Renters in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood have a little extra help these days as they organize to improve their living conditions – and maybe take over their buildings.
The aid comes in the form of a modestly sized, well-written and illustrated manual, Building by Building, which advises tenants on how to build leadership, recruit a base, create a tenant association and decide whether or not to switch to homeownership. Publishing the manual fits the mission of Manna CDC, which was established in 1997 to focus on organizing and popular education in Shaw. But it is also timely as DC tenants battle rapidly escalating rents and landlords eager to replace them with gentrifying newcomers.
Manna, a subsidiary of the citywide group Manna, Inc., developed the manual after it found that it didn’t have the capacity to meet with tenants in every building on a consistent basis. “We realized we would touch a lot of folks on a very preliminary basis, do one workshop, and then maybe never come back again,” says David Haiman, a Manna organizer. “So the manual was a way to give them something that is user-friendly and might help them work through the initial steps.”
Much of the work of Manna and tenant activist groups in the city recently has been around protecting the right of tenants to buy their buildings when landlords want to sell. DC renters have had this right since 1980, and they have used it to buy 130 buildings. But many landlords have found legal loopholes in the law so that tenants were only informed after the fact that their buildings had been for sale, and in other cases where buildings received subsidies from HUD, tenants have lost their legal right to purchase.
To take advantage of their right to purchase, the majority of tenants in a building must agree to buy their building and organize into a tenant association. The association then has to notify the landlord and the city government, which registers it as the tenants’ representative. The landlord can still issue a request for proposals from potential buyers, and the tenants have to match any other proposal. So they are not entirely protected from escalating housing prices.
Many of the HUD-subsidized buildings in Shaw have failed multiple inspections, resulting in the threat of HUD terminating their Section 8 contracts. Kelsey Gardens, a 54-unit building, is an example; it first went up for sale in 2000. Manna worked with tenants to quickly organize and register with the city; at that point the landlord withdrew the sale announcement. This was apparently a “smokescreen,” says Haiman, as the building was back on the market in 2002. But in the intervening two years, with the threat of losing their homes seemingly behind them, the tenants’ association had lost its primary motivation for existing. Now the tenants had to start from scratch to assert their right to buy.
On the other hand, by 2002 the landlord had allowed conditions in the building to deteriorate to the point that it failed a HUD inspection, and after a second failure in 2003 HUD moved to end the Section 8 contract. The tenant association was able to convince HUD to re-inspect the building and reverse its decision; had tenants not fought back, they would have lost their right to buy the building and many would have had to move.
The manual doesn’t assume tenants necessarily want to buy their buildings. It gives an overview of organizing in the broadest sense, describing possible tactics such as picketing and street theater; also included is a list of likely action steps for a typical tenant association. But the second half of the manual is devoted to the process through which tenants become owners. Common ownership types, including cooperatives, condos and rental partnerships, are explained, with a hypothetical month-by-month schedule of the purchase process. The details of real estate ownership, such as probable expenses and sources of funds, are included as well. All this is interspersed with quotes on the power of people to make change from proponents of popular education such as Ella Baker, Saul Alinsky and Paulo Freire.
“We believe in concrete results, but we also believe in consciousness-raising and long-term movement building,” says Haiman. “The manual attempts to do both. Even tenants who will never purchase their building can organize to have control over their environment, whether to improve conditions in their building or increase control over management. Or a tenant may say, ‘My building is secure, but this will help me think more broadly about issues in the community I might want to get involved in.’”
However, the ideal scenario would be that tenants first organize to buy their building and protect affordable housing, then put that organizing skill to use in the surrounding neighborhood, he says.
Though Shaw has long been a largely African-American neighborhood, the area is now close to 20 percent Latino. For this reason, Manna hopes to find funding soon to issue a separate edition of Building by Building in Spanish.
Washington, DC is hardly the only city where tenants face uncertain prospects in HUD-subsidized buildings, whether they have Section 8 contracts, subsidized mortgages or other types of federal funding. In New York, tenants of a Harlem apartment building celebrated in 2004 after they got HUD to adopt their model of tenant ownership. The 104-unit building, Logan Gardens, was set for foreclosure in 2004 as a result of the landlord’s neglect, which included sometimes leaving the building without heat or hot water in mid-winter. HUD normally would have sold the building in an auction, and the winning bidder might have been just another lousy slumlord. But the tenants convinced HUD in March to let them choose a nonprofit developer to buy the property. The building was transferred to the city government, which then passed it on to the nonprofit. It was the first time HUD agreed to a restricted auction for any of its foreclosed properties. Advocates hope to follow up on this victory by pushing HUD to abide by a federal law that bars developers with previous code enforcement violations from bidding on properties.