Tenant activism has trickled its way through the District in recent years, building by building.
Renters have organized associations, implemented rent strikes and battled the threat of displacement. They have protested, signed petitions and contacted city leaders.
But for decades, there has been no centralized effort to organize renters on District-wide issues such as single-family-home renters’ rights, gentrification and rent control.
The new D.C. Tenants Union is vowing to change that.
At a launch party last month in the All Souls Church auditorium in Columbia Heights, more than 100 renters from across the District gathered to vote the organization into existence. They weighed in on how the organization should operate, what its agenda should be and how best to reach people in a city where about 60 percent of the population rents, according to census data.
On a hand-drawn map hung from the wall of the auditorium, residents sketched landmarks and apartment buildings that resembled the ones they live in. They swapped phone numbers and bonded over shared experiences. Speakers bragged about victories — successful rent strikes and lawsuits — and led the crowd in chants.
“Slumlords, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” the group recited in unison.
With rising rents driving people from the city and simmering tensions over gentrification, organizers said the time is right to launch the citywide mobilization effort. And this time, several said, they hope it sticks.
The District is not alone. Tenants unions, collectives that mobilize renters around common issues to lobby political leaders and fight for more stringent protections, have begun to appear across the country.
Residents of Santa Rosa, Calif., and the surrounding region established a tenants union this year to push for more affordable housing after wildfires devastated the area in 2017.
In Chicago, residents of several buildings in the Albany Park neighborhood banded last month to form a tenants union to address issues facing their slice of the city.
Los Angeles renters formed their union four years ago. Philadelphia’s was founded in 2016.
More established unions such as those in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., created in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, are seeing increased interest, organizers said.
Email sign-ups are up. More volunteers are turning out to events. Office hours and calls to hotlines have skyrocketed.
“In recovering from the economic crash of 2008, cities like Los Angeles saw a huge surge of new developments as a way to bring in investment and money, and when you have that kind of fast-moving development, particularly when it’s coming from overseas or people who don’t actually live in the city, they don’t care about people who get displaced in the process,” said Susan Hunter, a caseworker with the Los Angeles Tenants Union. “Gentrification is always touted as this way of cleaning up neighborhoods, but it’s not being cleaned up for the people who actually live there.”
The District, New York and Los Angeles are the three cities with the most gentrified neighborhoods in the country, according to a report this year from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which compared economic changes in low-income neighborhoods from 2000 to 2013.
Gentrification can benefit areas when it leads to economic investment and an increase in opportunities and services in underserved areas, experts say. But problems arise when longtime residents are pushed out as rents and property taxes rise, leaving them unable to benefit from those improvements.
In the District, that has led to the displacement of low-income residents at some of the highest rates in the country, according to a study from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.
“We’re sitting here like, ‘Where’s all this opportunity I was told we’ll have? My rent is still too high,’ ” said Sela Lewis, a member of the D.C. Tenants Union’s interim steering committee. “I think we see this bubbling frustration from folks who did the work to create the culture of the city and are just being left out of what it’s becoming.”
A tenants union is not like a traditional labor collective. Many are volunteer-run and loosely organized. They are defined by geographic area and vary in their definitions of who is allowed to join and who qualifies as a “tenant.” The group does not have to be recognized by any entity or bargain for a particular contract. Instead, it functions more as a grass-roots lobbying effort, a collective of activists trained on one issue: housing.
“It can be really hard to organize in labor — it’s just not something that everyone has access to,” said Stephanie Bastek, 28, a member of the D.C. Tenants Union interim steering committee. “But everybody needs somewhere to live, and that’s the basis for everything.”
The group has been a longtime goal of the Latino Economic Development Center, a nonprofit group that has helped to organize D.C. tenants within their own buildings and leads regular clinics on tenants’ rights.
Through the union, LEDC officials said they hope tenants can learn from one another’s wins and losses and support one another in disputes. Others hope the organization can translate into a voting bloc and increase the political capital of renters.
“The biggest thing I would like to see is planning with the people, not for the people,” said Karen Settles, a member of the D.C. Tenants Union steering committee and a longtime housing advocate. “This spirit of collaboration is so needed right now.”
Settles, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Ward 7, said she remembers the last time residents tried to jump-start a citywide force on housing, in the 1980s. The effort, a nationally coordinated campaign, failed because of a lack of funding, she said.
In the years since, she said, the need for tenant advocacy has increased.
“What’s so disturbing is here, in our nation’s capital, we have an out-of-control homeless problem and many more people who feel like they could become homeless at any moment,” Settles said.
The group is broken up into three arms: Uptown, or Wards 1, 3 and 4; Midtown, or Wards 2, 5 and 6; and Bridge to East of the River, composed of Wards 7 and 8.
At its launch event, the group’s goals were handwritten on poster boards in English and Spanish. The colorful words glowed as sunlight filtered through the paper.
“Join the fight to save D.C.’s rent control,” read one. “Justice for tenants.”
They are drawing inspiration from New York’s recent rent-control fight.
When several laws pertaining to renters’ rights expired in June, New York’s legislature passed sweeping overhauls that expanded tenant protections statewide, closed loopholes that allowed property owners to raise rents despite rent-control regulations and abolished rules that allowed property owners to deregulate apartments.
The District’s rent-control law comes up for renewal next year.
“I think the most important part is just being this political force that can counter all the money in politics and specifically its influence on the mayor’s office and in the [D.C.] Council,” Bastek said. “It’s foolish to believe that just because something sounds good and is good policy, it’s going to pass.”
It is unclear how the organization will define “tenants,” which other cities have used to mean rent-paying residents to recipients of public housing services to homeless individuals and incarcerated people.
There are tenants who live in high-rise developments, single-family homes, small apartment buildings and group homes. Each group has its own distinct needs.
The only way to address those needs, organizers said, is to get them talking.
“The thing about poor people organizing is it demonstrates our power to people who don’t think we have power in the game,” Settles said. “That’s what we need right now.”