The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The eviction moratorium is about to end. Rent relief hasn’t arrived. These renters decided to take action.

Henry Granville Widener, right, and his wife Paula Riff stand outside their home at the LaSalle Park Apartments in Hyattsville, Md., on May 27. Over the course of the past year, Henry, with Paula's aid, has helped to organize a rent strike amid the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

This all still felt new so he was nervous. Would enough people show up? Did they have enough signs? Henry Granville Widener ran his eyes over the hand-scrawled messages on a half-dozen squares of colorful cardboard spread out on the asphalt. “FOOD NOT RENT.” “STOP EVICTION.” “WE MATTER.”

“I guess we need the classic ‘NO FOOD NO JOBS,’” Widener said out loud, writing the phrase in Spanish on a new blank sign before again checking his text messages.

A few stragglers were running late. It was a Saturday morning in May. A dozen people were already standing in the parking lot, clutching their own signs against the wind rushing between the brick buildings of the LaSalle Park Apartments in Hyattsville.

Like an estimated 1 in 8 renters in the United States, the working class residents there had fallen behind on rent in the economic slump created by the coronavirus pandemic. But two months after the American Rescue Plan released $21.6 billion in emergency rent relief to local jurisdictions, the money had yet to make it to LaSalle Park’s residents. Having turned in their applications for aid months ago, they felt their fear and anxiety grow as the end of the national moratorium on evictions — June 30 — inched closer. They decided to do something.

Widener, 33, finished the sign, then began tapping out more text messages. He had been at LaSalle Park since 2019, living with his wife in a third-floor apartment. Beyond the occasional hallway chat on his way to his job as a librarian in D.C., Widener had little contact with his neighbors.

That changed during the pandemic. Now he knew not just faces and names but who was living on food stamps and who was hungry, who hadn’t worked for a year and who had finally picked up a few hours.

Last fall, the residents banded together into a tenants association; the venue allowed them to share their stories and pool their energy in petitioning the owner, J. Alexander Management Company, for help accessing federal rent relief.

Since rent relief applications went out in March, however, the residents have heard nothing, part of the multimillion dollar logjam local governments are experiencing as they assess millions of claims. Of the $27 million received by Prince George’s County as part of the federal rent relief money, the county had only spent $3.5 million by early May.

LaSalle Park residents channeled that frustration into action. Around 20 families would eventually join a rent strike and are withholding their monthly payments until rent relief arrives. This morning, Widener and a group of residents who were already on strike wanted to draw attention to their tactics with something the whole community could witness: a march down to the front office to directly confront an executive from the management company.

“Which one do you have?” a woman asked a young boy holding a sign. He flipped it up so others could see. “WHERE IS THE MONEY?” was written in English with black ink against a neon pink background. In the corner, the boy had drawn a piece of paper with a pair of wings attached.

“It’s a stimulus check,” the boy explained.

“Wings would get it to us faster,” the boy’s mother grumbled.

Widener was often the binding energy behind the group’s action — knocking on doors, serving as a two-way interpreterfor neighbors who didn’t speak English, scheduling tenant meetings and getting people to show up when needed, which he was doing hunched over his phone. Looking up, he saw now two dozen people bunched together on the pavement, waiting for his signal. But Widener wasn’t a veteran activist or organizer, and he was not sure what he was leading these people into, in either the short- or long-term. All he knew was that it felt better to do something rather than just wait.

“We have been suffering so much in this pandemic and we haven’t received a single dime of help,” Widener said into a megaphone after deciding it was time to begin. “We’re desperate. We have families. We’re mothers and fathers. We have children. And we deserve a home during this horrible time. Nobody asked for the pandemic. Nobody asked to lose their jobs. And LaSalle Park continues to demand rent from us. So when we say ‘No food?’"

“No rent!” The crowd shouted back.

“No jobs?” Widener said

“No rent!”

And then, with Widener leading the way, the tenants started for the office.

With evictions set to begin next month, hundreds of millions in Washington-area rental aid remains unspent

The short line wove between the buildings, passing balconies crammed with grills and kiddie pools, others stacked with packs of bottled water and boxes with the logo of the Capital Area Food Bank.

A man named Oscar walked alone. He, his wife, Cindy, and their three young children have lived at the complex for three years. He is currently behind around $10,000 in back rent, he estimated. “It’s constantly on my mind,” said Oscar, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used to protect the family’s privacy. . “It’s going to give me a heart attack.”

The family was struggling before the pandemic. Cindy raised the children at home while Oscar worked in eight-hour shifts in the kitchen at a local restaurant. Still, expenses pulled the family behind on rent, and by the beginning of the pandemic they were paying around $1,500 in monthly rent.

Savings got them through the first months of the pandemic, when Oscar’s work stopped. Around $700 in food stamps and boxes from a local food bank kept the family fed. But by last April, the family was so behind that their landlord sent a letter saying they needed to pay up or be out on April 4th. It wasn’t a formal eviction, which is prohibited under the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it was enough to frighten the couple.

The day came and went. The family has applied for rent relief, but hasn’t heard anything.

For another resident marching toward the office, Nohemy, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used to protect the family’s privacy, the last year had been a scramble to find the rent after both she and her husband lost work at restaurants in Washington D.C.

“We were scared, my husband and I, because we’ve never gone a month without paying,” she said. They borrowed money from family. They didn’t buy food. They pawned valuables. “I sold all the jewels that I had,” Nohemy said. “We decided we just had to be okay with an empty refrigerator because we needed to pay rent.”

The effort only got the couple through April, when they missed their first rent payment. Then, they were borrowing and selling off what they could to pay off the money they borrowed a year ago. Nohemy also has applied for rent relief.

When the group of tenants arrived at the complex’s front, Arlene Smadja, J. Alexander’s vice president, was standing at a small table outside the office where residents could sign up for coronavirus vaccines. Forming a semicircle around Smadja, one by one residents began telling their stories.

Widener interpreted. Smadja listened, nodded, took down details. She expressed sympathy to the group, urged them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and explained that her company had done what it could with rent relief applications and that the delay was now with the county.

Outside the office, Smadja emphasized that there was nothing more they could do. She offered her phone number to residents and told them to get in touch with her directly with their concerns.

“We submitted emergency rental assistance applications to the county on March 8 on behalf of all our residents in need,” Smadja clarified in an email after the march. “The applications are currently under review, and we are optimistic that they will be approved soon.”

Eventually the marchers began drifting back to their apartments. As the crowd started to thin, Smadja repeated something she had said throughout the conversation: “We are following the letter of the law,” she told the tenants. “There are no evictions happening. No one is being evicted here.”

Everyone knew that was true for the time being. But after June 30, it would be different.

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