This was the year of the Renters' Revolt in the District of Columbia.
In ever-increasing numbers tenants began to fight evictions and condominium coversions, rent increases and poor maintance services. They became increasingly vocal and more sophisticated in their knowledge of housing law.
There were marches, rallies and demonstrations, seminars on cooperative housing ownership and a city-wide tenants convention.
Tenants appeared before the Rental Accommodations Office, the city agency that oversees the rent control law; the Rental Accommodations Commission, its appeals body, and in Landlor-Tenant Court, to seek rent rebates and rollbacks and to complain of what they said were decreases in apartment services and the existence of housing code violations.
The tenant rebellion was fueled by rising rents and a sharp upswing in the number of evictions of apartment dwellers from buildings that were being sold or converted to other uses. From January through October, the residents of 2,542 rental units in the District were ordered to move because the units were being sold, demolished or substanially rehabilitated, converted to personal use or being "discontinued," according to the Rental Accomodations Office. Most of the apartment buildings were to be turned into condominiums. During the last eight months of 1977, eviction notices for the same reasons were issued to the residents of only 568 rental units.
"In some ways it (the tenants' movement) started with Seaton Street, in terms of tenants groups actively fighting evictions and trying to get public exposure," said Mark Looney, a tenant organizer with Strongforce, a local nonprofit organization that aids cooperative businesses.
Seaton Street residents waged a one-year battle to gain first option to buy their rented houses. They were able to obtain financing from the District and federal government sources and from private donations, and purchased their homes in mid-1977.
This year the tenant movement is "better organized in terms of education of the population, legislation, and involvement in electoral politics," Looney said. "Next year there will be a lot of pressure on the City Council for more eviction controls, a conversion moratorium and assistance to tenants who want to buy their buildings."
Landlords have a different view of the tenants' movemnt. William Norman, a partner in Legum and Norman, a firm that manages 5,000 apartment units in the city, said that the tenant revolt "is a direct result of rent control. The tenants are the losers under rent control. Conversions (to condominium and other uses) are here to stay." He said that building owners can make good profits ifthey convert their structures to condominiums and at the same time do not have to face the "red tape" and the restrictions on rent increases required by the rent control law.
John O'Neil, executive director of the Apartment and Office Building Association, called the tenant rebellion "self destructive." Tenants "were able to get a restrictive rent control law; at the same time they've deprived their fellow tenants of 10,000 apartment units," he added. O'Neil claims that this is the number of units removed from the housing market because owners could no longer afford to maintain them as rental property.
Among the highlights of the renters' revolt were:
In March this year, residents of 2630 Adams Mill Rd. NW lighted bonfires in front of their building to focus attention on the lack of heat and hot water in their apartments for three weeks last winter.
The residents of 1843 Mintwood Pl. NW picketed the office of their landlord's management company once, seeking negotiations that would allow them to stay in the building, and a second time at the ownerhs ofices to complain of mice, roaches, and poor building security. After an eviction suit against them was dismissed last June, they received new, 180-day eviction notices. The 180 days have not yet expired. The owners have refused to discuss their long-range plans for the Mintwood.
The Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project has formed a land trust and bought and renovated two houses in Columbia Heights, in Northwest.
Project leaders are trying to persuade two local developers who own a house a t2542 13th St. NW to sell it to the Columbia Heights group at the same price the owners paid for it. Project members have picketed the home of one of the owners and the office of the other as a pressure tactic.
Tenants at 2611, 2627 and 2633 Adams Mill Rd. NW banded together to obtain rent rebates and a rollback to 1973 rent levels, and to fight a 24.3 percent rent increase requested by their landlord, H&M Enterprises. They said they asked for the rollback and rebate because of the existence of several hundred housing code violations and what they claimed was a decrease in laundry, trash collection and utility services. The landlord appealed a June RAO decision that had awarded them a rollback and refunds that their accountant said could amount to a total of $300,000. That appeal is still pending.
The tenants of the Farnsboro apartment building at 2129 Florida Ave. NW also campaigned before the RAO for a rent rollback and rebates, which they hoped would decrease rents so that the apartment wold fail to meet guidelines that would make them eligible for conversion to condominiums. While waiting for the RAO to resolve the dispute, the residents reached a settelment with the building's new owner, Terrell Busby.
"Two elderly residents will be allowed to stay at roughly their present rent levels for the rest of their lifetimes," said Taylor Branch, a vice president of the tenants association. "Other tenants will be given about $3,000 in settlement costs to move by Jan. 7." Branch said the Farnsboro is being converted to condominiums.
Some apartment dwellers were successful this year in buying their buildings in a cooperative venture. These included residents of the Kenesaw at 16th and irving streets NW and the Beecher Street Low-Rise Apartments at 41st and Beecher streets NW.
Gloria Corn, cofounder of the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing and the founder and president of the 4707 Connecticut Ave. NW tenants association started her group last January "to find out the truth to rumors about our building being converted to a retirement home."
"In one year I've become very savvy politically because of my work in the tenants movement," she said, "I didn't even know then who was on the City Council."
Evelyn Onwuachi, executive director of the City-wide Housing Coalition said that this year, "we noticed a growing concern by tenants. They recognize the need to orgainize as a collective body."
The coaltition, a group of housing activists and tenants associations, has been conducting a "Stop People Removal" campaign to focus on what they call the city housing crisis and to work for stronger controls of evictions and rent levels.
"The tenant movement became more vocla this year because of the advent of mass evictions that was unprecedented," Corn said. "Until now not many of the rent increases affected the middle class in wards 1, 2 and 3."
"Next year the situation will be more critical," Onwuachi said. "The only alternative left is for more control. We need money to buy our buildings. We'll have to think about tenant ownership and tenant-managed buildings."
Strongforce and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association have sent a letter to Mayor-elect Marion Barry, asking him to "set up an office under the Department of Housing and Community Development to help tenants purchase their buildings," Looney said. As envisioned by the organizations, the office would provide technical assistance to tenants, giving them instructions on how to form a cooperative and obtain financing.