Local pastor and tenant Latare Whitaker began the rally with a blessing. Image by the author.

Residents at a Brightwood Park building say their apartments are infested with bugs and rodents and badly needs maintenance, but instead of making fixes, the landlord is trying to raise rent. Now some tenants are refusing to pay until conditions are better.

More than 75 people came out to the Rally to Support the Nicholson Street Rent Strike to chants of “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“A people united will never be defeated”) on Friday, October 12. This is the second rally the building's Tenant Association has held to push for better living conditions.

The Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), a local organization that helps tenants organize in DC, has been helping residents withhold their rent by placing the unpaid amount in escrow. That's when a third party (in this case, LEDC) holds onto one party's money (the tenants' rent) until certain conditions are satisfied (maintenance on the building).

Tenant and pastor Latare Whitaker, who kicked off the rally, has lived at 1320 Nicholson Street NW for 20 years. He says he's seen conditions decline as the building transferred from the original owners to children of the original owners, then to a property management company. He says some tenants who wanted to stay were pushed out because of the rent hike and appalling living conditions.

However, like many of his neighbors, Whitaker is determined to fight back: “Whenever you need us give us a call and we will be right there, because united we stand and divided we fall. This is happening all over the city, so we need to work together and build this coalition.”

There was a large turnout at the rally. Image by the author.

Tenants have been demanding better conditions since 2016

This isn't the first time tenants have had to rally for better conditions. Their first rally took place in June 2016 to pressure the building's then-owner Michael Lesesne to reduce rent, follow through on a court order to return money owed to tenants, and maintain the building. Councilmember Anita Bonds also spoke out against rent increases at the event.

In 2013, Lesesne claimed rent control hardship, which at the time allowed landlords to raise rent if they weren't making a 12% profit. However, tenants objected to the higher cost, and a judge overturned the hardship and ruled in the favor of the tenants. The Rent Control Hardship Petition Limitation Amendment Act of 2016 that Bonds pushed forward is now law.

The resulting contract stated that the landlord must pay the tenants back all the extra rent money that had been collected. Fast forward to summer 2018: the last repayment occurred and now the new owner, SCF Management, is trying to raise the rent beginning in August. (DC's Attorney General Karl Racine is suing SCF for similar problems at a property it managed in Columbia Heights.)

The tenants are beyond tired of calling for repairs, and now they're refusing to pay an increased rent until these maintenance issues are addressed. The tenant association sent a letter in the beginning of the summer to SCF describing the issues with the building. It said they would pay an appropriate increase in rent once the building was brought up to code.

Nothing changed over the summer, so the association sent another letter giving the company a month to address maintenance issues before they would go on a rent strike. Again, there was no response from the owners, and now more than half of the tenants in the building (about 16 units) have been striking since the beginning of October.

Leaky roofs, bedbugs, cockroaches, mold, and rodents

Several tenants shared their experience with living in the building, including Maria Rodriguez, who says she's been there for seven years. She says this is her first time living among rats, cockroaches, and mice in the US, and with having a landlord who never fixes anything.

Another attendee, Karla Ayala, has been living in the building since 2014. She has bedbugs in her apartment and is fed up with having to buy traps for cockroaches and rats — not to mention the walls that are covered with mold and mildew.

Water damage in the main corridor on the third floor of the building. Note the missing smoke detector. Image by the author.

“I am most worried about the fact that winter is coming and I am on the third floor where we have a lot of water damage on the ceiling because the roof is bad. I am tired of calling and calling and have the landlord come only to not fix anything. This is a contract and he is not living up to it!” Ayala said.

Dania Rivera, who's helping lead a tenant strike nearby at 5320 8th Street NW, spoke at the rally to encourage everyone to keep up the fight. The residents there held a rent strike rally back in April of this year to push for better conditions in their building, which they say is uninhabitable.

Rivera provided an update: “[Since the strike] now they are in court, DCRA has done inspections, and is working with the Attorney General to fight for what is their rights for good housing.”

In the middle of the rally, a giant inflatable cockroach made its way into the crowd to shed to light on the abysmal living conditions. The rally ended with music from Son Cosita Seria, and everyone was welcome to enjoy freshly made pupusas from the tenants as a thank you for the support.

In the middle of the rally, a giant inflatable cockroach made its way into the crowd to emphasize the abysmal living conditions. Juanita McKenzie is on the left, and Maria Rodriguez is holding the cockroach. Image by the author.

Three bills awaiting a vote could help with neglectful landlords

The DC Council is working on various pieces of legislation to tackle affordable housing in the District. Besides Bonds' Rent Control Hardship Limitation bill, there are two others that would update how rent increases are determined under the city’s rent control law. Rent-controlled units are some of the last remaining affordable units in the city, but aren't enough to serve a growing need.

However, none of these bills really get to the issues of maintenance and poor living conditions, which are a common thread at these rallies. Three pieces of legislation proposed in late 2017 would help mitigate these types of issues.

The Slumlord Deterrence Amendment Act of 2017 denies business licenses and building permits to rental property owners who neglect their properties and have been cited for certain infractions. The Housing Rehabilitation Incentives Regulation Amendment Act of 2017 sends repeated housing code violaters to the Attorney General and requires that violations unabated for six months or more be dealt with increasing severity, and the Housing Code Enforcement Integrity Amendment Act of 2017 requires that the Mayor's office deal with conditions that have not been corrected within six months after an infraction is issued. All three had public hearings on July 3, 2018 and are waiting for a vote.

Tenants and LEDC representatives believe the rallies are helping bring attention to local housing issues and are empowering some of the most underrepresented people in the city. There is a petition to support the tenants of 1320 Nicholson Street NW, and so far 45 supporters have signed it. Will the strikers bring enough attention to these issues to make the three bills law?

Melissa Lindsjo works in the Community Planning section of Loudoun County’s Planning and Zoning department. She's the current Chair of the Kennedy Street Development Corporation Board of Directors and serves on the Uptown Main Street Board of Directors. She loves all things walkable and local. She lives in Brightwood Park.