A year of pandemic organizing at Marbury Plaza

A year of pandemic organizing at Marbury Plaza

Rent strikers protest outside of Marbury Plaza

The one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown is in many ways a sad occasion, but it’s also a good time to evaluate the successes and failures in tenant organizing during a pandemic. Others have written a more comprehensive analysis of the citywide tenant struggle. This post from SOS organizer Alex S. offers a more micro-level, on-the-ground reflection on organizing in one specific property in Southeast DC with a focus on changes from pre- to post-pandemic conditions and what more needs to be done there.

Pre-Pandemic Organizing Struggles

Marbury Plaza is a large multi-building complex with over 500 units in Ward 8. I started organizing there in the summer of 2019 based on leads from the anti-eviction canvasses that used to comprise SOS’s main work. We started with private meetings with a few tenants and discussed what they needed (primarily repairs to maintenance issues) and what to do about it. Progress was promising, and we held a few larger public meetings that attracted many tenants interested in something being done.

But by fall, the organizing effort stalled for a few reasons. Tenants wanted something done, but many didn’t want to do it themselves. There wasn’t much urgency, and many had a resigned attitude about the building. I also felt this lack of urgency, likely contributing to why tenants did too. I think this was a result of both the wider conditions (no Covid, no particularly inciting incident on the property, no citywide movement to inspire tenants) and the lack of a convincing vision from me.

The other problem was a pre-existing tenant association (TA) that was not active until we started organizing, and when it started holding meetings again, they were sporadic and it had no interest in challenging management. This sapped much of the energy from our efforts as tenants began asking why we didn’t just work with or through the existing TA. I was skeptical that this group, which had little participation and no goals, could be a vehicle for building tenant power, but it was fair for tenants to ask why they should organize with outsiders instead. We got sidetracked for a few months trying to work with this group, but eventually showed tenants they could organize without them.

The pre-existing TA, the lack of urgency, and the fact we had not found and developed organic tenant leaders who could mount an organizing effort caused our efforts to falter in February 2020.

Early Quarantine Organizing: Motivation but No Clear Vision

In early April, I began talking to a few tenants I knew from the previous year. Dylan was a longtime tenant who had been active in a previous rent strike a decade ago and was one of our earliest contacts. Marie was a newer resident we met through one of our meetings. Both were concerned about Covid, the lack of precautions the building was taking, and how poor maintenance exacerbated the risk: for example, when elevators frequently broke, people were forced to cram onto the one working elevator or walk up as many as eleven flights of stairs. We didn’t have a specific goal for the property, but Covid and the related economic crisis provided a reason to start organizing again. The material conditions had radically changed, and rapidly. Many individual tenants lost income, and the DC eviction moratorium temporarily removed a main threat from management. We began calling older contacts to see if they had issues, needed grocery delivery, and would sign on to a citywide petition calling for rent cancellation. We were able to connect some tenants with much-needed assistance, and everyone we spoke to would support some abstract citywide assistance, but without a specific plan for their building, these calls didn’t lead to much.

After these calls, I put together a petition based on what SOS had been doing in other buildings, but tailored to this specific property: building-specific maintenance, enforcement of Covid safety measures, and rent cancellation. We didn’t even have an informal organization, but we could use the petition to get more contacts and build support.
In-person outreach was out of the question, so we posted flyers with a link to the petition. We began getting a few dozen signups, and we would follow up with each tenant to learn more about them. By June, we had 30-40 signers and started holding zoom meetings.

Summer Escalation

We promoted our first meetings by calling and texting people who signed the online petition. The only people I previously knew and had met in person were Dylan, Marie, and Susan, Fred’s friend who also participated in the older strike. The first few meetings were mostly new people introducing themselves and expressing complaints about the property. There wasn’t much concrete planning, but we stressed the importance of collective action through the petition. Without clear tenant leaders, outside organizers drove everything. We encouraged tenants to get neighbors signed up, and a few did but many did not, probably because we were strangers they’d never met asking them to do something.

We did a few in-person outreach days in June and July outside the main entrance. Marie and I stood outside and asked tenants about their concerns and if they’d sign the petition. Sara, a previously unknown tenant who had only joined a zoom meeting, also helped one day. We got dozens more signatures, and we met Jack, Joey, Lily, and Frank, all of whom would eventually become rent strike leaders.

By mid-July we had about 100 signatures, so we printed out the petition and two tenants (including Sara) delivered it to management in person and also mailed copies to local government agencies. Management never responded, but their DC councilmember, Trayon White, and the Office of Attorney General (OAG) did. We scheduled meetings with them, and a few tenants, including Sara, Marie, and Jack, joined to discuss their concerns. Councilman White also joined one of our tenant zoom meetings to take their questions.

Nothing concrete came from these calls but they showed: 1) that when acting together, tenants could get the attention of government officials, and 2) tenants could not rely on those officials to fix all their problems. This led to tension among the tenants. Some wanted to keep working with the OAG and DCRA, some wanted to go on rent strike right away, and others didn’t think much could be done. We started having meetings specifically to discuss rent strikes. And while some tenants were on board, Dylan and Susan, who had been on rent strike over a decade ago, did not want to go through the process again. Marie, after doing much of the legwork April through June, was upset the petition did not get an immediate response and thought everything was taking too long. She got upset, said I had wasted her time, and stopped talking to me.

At this point, three of the main contacts I knew from in-person efforts pre-Covid all backed out. But Jack, Sara, Lily, Frank, and newer contacts, including Jane, who joined our zoom calls in response to a flyer, were all on board. They saw that management didn’t respond to their petition. The DC government would be slow in responding to their concerns, and any legal action would take a long time. They all started withholding their rent in response to the bad conditions in September.

Fall: Growing the Rent Strike

We launched the rent strike with a school supply giveaway to coincide with the school year starting. We got even more contacts from that event at which tenant leaders did most of the talking to prospective rent strikers. This was the first time many of them had met in person and talked to their neighbors about the rent strike. Many tenants were skeptical at first, as they didn’t know the rent strikers. We began the month with a dozen or so tenants on rent strike, and through events like the school supply drive, we added at least a dozen more every month. I get the sense that the eviction moratorium helped.

At first, some tenants didn’t think the strike could last and understandably feared retaliation. But when they saw that rent strikers were still around after a few months with no short-term repercussion, it allayed some of those fears for people on the fence. Tenants and another organizer also set up regular food drives throughout October to December to meet tenants’ material needs, and this created more legitimacy for the rent strikers and buy-in from new tenants. Existing rent strikers did more outreach over the phone and increasingly through in-person door knocking while trying to get more of their neighbors to join the rent strike. The rate of growth slowed, but even through February 2021 we were adding new rent strikers every few weeks.

Citywide Struggle

While this was going on at Marbury, the citywide movement was exploding, with rent strikes at dozens of buildings across the DMV and large protests for rent cancellation. It’s difficult to get tenants east of the Anacostia connected to citywide actions: these are very busy people, and building an organization at their own property takes a lot of time. Getting them to also spend free time working with people across the city is a big ask. The physical divide of the river often manifests as a psychological divide making Ward 8 residents feel isolated, and this becomes self-fulfilling when they don’t join citywide actions.

Despite this barrier, the wider tenant struggle across DC benefits the building-level organizing at Marbury. For one, when I talk to tenants one-on-one or at meetings, being able to point to other buildings on rent strike shows that Marbury tenants aren’t alone, and when I can mention material wins in the form of rent forgiveness plans at other properties, it shows what is attainable. This is a major difference from my efforts in 2019, when I often spoke about possible tenant victories in the abstract.

Another benefit is the radicalizing and inspiring effect of struggling alongside tenants from other buildings. Jane has emerged as a clear leader at Marbury. She has helped plan our mutual aid events, she has made countless calls, knocked on many doors, and is responsible for getting many new tenants on rent strike. Other tenants refer to her as a leader and will listen to her suggestions at meetings. While Jane was naturally motivated, I know that tenants, such as Marie, can easily burn out. It’s not a coincidence that Jane is one of the few Marbury tenants to attend multiple citywide protests and even speak at them. Both having hundreds of other people listen to her story and cheer her on and having her hear about other buildings’ fights changed the way she spoke at Marbury meetings. She became more passionate and interested in planning actions for Marbury.

It can seem like a burden to get tenants to use their limited free time to attend a meeting or protest across the city not directly tied to their building. It could possibly cause burnout. But the benefits are potentially huge, and I’ve learned that I need to continue to try to balance these demands and get tenant leaders to join the larger movement.

Shortcomings and Future Goals

We’ve made a lot of progress at Marbury, but there are many things I could have done better. While the eviction moratorium exists, I’ve overlooked the connections between tenants who need rent-cancellation because of Covid-related unemployment and tenants who can afford to pay rent but are not because of bad conditions. I try to connect all these issues, but not all rent strikers who could pay rent are as passionate about general rent cancellation. What if Marbury agrees to make the requested repairs in exchange for payment of half the owed rent? This could cause a real split, and I haven’t done enough to unify these two different groups of tenants.

Relatedly, there is a general lack of deep connection between many tenant leaders. Most of them have only spoken offline a few times. We have been using group texts to communicate more casually in between meetings, but this is no substitute for actual connection. Just last week a tenant called me to say she wasn’t comfortable raising certain building issues on the chat because she didn’t know or trust other people on it. Tenants will need to know and trust each other more going forward. Fatigue is also becoming an issue. It has been a year of living with Covid, and many tenants have been on rent strike for over 6 months with still nothing material to show for it. I am pleased with the growing tenant organization, but at a certain point they will want to see repairs made and/or rent cancelled. Other buildings have been offered payment plans but Marbury has not. This is in part tied to the percentage of people on rent strike – there are over 80 people now on strike, which is a lot, but the building has hundreds of units – and the lack of direct escalation on management. We held a protest last month with decent attendance, but it was not as directly confrontational as protests have been at other buildings. I am frequently asked by tenants what is taking so long. Other organizers and I need to provide motivation and also a vision of what needs to be and can be done.

The leadership structure at Marbury is also too amorphous. Tenants like Jane and Jack are clearly leaders in my eyes and more importantly, in the eyes of other tenants. But when we plan events, there isn’t a strong structure in place such that we still need a lot of work from outside organizers to pull it together. Some tenants are fine identifying as leaders but others who have been participating for a long time are hesitant. We need to do a better job showing
the benefit of having a clear structure with building leaders, floor leaders, etc. And I need to get deeper, through storytelling and other means with individual leaders to get them to commit to such a structure.

Lastly, we need to do more to plug Marbury tenants into the wider DC movement. The couple who have participated in both have benefited, but not enough tenants have.

Lessons from a Year of Pandemic Organizing

1) Always be recruiting new tenants and re-recruiting current ones: None of the tenants I worked with in 2019 and early 2020 are leaders now. Tenants constantly drop out, but they sometimes rejoin the fight. Even if I think I’ve found good tenant leaders, we will likely need new ones at some point.

2) Wider movements matter: A big difference between 2019 and 2020 is the citywide tenant movement. Tenants now can see they are not alone and the possibility of winning, and this goes a long way to getting people over the hurdle to join the fight in their own building.

3) Legal terrain and political wins matter: The DC Covid emergency protections are not enough to protect working people long term. But at least at Marbury, the eviction moratorium has allowed people to stay in their homes for a year, and it has allowed people to go on rent strike for months without fear of eviction. This has allowed people to stay and fight together long enough to build connections and reinforce their commitment.

4) Consistency matters: my co-organizers now are different from my co-organizers in May of 2020, who were different from my co-organizers in August 2019. But tenants have seen someone from SOS at Marbury for over a year, and that makes it easier to get buy-in. We can’t wait forever for wins, but there were struggles early on that became easier just by being around more. (As an aside, I had no experience tenant organizing before June 2019. I don’t think I’m especially good. But I can reliably respond to tenants and support them, and I think that’s all you need to get started. If you can do that, you should reach out to SOS to join the fight!)

5) In-person organizing is better but you can make progress remotely: It is more difficult to make deep organizing connections while distanced, but that shouldn’t deter anyone. We’ve made great progress over the last year.

6) Extreme times present opportunity: We struggled in 2019, but for a number of reasons, in 2020 tenants were less afraid of retaliation, less concerned with the former TA, and angrier about housing injustice. This may have made it easier to organize, but we still had to change our approach and learn from past mistakes. We have a lot to do at Marbury, but I remain motivated, especially after talking to Jack a few weeks ago. We were thinking of names for our new tenant association, and someone suggested “Marbury rent strikers.” Jack said that wasn’t a good name because the association should exist beyond the current rent strike. I agreed. The pandemic year provided good ground for tenant organizing, but we should use the opportunity to build structures that last beyond the current crisis.