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Want to start a tenant association? Here’s what you need to know first.

When Kermit Turner’s building went up for sale in 2010, he formed a tenant association to make sure the community could stay together. (Jason Hornick / for Express)
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Kermit Turner had a pretty good reason to start a tenant association at the Adams-Garden Towers apartments: “Necessity.”

When Turner’s Mount Pleasant apartment building, then called Garden Towers, went up for sale in 2010, he and his neighbors formed the association to fight as a unit to keep their home in good hands.

“The options for remaining in the building were either to turn it into a condo, go co-op or remain a rental,” says Turner, 62, the association’s president. The first two options would necessitate tenants buying the building and running it themselves. “Most of the people who lived in the building had never owned any property and were afraid to make that move.”

Even though they didn’t want to buy, Turner and his neighbors formed a tenant association to stay involved as their building sought new management. They hired a lawyer, who brought in developers he trusted who might want to buy the building. The tenant association made recommendations on behalf of the community, and Turner was even able to get a new rooftop garden and amenities added to the building during the management switchover.

Whether you’re faced with the sale of your building or you and your neighbors simply want to address everyday issues with management, a tenant association can make your case stronger.

If, like Turner, you’re responding to a building being up for sale, forming a tenant association is your first step to invoking your rights as described in D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which allows tenants to buy a building themselves. If you choose to buy, you must incorporate your tenant association by filing paperwork with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. That’ll cost your tenant association between $80 and $180, depending on how fast you want DCRA to process it. Keep in mind, you have 45 days from the notice of sale to incorporate if you want to invoke your TOPA rights.

“That’s not a lot of time,” says Delores Anderson, education and outreach coordinator of the Office of the Tenant Advocate. “In some instances, people don’t know each other, so you’re just going on trust, on faith that it’ll work out.”

If it does work out, your landlord is legally obligated to attempt to negotiate a sale to your tenant association.

[What to do when your landlord decides to sell]

In Turner’s case, he had the support of the tenants behind him, but he wasn’t sure how to navigate the thorny legal issues. “I had the leadership skills. The only thing I needed to learn was the language,” he says.

That’s where someone like Anita Ballantyne comes in. As the program director of the tenant services department of the nonprofit Housing Counseling Services, she manages a team that provides support and guidance to tenant associations or to renters looking to form one.

Renters who want to form a tenant association don’t need to be legal experts, “but they need to build a strong team,” Ballantyne says. “That team usually involves an attorney and a technical assistance provider, which is us.”

Ballantyne says that while management companies rarely try to stop tenants from organizing, they can make it difficult. She even keeps a copy of D.C.’s official code in her wallet, “because I’ve had to flash it in people’s faces.”

She recalls a time when a building’s management said that the tenant association couldn’t meet in the apartment lobby because it would create a fire hazard. Ballantyne directed them to section D, subsection 5 of the code’s chapter on the rights of tenants to organize, which names lobbies as one of the common areas suitable for such meetings.

But more often than not, she says, management is receptive. And sometimes it’s even hospitable: Ballantyne knows of one building where management gave tenants access to a vacant unit for their association meetings. “They didn’t have to, but they were nice enough to do that,” she says.

Your journey to a successful tenant association starts when you call a meeting of your fellow tenants, usually by posting signs around the building. At that first meeting, you’ll decide how your group will be governed, by selecting a president and other officers and, in some cases, a board of directors to represent the building.

There’s no hard rule for how to divvy up the power in your association, and you can meet as often or as seldom as you like (Anderson knows one association that meets just once a year). A set of rules, however, is something both Ballantyne and Anderson stress is crucial.

[Exercise your rights as a renter with these tips on tenant law]

“If you’re going to make decisions as a group, you have to have a good set of governing documents that everyone understands,” Ballantyne says. The Office of the Tenant Advocate can provide you with a template for your bylaws.

Once his tenant association was established, Turner and his neighbors were able to continue to address issues in the building as a whole.

For example, when the tenant association had repeated issues with the management company hired by the new developers, Turner met with the building owners and convinced them to change to new management.

“We have a good rapport with management,” he says. “It’s not one of these kind of things where you can just complain; you have to build up a case.”

Anderson says getting together to solve common issues is key to relationships in a multi-unit building.

“You don’t want to live in a community where you don’t even speak to your neighbors, you just walk in the door and hop on the elevator and that’s it,” she says. “[Tenant associations] lead to that sense of community.”

But if you want to get social …

So maybe you aren’t facing the sale of your building; maybe you just want a way to bring up everyday issues to management. Is a tenant association still the way to go? If you live in a large property, forming a tenant association is “a great idea,” says Anita Ballantyne of Housing Counseling Services. “I’ve even seen tenant associations that focus more on organizing activities or outings, more like a social kind of association.” Plus, if you’re not responding to the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, you don’t need to incorporate, which means you can focus on advocating for needed repairs or amenities.

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