There is strength in numbers. Tenants may find more power in their complaints about repairs or rent increases if they unify, which is why residents of many buildings around town have formed tenant associations.
Most tenant associations are born out of crisis situations that include building maintenance problems such as heat, air conditioning, hot water or elevator breakdowns; housing code violations such as peeling paint, plumbing leaks, security problems, or rodent and bug infestation; questionable rent increases; and building sale or condo conversion.
"If you try dealing with management one on one and it's an unresponsive management, they're going to stonewall you and give you a hard time," said Jim McGrath, president of TENAC, a D.C. tenant advocacy group that helps renters form tenant associations. "If you deal with them as an association, it gives you strength and unity," he said.
"Many associations come about when there is a real maintenance problem or an arbitrary management problem, and people feel very threatened and want some kind of protection," he said.
"If you've got a problem in the building, if people are getting kicked around, threatened with eviction for unjust cause, plaster is falling, the building is falling down -- these are very good reasons for people to form [associations]. But they should form anyway. A rental building without a tenant association is a sitting duck."
That may be a strong statement, especially for tenants who live in buildings with fair and responsive landlords, but an active association already in place can guard residents' rights in the event of any surprise changes in the building environment or management.
"Landlords vary and management companies vary," said Jonathan Strong, the treasurer of the tenants association at the Brandywine in Northwest Washington. "Some are service-oriented and some are just profit-oriented. Sometimes an individual complains and a landlord will react positively, and sometimes you complain and landlords give you the back of their hand. When there's an association, they're less likely to give you the back of their hand."
As an organized front, tenants are likely to be more effective in their dealings with landlords, forcing compromise or eliciting responses they might not otherwise get. They may use this power to try to make the building safer, end the landlord's arbitrary treatment of residents or, in the most serious instances, instigate a multi-tenant lawsuit.
Tenant organizations can also help residents work out problems with one another by acting as an unbiased mediator in neighbor's disputes.
But associations need to be strong to command respect from the landlord and fellow tenants. Those that are seemingly nonexistent or otherwise weak because of lack of committed members probably will not wield a lot of bargaining power.
When Strong moved to his Connecticut Avenue apartment building in 1982, he joined the association, which formed several years earlier to oppose a condo conversion. As is required by most associations, he paid dues and attended meetings. McGrath says the typical dues for District buildings are $10 a year, which goes toward photocopying expenses, filing fees, refreshment costs and legal advice. Often associations ask for donations above the amount they require.
Strong took an active role in the association about 10 years after moving in, when he started serving on the board as treasurer. Once associations form, they elect leadership; come up with a name, a mission statement and by-laws; and sometimes register with the local housing office -- in this case the District's Housing Regulation Administration within the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs -- by filling out a few forms and getting them notarized with the housing office.
It usually takes only a few people to count as an association. In the District, two people are needed to form an unincorporated association. (If the purpose of the tenants association is to buy the building during a condo conversion, then the association should represent 50 percent of the tenants and be incorporated.)
A retired lawyer for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Strong has spent more than 1,000 hours in the past few years helping the association with three legal actions that challenge rental increases and the way management handled the replacement of heating and cooling units. The management and the association are still negotiating settlements for all three.
"Before I became active, one of the things the association did was fight rent increases. In the '80s, the landlord sought a lot of capital improvement increases, and the association fought those, sometimes successfully and sometimes not," Strong said. Under the District's rent-control laws, landlords who make improvements are entitled to boost rents.
"That interested me as a tenant -- not paying more rent. The basic conflict between landlord and tenant is that a tenant wants to pay less rent and a landlord wants more rent," he said. "It's hard to get people together, and it's hard to keep focused. It's difficult but it can be worth it. It can be extremely beneficial."
Before rallying your neighbors to unite, check with some of the longtime residents to find out if your building already has an association in place that has gone dormant. There is no use duplicating the filing process if it was done in the past.
To get people together, notify residents by word of mouth, fliers or the Internet to garner interest in an association and advertise the first meeting. Generally, tenants have a right to organize, but sometimes landlords try to prohibit them from posting fliers or meeting in building common areas.
Local tenant advocacy groups are willing to help residents deal with potential animosity from building management and also aid them in forming associations. In most places, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, landlords are legally prohibited from retaliating against tenants for organizing.
He gives the following tips for having a successful, powerful tenant association that lasts:
* Be a visible presence in the building. Hold a couple of social events throughout the year so people know you're there.
* Enlist the regulars -- people who have been there a long time and have a vested interest in the building.
* Make sure people know that you're an alternative voice to management if tenants are having problems.
* Incorporate your association as a nonprofit organization, even if the law doesn't require it. Doing so will show that your group is a serious entity and give your group more leverage in case any legal battles arise.
* Raise enough money to cover expenses. Legal battles require a big bankroll because management companies are usually well prepared with lawyers.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.