but it’s just brutal. And now I’m motivated even more to fight, not just for me, but everyone, because we all need this, that they cancel rent.
And the truth is that we have more needs right now. The owner has needs too, but they have enough to survive.
KR: Why do you think the landlord can cancel rent?
JM: I think she can do it. If we keep meeting, and more people join and join and join, and they stop paying rent, the owner will feel even more pressured. And they have lots of resources. They have resources. We only have resources when we’re working. But they have help. They’ve found help. I don’t see why can’t they help us.
KR: Before this experience, have you organized? Do you have experience with this kind of collective action?
JM: I like what the [DC Tenants Union] does. I didn’t know about organizing, about meeting, nothing about this. Now it calls to me, because I can help myself and I can help other people.
KR: Are there things or parts of organizing that have surprised you? Or that you’ve learned?
JM: Look, the first thing that I’ve learned is to lose fear. The fear, right? To lose the fear that I had—of the owner, of the situation. For me, it’s been a beautiful experience to get to know people even more, and with the union, to see that between all of us, we’re fighting for something.
Another experience,that day when we went to the march [on July 25th], I thought there would be a few, maybe two or three other buildings in Columbia Heights. But when I arrived I was surprised, because all along 13th St. and 14th St. there were people and the streets were closed. I saw so many people. So many people.
KR: The truth is that your fight here is an important part of the greater fight for the city. I think what you’ve done here is important for everyone else too, because it shows we can achieve something.
JM: Well here in New Hampshire, with the union, we’ve found hope, confidence. And now we’ve seen that when we knock doors and leave flyers, we’re more informed and have more and more courage to go out.
KR: There are 20 buildings or so that are fighting to cancel rent, and we’ve shared your story—that you’ve been on rent strike since April, and now the owner is finally offering something.
JM: We’ve seen the results of what we’ve done. We’re seeing the results. I don’t know if other places people have received an answer yet, but we have received an answer. We have a negotiation with the owner. What helps a lot is that we’ve organized, we’ve had so many meetings, given out flyers, knocked doors. We’ve come a long way.
KR: What have your conversations been like around the rent strike and not paying rent until we reach an agreement?
JM: Well the truth is, well we’ve talked with many people. And many times, if people are working, it’s only for a few hours. And sometimes they are paying the rent. There are some that are working a few hours and still paying the rent, because they are afraid of evictions. I say to them, listen, we’re in a union fighting for rent cancellation. If you want to support us, stop paying rent, it’s not just for me, it’s for all of us in the building. And well, we’re going to have a meeting, more conversations about this, we can talk about it together.
KR: What’s been the hardest thing through all this?
JM: The hardest thing for me was that people rejected us at first, said it was all a lie. And when we first gave out flyers, the owner sent out letters to every tenant saying, “this is a lie, don’t believe in the union.” And this was a challenge. Other people said, “you don’t have power or authority to do this.”
But with this, we’ve come a long way. We’ve advanced a lot.
KR: What changed?
JM: People have changed. They’ve changed the way they think. They’ve talked with neighbors and friends, in every building. We’ve met as groups. We’ve had meetings with the union. All the meetings we’ve had have helped. Also, the negotiation from the landlord, the letters they’ve sent to everyone in the building now—people saw this. People are seeing what we’re doing and how it’s working.
KR: Why do you think the landlord is offering the negotiation now?
JM: She’s offering this negotiation now because she feels pressured, because the size of our group is growing and we have more information. The number of people meeting with us is growing. We meet, we talk as a group about what we think and our next steps, and our numbers are growing. What we want is to reach an agreement on rent cancellation.
KR: What did the office try to say about how they can help before this offer?
JM: They asked that we get help elsewhere, that we find something to help pay the rent, and they gave us lists of organizations to call.
They said if you don’t have money at the beginning of the month, you can pay it at the middle of month, or at the end, without interest. But this doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work if you don’t have the money.
KR: Did anyone get help from those organizations?
JM: I think it worked for two, maybe three people. But for me, I called, I called, I called and absolutely never received a single answer. They gave me a couple numbers, I kept trying and never received anything.
KR: Do you have advice for other tenants at the beginning of this process?
JM: My advice is that it’s good to make a team. Don’t be afraid. Knock doors, inform and talk to your neighbors, and organize. If you can organize, it’s much better—you won’t have fear and you’ll get out of this. And it’s not that we want to do this, it’s the pandemic. But move forward. Use your voice. Meet with others. Pressure the owners, and reach an agreement.
KR: I believe we’re going to reach an agreement. But if we don’t, what are you going to do?
Everyday I ask this question. Everyday. And well, we just have to keep fighting and moving forward and seeing what we achieve. But if we don’t, I think I may have to leave this country. I may have to go back to El Salvador. Because if I can only work 3 or 4 hours, I can’t maintain a life here.
There, I don’t pay rent. I don’t worry about the rent there, but there are other things. I don’t want to move. I have a life here. I have a life here.
KR: Is there anything else you want to add?
JM: I don’t know who is going to listen to this, or read this. But you don’t have to give up. Keep going. Because it’s not just us here at New Hampshire and First, this is worldwide. It’s something that hasn’t discouraged us here. If we win or lose, we can’t give up, and we have to keep moving forward and find more options. You have to keep moving forward. I know that we’re going to reach an agreement with the landlord. And if we can get an agreement, I think everyone can get one. We’re all in the same situation here, in DC, Maryland, Virginia. Thanks to you, thanks to God, we’ve found a way to unite.