In a story on Aug. 14 about three District groups that represent tenants, the organization through which they coordinate their activities was incorrectly identified. The organization involved with the local groups is the Housing Action Council, not the Housing Assistance Council, which is a national rural housing organization.
Despite some of the strongest pro-tenant laws in the nation -- including rent control, strict eviction limitations and condominium-conversion controls -- many District renters are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to exercise them for fear of being evicted.
Three Washington groups -- Washington Intercity Self Help (WISH), the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union and the Southeast Vicariate Cluster Tenants Association -- have done much in the last several years to reverse that situation, housing activists and landlords agree.
The organizations, which grew out of concerns of religious groups primarily in Northwest and Southeast Washington neighborhoods, have had notable successes in correcting housing code violations, pushing back illegal rent increases, blocking evictions and helping residents purchase their own properties.
"I was astounded to see the conditions some people were living in," said Andre Gingerich, a college student intern working with the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union. "I was amazed to learn that some of the people who are responsible know what is going on and just don't care. Their response is 'let them use their stoves to heat their apartments.' "
Shirley Hines and her family moved to their Columbia Heights apartment seven years ago after being displaced from their Georgetown rental home. "I was so frustrated because I saw the same type of thing happening in Columbia Heights as in Georgetown," said Hines, who is now president of the Southern Columbia group.
"I started talking with people in the streets about what they saw as their problems. They weren't satisfied, but they didn't know what to do. They didn't know what rights they had."
The organizations developed strategies to help members solve problems. The first step was usually to organize tenants associations so residents could push landlords to correct violations.
The organizations have also provided trained staffs to work with residents on problems most often cited: falling ceilings, peeling paint, lack of heat and hot water, inadequate electrical systems, and apartments left vacant and abandoned.
Landlords with properties in the neighborhoods affected by the groups' efforts agree that many of the tactics have had a major impact -- but the landlords say most of it has been negative.
"The poor landlord hasn't got a chance," said Walter Muroff, who bought six Columbia Heights apartment buildings in 1978. "Tenants get all the help they need from the Department of Housing and the Rental Accommodations Office; landlords don't. They won't give us answers over the phone. They just tell us to come get copies of the new laws and regulations."
Muroff is operating only one of the six properties he purchased four years ago. One burned, another is vacant, and he sold three, including two to the residents.
"Wish has probably been the single most effective anti-housing group in this area," said Muroff. "People in my building were good, solid people who were content, but people began telling them they were entitled to something for nothing. They have no idea of reality as to costs."
Muroff, nevertheless, has reached an agreement with the four remaining tenants in his building at 1111 Lamont St. NW to make repairs on the apartments and to raise the rents. Charges for current occupants of one-bedroom units in the building will increase from $138 per month to $200. New people renting one-bedroom apartments will pay $300 monthly.
Money to pay for the repairs will come from a $2 million loan fund provided by Etna Insurance Co. that Wish will administer.
"It's not to be construed as a love affair between me and Wish," said Muroff. "The only hope of salvaging it was by working with the tenants. The Wish thing is the only game in town."
The tenant organizations have also pushed the D.C. government for better enforcement of the existing housing laws, especially ones dealing with code violations.
One meeting between Columbia Heights tenants and D.C. housing inspectors produced dramatic results. "The very next day one of the housing inspectors in our area was reassigned because he was doing such a lousy job," said Jim Tamialis, staff director of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union. "In a couple of buildings, things began improving within a week."
Last year, after enactment of the new law requiring smoke detectors in apartment buildings, Southern Columbia offered to provide the fire department a list of buildings where landlords had failed to install the detectors. "There was a rash of smoke detector installations occurring in the neighborhood in a very short period of time," said Tamialis.
Members of the three organizations have also succeeded in blocking rent increases and obtaining rent rollbacks because of housing code violations. In some buildings, residents have been able to negotiate agreements with their landlords to accept rent increases if specific housing problems are corrected.
The owner of the Bass Circle apartment complex in Southeast Washington filed a hardship petition requesting a 45 percent rent increase. Residents accepted the 35 percent raise after the landlord agreed to better maintenance of the property.
Some tenant associations have organized rent strikes after failing to force their landlords to correct housing code violations. "Groups only begin a rent strike as a last resort," said Tamialis, "and always with a set of specific demands and a promise to begin releasing the rents once repairs are made."
The three groups have helped some tenant associations to purchase their buildings, but only as a final resort. "To buy a building is one of the toughest things," said Wish's staff director, Roger Turpin. "We're not buying the building just to be buying the building. We only advise tenants to buy when there's no other alternative, such as when the landlord has abandoned the property."
Members of the three organizations have extended their efforts beyond their immediate neighborhoods. "We want to show people that there are issues outside their buildings that will come back and affect them," said Tamialis.
The groups coordinate their activities through the Housing Assistance Council, a coalition of D.C. housing-related groups. The three organizations are focusing much of their energies on securing passage of the "repair and deduct legislation" now before the City Council. If passed, the law would allow tenants to have repairs made on their units and to deduct the cost from their rents.
While not endorsing any candidates running for mayor or council in District elections, the three groups have distributed information on politicians' voting records and have held several candidate forums on housing issues.
Many of the tenants speak proudly of their citywide impact. In February, the three organizations put on a community forum that brought together several hundred tenants to meet with D.C. council members to discuss the repair-and-deduct legislation.
"When we turned out all those people and the public officials, too, that was a thrill!" said Denise Belton, chairman of the Southeast Clusters group. " The three organizations are waking up the community. Tenants are really tired of getting the short end of the stick."
As the groups have gained in political power, members have also changed, the tenants say. "People develop confidence," said Tamialis. "They discover they can make people who once ignored them sit up and take notice. They've developed a sense of power and even of dignity."