DC residents launch a city-wide tenant union in hopes to foster solidarity across the District
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Loud chants in Amharic, Spanish, and English filled the All Souls Unitarian church gymnasium on a Saturday afternoon in July.
“Slumlords, you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side!” reverberated throughout the room, sustained by hundreds of renters from across the District.
In the main room, tenants customized a giant hand-drawn map of D.C. that filled the wall. It represented the difference in perspective and experience in the room. Down the hallway, volunteers lined up to create an interactive history corridor documenting the local history of tenant organizing.
The event was organized by the Latino Economic Development Center, a nonprofit that aims to promote financial stability for small business owners and renters by providing small business loans and credit building, as well as preserving housing affordability through tenant organizing. The organization hosts a town hall every year but re-organized the event this year to focus more on community building, according to tenant organizer Victoria Goncalves.
“In previous years, it’s been about garnering tenants to come together and provide resources [to them],” Goncalves said in an interview with Street Sense Media. “This year, we really want to focus on building power and building solidarity across different tenant associations.”
The tenant union was divided into three chapters by location, including Uptown (Wards 1, 4, 5), Mid-city (Wards 5, 6, 2), and East of the River (Wards 7, 8). An interim board of 15 members was elected by the tenants, with five members representing each of the three chapters.
The interim board plans to last three to six months and will have a chapter meeting in the next month, according to Goncalves.
“People call D.C. a tenant-friendly city, and that didn’t just happen out of nowhere,” Goncalves said. “A lot of the laws that exist in D.C. that make it a tenant-friendly city happened because there was a lot of organizing to put it in place.”
In the 1950s, the Southwest part of D.C. underwent huge gentrification that forced 23,000 people to be relocated into public housing east of the Anacostia River, said University of the District of Columbia history professor Amanda Huron at a June 25 seminar about the history of D.C. tenant organizing.
The legacy of this displacement persists today. According to the D.C. Policy Center, almost 80 percent of D.C.-born adults live in Wards 7 and 8.
In 1964, D.C. marked its first documented rent strike at 1414 Gerard St. NW. when resident Karen Shuler refused to pay rent because of unsuitable living conditions. However, it took years for similar actions to influence city policy. Shuler lost the Gerard St. case and was forcibly evicted. It was not until 1968 that a group of local tenants were able to beat eviction through a rent strike, according to Huron.
Attendees at the LEDC town hall shared their modern-day experiences organizing in their own buildings – from exercising their TOPA rights to conducting rent strikes.
In March, a group of six tenants organized a rent strike in their apartment complex on 1454 Irving St with the help of LEDC to dispute long-neglected repairs. Eloiza Charmorra and Rosalina Ticas, two of the residents, encouraged the audience to not be afraid to exercise their rights – no matter what the management threatens them with.
For Venus Little, the president of the Tyler House tenant association in Ward 6, joining the new city-wide union was a clear next step in debunking any fear other residents have about organizing.
“Being a part of this union and stepping up and advocating for the people who do not have a voice – that’s why I stepped in,” Little said in an interview with Street Sense Media. “A lot of people are scared and it’s hard for them to stand and speak up. This is what the union is all about.”
Little prioritizes community outreach within her organizing by hosting monthly meetings with her own tenant association, as well as regularly checking in with her Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Tenants also broke off into small groups within their chapters to discuss strengths and weaknesses within their communities.
“I see ancestors who came from something,” one resident from the East of the River chapter said. “I see people who have been in chains, I see descendants of Martin Luther King. I see descendants who changed something. The reason that we live in D.C. and can pay rent is because of where we came from. When I hear your story, I hear strength — I hear resilience.”
In the Mid-town chapter, residents said they felt in danger of being pushed out by rising costs and not enough affordable housing associated with new developments. They thought that zoning laws and other legislation incentivizes developers more than it protects tenants. Within the new developments, however, the community also saw an opportunity for growth through more young residents.
The Uptown chapter also raised concerns over redevelopment, rent prices, and the fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The community saw the need to engage all residents – despite a high turnover of residents in many rental units — and unite under a common struggle.
The East of the River chapter shared similar concerns and also expressed feeling disregarded and forgotten by organizing groups.
“Communication doesn’t travel across the river,” one resident said. “If you’re not already connected, you don’t hear about things.”
This tenant union is an opportunity to involve grassroots organizing on a much broader level, according to Ward 4 resident Juanita Haynes.
“Tenants need to be educated, mobilized, and exercise their rights,” Haynes said in an interview with Street Sense Media. “We had a union many, many years ago, but it did not involve grassroots. I’m looking for the community to come together and recognize how much power the tenants of D.C. have.”