The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rent strikes grow in popularity among tenants as gentrification drives up rents in cities like D.C.

James Jaramillo, 4, seen in his family’s kitchen, picks up a croissant container with a sticky roach trap clinging to it. His mother, Dania Rivera, 34, is one of the organizers of a rent strike at their apartment building. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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By the time nine residents of this Brightwood Park apartment had decided to stop paying their rent, several of their neighbors had fled — from water that soaked through the first and second floors, fire that burned walls from the inside out and a boiler pipe that tore through two apartments in an overnight explosion.

For those who remained, the disasters were a wake-up call: If conditions did not change, their homes might be next.

Residents of the brick apartment building at 5320 Eighth St. NW in the Washington neighborhood of Brightwood Park said they have lived in unhealthy and unsafe conditions for years.

On top of the water and fire damage, there were bedbugs, rats and roaches, crumbling structures, mold, faulty electricity, and unreliable heat and hot water. Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer at the Children’s Law Center who is representing several former tenants, said the problems were among the worst she had seen.

In April, several residents gathered outside the building to announce their intent to withhold rent until changes were made.

A rent strike was born.

Often viewed as a last resort by tenant-rights groups, rent strikes have in recent years become increasingly common in the District and other gentrifying cities around the country, including Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Experts say the trend is a sign of tenant desperation amid rising housing costs in urban areas — and an attempt to fight back.

“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” said ­Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in housing issues. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”

The strike in Brightwood Park is being coordinated by the Latino Economic Development Center, a D.C. organization that advocates for renters’ rights and often helps organize tenants associations.

Though the group has historically stayed away from facilitating rent strikes, frustration with the slow pace of legal battles and rapidly rising rents in the District prompted organizers to guide residents through the process of striking.

Instead of writing monthly rent checks to the property owner, EADS LLC, the tenants now hand their rent to tenant organizers, who help them stow the cash away in escrow.

As of this week, nine tenants were participating in the strike.

Property manager Delores Johnson said the building has 26 occupied units, though advocates with LEDC said they think the number is smaller.

If the strike is successful, the group may begin to deploy rent strikes more liberally in buildings facing similar struggles, LEDC tenant organizer Rob Wohl said.

It could take years to reach a conclusion.

Rent strikes date to the Second Industrial Revolution, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and have seen spikes in popularity over the past century and a half that tend to coincide with “periods of extreme inequality,” Anderson said.

“In the early 20th century, we not only had organized strikes in industrial factories, but they started showing up in apartment buildings where people felt they were paying too much money for too little quality,” she said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, cities like D.C. were really, for quite a number of years, subject to disinvestment. So the buildings were deteriorating and there was this rising consciousness of poverty and race. . . . That period saw this kind of tenant organizing as well, as a means to draw attention to habitability and intense economic insecurity.”

The present day, she said, seems to be settling into a similar pattern.

“Eventually, [tenants] get pushed to the point where they’re willing to take some risks and do something different,” Anderson said. “That’s when we start to see these strikes.”

Areas facing gentrification are the most likely to experience such strikes, Anderson added, because their residents are keenly aware of the risk of being displaced.

Such is the case in Los Angeles, where more than 90 tenants in a complex in the Westlake neighborhood are leading what the L.A. Tenants Union has said is the biggest rent strike in that city’s history.

Residents are demanding improvements to the buildings, which, tenant organizer Trinidad Ruiz said, have been beset with roaches, rats, bedbugs, security problems, mold, plumbing problems including sewage leaks, and more. But tenants are also protesting rent increases, which, according to the L.A. Tenants Union, have inflated rents by about 30 percent since the start of 2017, forcing tenants to pay as much as 70 percent of their income for housing.

“There is a desperation in these situations like in L.A., which is a huge, sprawling city, but it’s seeing gentrification on a citywide scale. If these people get pushed out of their community, there isn’t a community in L.A. they can move to instead,” Ruiz said. “They’re stuck. They can’t move anywhere else because they can’t afford it. So, because they have nothing to lose, they start to fight back. And because they’re not left with many tools, they use what they have — their rent checks.”

One of the last high-profile rent strikes in the District involved nearly 10 times as many tenants as the number striking in Brightwood Park: 100 renters in the 672-unit Marbury Plaza in Southeast Washington launched a rent strike in 2008 over poor building conditions that came to light after the deaths of a toddler and her mother in a 2005 ­laundry-room explosion.

After nearly two years of residents locking their rent away in escrow, the owner settled, ultimately agreeing to $5 million in building repairs.

“These kinds of organized rent strikes are still extremely rare,” said Wohl, who is spearheading the Brightwood Park effort. “Usually, what we see are more- ­informal strikes where a tenant or a group of tenants will be fed up with conditions and just stop paying their rent. It’s not usually so coordinated.”

In cities with few tenant protections, landlords can use the strike to push tenants out over nonpayment of rent.

That is why, Anderson said, it is important that renters go about striking the “right way,” which includes being “scrupulous” about putting the exact amount owed monthly into an escrow account.

Since the strike began in April, EADS has sued several of its tenants, who are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants, for not paying their rent.

Johnson said the striking tenants are troublemakers who have stirred up problems in the building before, including inviting too many adults to live in their apartments, changing the locks on their doors, failing to buy tenants insurance and barring maintenance workers or exterminators from entering their units for scheduled work.

“This really isn’t a rent strike,” Johnson said. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”

She said EADS will renovate the building’s hallways and 13 apartments in coming months as part of an effort to repair damage from a boiler explosion in January and a fire in December.

On Dec. 14, 2017, a blaze ignited inside a wall between two units on the top floor of the building. The fire destroyed the homes of six families, all of which have left the building.

To put out the flames, the fire department cut into the wall and doused the building. Water damage rendered six units uninhabitable.

Lawyers suing EADS on behalf of the former tenants allege that years of neglect contributed to the fire that tenants say was sparked by “defective wiring in the wall.”

EADS has denied their allegations.

The families that occupied those units lived for weeks afterward in hotels typically used as emergency shelters. Five have found permanent housing with the help of the District’s Department for Housing Services.

One family — a husband, wife and one child — remains homeless, Zeisel said.

Reina Flores, 48, did not think the fire would affect her basement unit two floors down from where the blaze began. Then, one day in December, she said, pieces of her ceiling collapsed on top of her youngest daughter.

The child’s older sister pulled her from under the debris, Flores said.

Weeks later, in the early hours of Jan. 1, the building’s boiler burst. A water pipe erupted, tearing through Flores’s kitchen wall.

“It’s not safe here,” Flores said in Spanish during a visit to her wrecked apartment in May. “Everything that came out of the wall was so hot. We’re lucky no one was here in the kitchen.”

Johnson said EADS gave Flores and her children the option to move into a vacant unit in the same building, an accommodation Johnson said the owners extended to any families affected. But Flores declined.

“I want to be happy here in my home,” said Flores, who is staying at her older daughter’s place nearby. “They need to change everything.”