Tenants at Marbury Plaza renew a decade-old rent strike as COVID-19 exacerbates a history of neglect
On Oct. 31, 2020, Barbara Cooper left her apartment at Marbury Plaza in Southeast D.C. to attend a “cancel the rent” protest across town at Mayor Muriel Bowser’s home in Shepherd Park. Cooper, a tenant organizer at Marbury Plaza, spoke in front of approximately 150 people about her experience suffering through not only the pandemic, but also poor conditions in her apartment, rental debt, and lack of security. She pleaded for Bowser to take action and cancel the rent for struggling Washingtonians barely able to put food on the table.
More than two months later, Cooper made the same journey from her deteriorating building to another upper northwest neighborhood to speak about rent cancellation. This time it was in the Palisades to 200 protesters outside the house of Biden’s domestic policy chief, Susan Rice. She echoed the same demand.
Starting in June, organizers with the D.C. Tenants Union partnered with Cooper and other tenant leaders at Marbury Plaza to organize a rent strike and push the landlord and city government for rental relief. The strike has since swelled to include 70 tenants withholding rent and paying the amount for each month’s rent into an escrow account instead.
[Disclosure: This reporter previously worked as a volunteer community organizer with the D.C. Tenants Union.]
“I’m all in for [a rent strike],” Cooper said. “I’m going to fight until the end, and I’m not giving up because I feel as though everyone should be able to live comfortably.”
Throughout Cooper’s seven years as a resident of Marbury Plaza, she has dealt with multiple building management companies that she said were incompetent and disregarded residents’ well-being. In 2015, Vantage Management took over building operations from Urban Investment Partners (UIP). UIP has a long history of buying up rent controlled buildings and then letting them deteriorate.
“Management doesn’t really care. I think they’re here just for a paycheck. They’re very nasty, very disrespectful. They look down on you. They don’t want us to owe them, but they don’t want to fix up nothing,” said Cooper, who uses a federal housing voucher to cover most of her rent.
Cooper’s two-bedroom garden unit has been a microcosm of the apartment complex’s chronic maintenance issues. “In this apartment I’ve had more than 20 floods,” she said. Most recently, on Feb. 13, Cooper opened the door to her apartment and walked into water as high as her ankles “flowing out like a river.” She stood there in horror and disbelief thinking to herself, “What am I going to do?”
After calling emergency maintenance, Cooper waited for four hours for them to turn off the water. As maintenance helped her clear out the apartment, they ripped her treasured carpet. After a previous flood, Cooper had bought that carpet with money she had saved for a family vacation. Cooper blames the constant flooding on a broken pipe outside her unit that management has attempted to repair but refuses to remove and replace. “It’s the same pipe they dug up, but they don’t fix the problem, they put Band-Aids over the problem,” she said.
In addition to chronic flooding, Cooper was without heat from Feb. 12. to Feb. 23 and resorted to her oven, boiling water on the stove, and a small portable heater as her primary sources of heat. “For $1300-plus every month I should walk around my apartment comfortably,” she said. “I did not sign up for this”.
LaVerne Grant, a Marbury Plaza resident since 2018, described an array of persistent maintenance issues that pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. These include constant water leakage and water-damaged ceilings, elevator maintenance issues including exposed wires, duck-taped pipes and disrepair in the laundry rooms, mold, and vermin infestation. Grant is particularly concerned for the building’s substantial elderly and disabled population.
“They give you notice the day before that hot water and heat are going to be cut off. They have one elevator working in a building that has 12 floors. We have a lot of elderly people in here, Grant said. “That’s not good because that’s not social distancing.”
Grant said Vantage Management took all the furniture out of the building’s lobby to prevent people from coming in, lounging, and putting residents at risk of coronavirus. However, management has also used COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid maintenance responsibilities.
“When you call them they tell you they can’t come in and fix anything because of the pandemic. It has to be an emergency, but they don’t have a problem taking my money,” Grant said.
Vantage Management did not respond to requests for comment.
A history of neglect
On Jan. 11, 2005, Vanessa Brantley and her 2-year-old daughter, Shiah, were killed in a gas explosion in Marbury Plaza’s second-floor laundry room. At least 19 other residents were injured. Investigators believed that the explosion was caused by “thieves pulling laundry equipment from natural gas lines in an attempt to steal coins,” according to a Washington Post report.
In response to this tragic event and increasingly deteriorating conditions, including “longstanding security and maintenance issues,” more than 100 Marbury Plaza residents launched a two-year rent strike from 2008 – 2010. Eventually, the owner of Marbury Plaza, A&A Marbury LLC (New York-based real-estate developers Lightstone Group and the Collins Group), was forced to invest $5 million into the building under a settlement overseen by the D.C. attorney general, which designated UIP as property manager. However, two years after the settlement, residents remained concerned that conditions were subpar, security was lax, and affordability was on the decline. Organizing efforts had also stalled as lead organizer and resident April Goggans was evicted from Marbury Plaza for non-payment of rent in January 2012.
Goggans voiced her displeasure in an e-mail to the Marbury Plaza Tenant Association obtained by The Washington City Paper in March 2012.
“[UIP’s] message is that they can and will continue to try to divide and further marginalize the tenants so that the Association will die and tenants will act and feel defeated,” she wrote. Goggans’ statement proved to be prophetic.
For the next eight years, residents’ despair grew. In 2015, 27-year-old Alonzo Smith was killed at the Marbury Plaza Apartments while in the custody of special police officers. The officers worked for Blackout Investigation and Security Services, a private firm hired by Vantage Management.
The breaking point for Cooper came when management put a notice on her door saying she was short on rent by $4.
“This is a little ridiculous, you could have just added that onto next month’s rent. It’s the small things that increase anxiety and we got tired,” Cooper said.
The revival of a Marbury Plaza Tenant Association
Grant temporarily moved to Marbury Plaza in 2018 while her apartment in Bellevue underwent renovations. She had waged a long fight to improve conditions in her 15-unit building until her landlord provided residents with an offer of sale under D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Grant now serves as the Vice-President of the 22 Atlantic Cooperative Association, which received $2,669,924 in Housing Protection Trust Fund (HPTF) financing to rehabilitate dilapidated conditions. As she continues to wait for the completion of the renovations, she’s grown tired of the way tenants are treated at Marbury Plaza. “The conditions were bad even before the pandemic,” Grant said.
A recent incident experienced by Grant at Marbury Plaza had the potential to end like the 2005 gas leak. Early on Dec. 14, she smelled gas in the hallway while taking out the trash and started calling the management company at 5:30 a.m. to report it.
“No one got here until 7 a.m. and by that time Washington Gas had come. A gentleman had had his gas on all night,” Grant said. “When I asked management what had taken the guy so long … they said, ‘He lives far away.’ I said, ‘Then why is he on the emergency [24/7 call service]?’ It could have blew all of us up.”
In addition to security concerns, Grant’s $1200 one-bedroom apartment at Marbury Plaza is $500 more expensive than her apartment in Congress Heights. Fortunately, the government helps Grant pay the difference.
“A lot of us are scared that if we don’t pay our rent, they’re going to set us out,” Grant says. Despite that fear, Grant has joined many of her neighbors in withholding rent until the landlord adequately addresses maintenance issues.
Kiara Davis, an organizer with the D.C. Tenants Union, has worked since July 2020 to rebuild tenant unity, confidence, and power at Marbury Plaza.
Davis and striking tenants at Marbury Plaza have increased support for the strike through bi-weekly mutual aid distributions that assisted dozens of tenant families from August to December.
“There’s a lot of revolutionary potential in this complex. Lots of people who have been used and abused. Living with mold, mice. People who have been really downtrodden. Putting these [mutual aid] events on — people are really excited about them because, like I’ve heard from a lot of people, there hasn’t been a lot of positivity in years,” Davis said. “Feeding people, decent housing, toys, school supplies, this is not only a way to build a working class movement, but to build relationships with neighbors, organizers, and really make a big change.”
However, Davis, Cooper, and Grant have all been deeply disappointed by the apartment management’s response to mutual-aid efforts during the health crisis.
“The toughest thing to deal with has been confrontations with security and police,” Davis said. “We’ve been doing mutual aid since the end of August. First food drive, security came out and told us to leave. The second time, they called the cops because we wouldn’t leave from the front lawn.”
After the encounter with law enforcement, Davis had the legal assistance nonprofit Rising for Justice send Vantage Management a cease-and-desist order. However, the company called the Metropolitan Police Department a second time claiming that cars standing in the driveway to pick up food were violating the complex’s fire-lane policy. Davis contacted the Office of the Attorney General to help enforce D.C.’s right of tenants to organize. MPD has not been called since.
Incidents like these are why Davis has emphasized the importance of political and legal education throughout the rent strike. In July, Davis organized a “know your rights” meeting with Marbury Plaza tenant leaders, the OAG, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White.
“[We’re] giving people a sense of efficacy. You have rights, you can enforce them, you just have to be aware of them,” Davis said.
In December, Davis and the Marbury tenants agreed to temporarily suspend bi-weekly mutual aid distributions during winter months to focus on organizing neighbors behind an upcoming lawsuit. According to Davis, Rising for Justice, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, and more than 90 tenants are planning for future litigation. They will seek repairs for chronic maintenance issues and total or partial alleviation of thousands of dollars in rental debt for tenants. The conditions of the property, they say, have failed to meet the implied basic living and safety standards of their leases.
Davis said the tenants simply expect the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to enforce the D.C. Housing Code.
Many striking tenants are veterans of the 2008–2010 rent strike campaign who benefited from thousands of dollars in back rent cancellation and investment concessions won through organizing. In 2010, UIP was forced to replace roofs and heating, air-conditioning, hot water, and building-access systems. However, tenants have also experienced a continuous decay in living conditions throughout the past decade without an active tenant association.
“The mold, the asbestos, the water leaks, the mice, the pests, those things are structural issues that still need to be addressed,” Davis said. “Americans with Disabilities Act violations like not having a wheelchair ramp in the back building, wheelchair lifts being broken for periods of months, elevators being broken to where people are missing medical appointments … none of these have been addressed. I think that’s a lesson learned from tenants who still live here.”
Approximately 25 Marbury Plaza rent strikers and other housing activists held a protest outside the building on Feb. 27 to help recruit tenants for the lawsuit and put pressure on Vantage Management.
This article has been edited to specify the size of the protest outside of Marbury Plaza. It previously noted the event was upcoming.