The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their Maryland apartments were deteriorating. Then the rent went up.

Dozens of families at the Westgate Laurel apartment complex have planned a rent strike in August unless the management company addresses their concerns. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

The Westgate apartments in Laurel can be easy to miss, a utilitarian set of three-story brick buildings not far from Exit 33A off Interstate 95. It’s the sort of anonymous complex that houses immigrant and working-class families in suburbs nationwide, and, until recently, some of its residents were strangers, too.

Nuvia Martinez, 41, said she simply hadn’t had time to befriend her neighbors in the decade she’s lived at Westgate. She’s busy picking up extra shifts, like many in the complex, cleaning buildings at long and odd hours. She’s raising three kids and trying to see her husband. And she’s worrying about her refrigerator that doesn’t keep the right temperature, doesn’t seal properly and leaks often. “For three kids, how am I feeding them with this?” Martinez asked.

Others at Westgate, she learned, had similar concerns — about the mildew buildup in their carpets, the mold growing along their kitchen and bathroom walls, the cockroaches — and it was those frustrations that finally brought Martinez and her neighbors together. Next month, with rent increasing despite the worsening conditions, about 80 tenants have signed a petition not to pay it.

“I don’t feel too confident [right now] this will be resolved,” Martinez said. But she and the other potential strikers say they believe they have to do something to bring attention to their concerns.

The petition at the Westgate, organized by the community activist group CASA Maryland, calls for tenants to withhold their rent for the month of August. These residents, mostly immigrants from Latin America, call the recent rent hikes especially unreasonable given the management company’s lack of response to issues in units and common spaces.

Such rent strikes, along with protests and other collective actions, are rising in the Washington region and around the country as tenants look for ways to assert their rights. The D.C. Tenants Union formed in 2019 to organize renters within the nation’s capital, and tenants in two other Prince George’s County apartment complexes went on rent strikes for months starting in 2020.

‘It’s time to unite’: Prince George’s County neighbors start rent strike against living conditions

For many Westgate families, money was already tight. Martinez’s husband, Jose Escobar, often works 13- or 14-hour days landscaping. Ruth Portillo, 28, picks up any orders she can as a delivery driver for Giant to share the cost of her two-bedroom with her mother, Norma, who works minimum-wage housekeeping jobs to help provide for Portillo’s three kids.

Besides the living conditions at Westgate, residents cite issues of additional fees for parking, over-enforcement of towing, and replacement appliances being shuffled around and handed down from past tenants. Some of those dishwashers have been cited by maintenance workers as a cause of leaks from units’ ceilings.

Residents say Westgate’s conditions worsened after Schweb Partners took over management of the complex in February 2020. The concerned tenants and organizers at CASA Maryland have been trying to pin down representatives from the New Jersey-based company, they said, and couldn’t get an audience with them until Tuesday afternoon, when over the course of a two-hour meeting four members of Schweb’s management team listened to nearly two dozen residents voice their concerns.

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

Residents called the meeting, which was limited to residents, management and three local officials, productive and said they felt heard and respected by the management team. But given what was at stake, some couldn’t help but worry.

“Sometimes we’re scared, because we never had a meeting like that,” says Enrique Medina, 47, a carpenter who lives in Westgate with his family of four and attended the meeting. “Sometimes you feel nervous when you speak to those persons, but we have to speak, because the rent is too high.”

Residents said management agreed to monthly meetings with tenants over the next three months.

“We felt the meeting was very productive,” Sean Rabinowitz, senior regional manager for Schweb Partners, said after the meeting. “The point was to hear them and their complaints out.”

Rabinowitz declined to answer further questions in person or over email about the residents’ concerns or plans to address the conditions at Westgate.

Laurel City Council member Martin Mitchell, who also attended the meeting, said he has been sympathetic to residents’ concerns. Mitchell is advocating assistance measures, he said, such as bills to quash rent-gouging, but he knows that promises and ideas aren’t enough.

The average monthly rent in Laurel is $1,823 as of July, according to the real estate data company Yardi Matrix. The rent increases for the residents at Westgate who spoke with The Post would bring their rates within $200 of that figure.

“We’re all working hard. We’re still going through a pandemic,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t have that safety net. So, if they left here, which is one of the more affordable places in the county, where else are they going to go?”

Prince George’s County rent strikers sue landlord over conditions of ‘premeditated neglect’

Ana Rodriguez Montoya, a Laurel resident and community organizer for CASA Maryland, has been listening to residents’ stories and knocking on doors to win support for a rent strike. For nearly all the residents at Westgate, according to her canvassing, the monthly rent increases are the difference between being able to stay in Laurel and having to find their families another place to live, with its own potential problems.

“They know how rent will be increased — and it’s so crazy,” Rodriguez Montoya said. “They know with CASA and working together as a community, they can get results.”

The looming threat of packing up and leaving Westgate got Wilmer Chavarria fired up one recent evening, even after he’d gotten up at 5 a.m. and worked nearly 13 hours, still wearing his neon-orange work long-sleeve from his job on a road crew laying asphalt. His family’s rent was raised in June from $1,154 to $1,630.

“I’ve had to reduce my kids’ food,” Chavarria said in Spanish, through an interpreter.

Forced out by fire, she had 30 minutes to pack up a life

Chavarria, 32, has lived in his apartment for about seven years, he said, and is frustrated by the stench of his carpet, the rat hole in his bedroom closet and the toilet that spewed sewage early in the pandemic. He resents having to host his wife, three children and cousin in such conditions.

“It’s my home,” Chavarria said. “I only come here to sleep because I’m working seven days to pay my rent … but I want to live here.”

So do the other families gearing up to strike. Brought together by their frustrations on a recent stormy July evening, the Martinez and Portillo families sat chatting and laughing on the Portillos’ patio and stoop, sharing sodas, water bottles and pastries with other neighbors and watching the storm.

The families want to have a lot more of these memories together. They’re hoping to make up for missed time.

“I would have never known [Ruth] this well before,” said the Portillos’ next-door neighbor Sandra Chavez, 32, as she ate a sweet roll on their patio.

The Westgate families looked out as their kids scampered around the playground across the parking lot, holding out hope that the rain would pass soon.