Q: There are a lot of rumors spreading around our building that the landlord will be converting the property to condominium ownership. Is it advisable to try to set up a tenant group to deal with these matters? We live in the District of Columbia.
A: Absolutely yes. If you do not organize into a tenant association, you may find that District laws -- providing for probably the most advanced tenant rights in the country -- will be unavailable to you.
However, because tenant laws here are unique, the courts have been looking at them very carefully and interpreting them in the narrowest sense possible.
Thus, it is important for your tenant group to obtain professional assistance, including legal help, economic and financial help and management consultant assistance.
After this initial meeting, if it looks like there is interest in the building to move forward, a steering committee should be established to plan the next steps.
The steering committee will have to deal with such issues as finding a suitable place for a meeting (such as the building lobby or a neighborhood church or library), giving the appropriate notice to all tenants about the meeting and formulating an agenda for this first get-together.
The first formal meeting is really very critical for the long-range development of your tenant organization. In every tenant group, there are those who are selfishly motivated and will try to steer the group in particular directions. It must be pointed out that the initial meetings of the tenant group must be exclusively for the purpose of organizing all of the tenants. This takes a lot of skill, a little theatrics and a bit of jawboning.
But if the tenant group becomes divided in its goals, it will splinter and lose the single most important function of a tenant group -- unity.
It is important to be aware of the legal issues surrounding tenant rights. For example, under present law, tenants should not incorporate immediately, although ultimately, incorporation is critical for taking advantage of District law.
At your first meeting, temporary officers should be selected by the group. Do not select too many. The larger the number of tenant leaders in any one building, the less chance that group has to succeed.
There will be times when secrecy and speed are critical in dealing with the many issues that face tenant groups -- from financial matters, signing contracts and dealing with other tenants. Your officers must have your confidence, the ability to act promptly and your full blessings.
In my opinion, there should be no more than five officers in any tenant organization.
It is important, however, to develop a two-day communication between the tenant group and the individual tenants. If the building is large enough, there should be floor captains, who will report to the tenants on their floor, and also to the officers of the tenant group. It is also essential that a periodic newsletter or memorandum be circulated to all of the tenants who are members of the association.
After all, the residents are the life support of any tenant group, and they must be fully informed on all aspects of the association.
One question always comes up. Does a tenant group have the right to exclude tenants from membership rights and benefits? In my opinion, as long as all tenants in a building have been given an opportunity to join a tenant group, at some point in time, the tenant group has the right to establish cut-off dates. Clearly, it is unfair for the majority of tenants who are contributing their time and money to have to share their benefits with tenants who aren't active in their cause.
There are too many 'free-loaders" in tenant groups, and unless they participate -- or at least pay their dues -- the tenant group has the right to deny them membership rights.
This does not mean that a tenant who is not a member of a tenant organization does not have traditional tenant rights in the District. Clearly, every tenant in the District has the right to purchase his or her own unit if the building becomes a condominium.
However, that tenant is only given the right to purchase the unit at whatever price is being offered to the public -- and not necessarily at a discounted price.
Tenant organization is the single most critical function in any rental building. Whether the building is to be converted into a condoninimum or a co-op, turned into a hotel or kept as a rental property, the organization of tenants can give strength to the tenants, and a measure of dialogue with the landlord and other outsiders.