The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new landlord was going to nearly double the rent. These Maryland seniors decided to fight back.

Robert Pendarvis, left, Howard Wright and Joram Calderon are among residents who faced eviction when they opposed a doubling of their rent. They are shown outside their apartment building in Laurel, Md., on March 15, 2020. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“They did us dirty,” Janette Pultz said from the chair she had pulled out onto the small lawn. “Like a hit upside the head.”

It was a warm Thursday afternoon in mid-February, and dark clouds were creeping into the sky. Pultz and four others were clustered outside the front steps of 332 11th St., a small apartment building in Laurel, Md., that they all called home. A resident of seven years, the 70-year-old Pultz was a relative newcomer. Many of her neighbors had been here for decades and now were retired and living on fixed incomes.

“Humiliating,” said Joram Calderon, 74, who had been here 26 years.

“Two days after Christmas, to get that letter,” said Rose Thompson, 64, who had been here 23 years.

On Dec. 27, they had all found the same note wedged in their doors. The building — two stories, 10 units, less than two miles from a bustling strip of chain stores and restaurants — had been sold, the paper said. The new owners promised that interior renovations were coming soon — “granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, new baths, wood flooring refurbishing” and other improvements, the letter stated.

But the document also informed the tenants that if they decided to stay in a remodeled unit, their rent would increase from $865 to $1,600. If any of the tenants could not pay the new rent, they had 60 days from the date of the letter to vacate their units. Four tenants had already moved out. One unit was already empty. The five remaining tenants now were discussing their options in the late-afternoon light. They had less than two weeks left.

“The paper originally said we have to be out the 27th,” Pultz said.

“I told them that if I’m paying for February, I’m getting every single day!” said Thompson. “All 28 days.”

“Can they really make us leave after this deadline?” Howard Wright, 75, asked a few moments later.

The five were wrestling with a housing market that seemed no longer to have a place for them. The average rent in Laurel had increased from just below $1,600 in February 2021 to nearly $1,800 in February 2022, according to the real estate data company Yardi Max. Across the country, average rents increased by 14 percent, according to Redfin — a reflection, experts say, of a housing shortage and an economy roaring back to life as the latest surge of coronavirus infections wanes.

Pultz and her neighbors couldn’t afford those prices, and now they wondered whether they could plead with the new owner or withhold their rent or even go to court — anything that might keep them in place. Trent Leon-Lierman, a housing advocate with CASA Maryland, a community organizing group, joined the tenants on this day to discuss their next move.

“If this thing happened to go to court, do you still get your deposit back?” Pultz asked.

The housing advocate explained that the landlord could subtract the cost of repairs.

Even if they got the deposits back, the money wouldn’t go far toward securing new housing. When Calderon moved in 27 years ago, the deposit was $300. Thompson put down $350 when she arrived 23 years ago. Wright’s deposit had been $810. Robert Pendarvis, 63, wasn’t even sure; he’d moved in with his sister, then taken over her lease when she died of covid-19 in early 2020.

“They should give us a lot more time to find a place,” Wright said. “I’ve lived around Laurel my whole life.”

Thompson nodded. “I’m close to worship. I’m close to my family. My family has been here in this area for 150 years,” she said. “My mother’s family and my father’s family. If I move, you’re only shifting me away from all that.”

The others agreed. But nobody there could say what the next step would bring. None of them had been involved in a rent strike before or discussed strategy with a housing organizer or taken a landlord to court.

“We don’t want to not pay them,” Thompson said. “We just want grace.”

A possible compromise

The next day, the five remaining 332 11th St. tenants were huddled in the building’s basement. A meeting with the new owner, Cameron Manesh, had just ended. The contours of a compromise were taking shape, but the tenants now wondered if even that was wishful thinking.

The owner had offered to lower their rent to $1,350. Although it was still out of reach for the five seniors, the city of Laurel said it might be able to pitch in $350 per month for each tenant for a year with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Laurel City Council member Martin Mitchell was working with the city to secure the funding. Still, the money might not materialize, and if it did, the support payments would last only a year.

In the meantime, Manesh had also offered $1,000 for anyone interested in moving out. He’d given the tenants till the end of March to decide.

“I want us all to be on the same page,” CASA’s Leon-Lierman told the group. “Janette, what are you thinking right now? If everyone wants to stay, you are the only one thinking about taking the money and going.”

“I want to tell you all right now,” Pultz said. “I got a call this morning. I have been accepted into Selborne House.”

Some of the others had said they, too, had tried to get into Selborne, one of the few affordable senior living facilities close by, but none had been accepted.

“I’m leaving,” Pultz said. “I hate to do it!”

“You gotta do what’s best for you,” Thompson said.

“With Janette leaving, the amount of money we need from the city is about $15,000,” Leon-Lierman said. “So, for the four of you, do you want to stick together and keep fighting? With ‘the ask’ being that you can stay here? If so, I’m going to call the mayor and try to set up a meeting.”

They all nodded.

“This is bigger than the 332 11th Street apartments,” Thompson said. “It’s about the needs of the people that live in these places. When corporations come in and buy, when they renovate and make it ‘brand new,’ and put up the prices, then people have nowhere to go.”

“There’s something else you all gotta be concerned about, too,” Pendarvis said. “An eviction, it’s like a bad credit rating if you go to court.”

“I don’t want to go to court,” Wright said.

“But listen,” Pendarvis continued. “I’ve got to be realistic. I’m 63 and behind on my rent. I’ll probably be going, anyway.”

“No, no,” Leon-Lierman said. “We are watching out for you.”

“I just don’t want to be homeless, man,” Pendarvis said.

No one spoke for a few seconds, then Thompson answered: “You are not going to be homeless.”

The new landlord

The 11th Street building was one of four properties Manesh purchased in a four-month period, he said in an interview. “I was an apartment broker for 20 years. But owning was a new thing. You learn as you buy.”

What Manesh had learned so far was that real estate often was a game of winners and losers.

“I realized, ‘Whoa, some of these people have no place to go, and then can’t get on Section 8 because there’s a year-long waiting list,” he said, referring to the federal housing subsidy program. “I don’t want anybody to lose their home.”

In addition to his Potomac-based real estate business, Manesh also owns Cameron’s Seafood, a well-known distributor of fresh crabs and other seafood. But when he heard the tenants’ talk about their struggles to find alternative housing in Laurel, he could still relate: Manesh’s mother had been forced from her home in a similar situation years ago.

“I have a waiting list for people willing to pay $1,600 or $1,700 for these units, but at some point you have to make a moral decision,” he said.

By early March, Mitchell, the council member, had secured the necessary funding from the city. Each tenant would sign a one-year lease and pay $1,000 per month. Laurel would kick in $350 per unit each month, for a total monthly rent payment of $1,350. Manesh would still be able to charge market rent for the rest of the units.

“This was a rather small win. ... We should celebrate it,” Mitchell said. “But this was short-term. What are we going to do on the longer term?”

A new lease

Leon-Lierman returned to the building a few days later. The new property manager came as well. She handed out copies of the new lease agreements for each of the four tenants to sign. They flipped through the pages before taking them home to sign.

“The security deposits that were paid previously are credited in there,” the property manager said.

“I’m relieved,” Calderon said. “My whole life stopped over this situation.”

“Do you guys have any questions?” Leon-Lierman said.

“If we find housing before this lease is up, will we be penalized?” Thompson asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” the property manager said. “That would be considered breaking the lease.”

“They’re saying we’ll have to fulfill our contract for the year,” Wright said.

“The other thing is this lease ends in February, so we’re right back again potentially having to move out in the middle of winter,” Thompson said.

“So we’ll all have to figure something out way before that,” Wright said.

Now they had a year to find new homes.