Residents of Tivoli Gardens Apartments Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“CANCEL OUR RENT!” reads a flyer posted on the door of every unit in the Tivoli Gardens Apartments in Columbia Heights. Some of the tenants living in the 225-unit complex have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and cannot pay rent, so a handful of them are gathering signatures in the hopes that collective action will move their landlord to forgive rent until one month after the COVID-19 emergency ends.

Simone Jacobson is one such organizer who hasn’t had any income since March 20. Jacobson is the co-owner of the Burmese restaurant Thamee. After Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered restaurants, along with other nonessential businesses, to close on March 16, Jacobson decided to temporarily shut down Thamee. Unemployment benefits could provide her workers more than she could, she thought. Still, the maximum amount D.C. will issue, $444 per week, is not enough to sustain anyone. Jacobson knows this: She has received two payments, totaling $756, and still cannot afford her $1,327 in rent. 

“Even if I gave the entire amount of my unemployment payment to the building,” says Jacobson, “I would not be able to afford any other [expense]—internet, phone, food—literally anything else.” 

Jacobson is one of countless renters in D.C. who’ve lost their jobs and now struggle to afford housing. Since March 13, more than 64,500 District residents have filed for unemployment. This figure excludes those who are ineligible for unemployment due to, say, immigration status. While the D.C. Council has banned evictions during the state of emergency, tenants still have to pay rent in order to remain in good standing with their landlords. 

Fearing the day when the eviction moratorium lifts, tenants of Tivoli Gardens and elsewhere are organizing around rent cancelation. The DC Tenants Union, a coalition of renters, knows of at least 24 properties in the region where tenants are asking their respective landlords for rent reductions or cancelations because of the pandemic. But because success has been modest so far, the DC Tenants Union and other groups are demanding the Council take immediate action on a number of items, including citywide rent and mortgage payment cancelation until a month after the state of emergency ends. 

“It’s important to show that collective power,” says Stephanie Bastek of the DC Tenants Union. “Just doing it building by building, it’ll never work. It’s taking us so much energy to do these two dozen buildings and there are hundreds of thousands more tenants in the city that we are not reaching.” 

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For those who cannot afford rent right now, lawmakers are advising tenants to immediately contact their landlords and discuss options. City Paper received screenshots of notices from large real estate companies such as the Donaldson Group, Horning Brothers, and UIP Property Management that ask tenants to reach out if they are concerned about rent. These notices, all similar in language, list financial aid arrangements but don’t mention the eviction moratorium.   

“We understand there may be a delay in your ability to access these benefits. If that’s the case, please talk to us,” each notice reads. “If rental payments stop flowing, community stability and safety will be disrupted, just when peace of mind is most needed.” 

The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington confirmed that the National Multifamily Housing Council created the template to help housing providers communicate with residents. Another template titled “COVID-19: Our Commitment to Residents” does mention the eviction moratorium. 

Tenant organizers like Rob Wohl are telling the dozens of people that call the Democratic Socialists of America’s Stomp Out Slumlords hotline to first talk with neighbors. “Develop some unity of purpose and then talk to the landlord so you are bargaining from a position of strength,” says Wohl. “The reality here is a lot of people are going to owe money … But that doesn’t mean people have no leverage. Landlords can’t take people to court right now and they are going to have to sue tons of people to collect all this back rent once courts are open again. That is not free for them.”  

When she realized she couldn’t afford her April rent, Jacobson first contacted her landlord and property manager. She’s lived at Tivoli Gardens for 10 years and thought management might show some compassion. But after speaking with the manager for an hour, Jacobson decided she had to organize with others to get rent relief. If the Donaldson Group forgave her rent, the manager told Jacobson, the company would have to extend this relief to others. This made sense to Jacobson. She knew neighbors that work in the service industry were laid off too. In fact, some of her own employees live in the complex, so she started working with a few other tenants and the DC Tenants Union to cancel rent for everyone. The Donaldson Group manages the property, but the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation owns it, and the foundation can afford to cancel rent, organizers argue. Within the first 24 hours, 10 percent of the property signed the rent cancelation petition.  

City Paper reached out to the Donaldson Group for comment but did not hear back by press time. 

Three miles southeast of Tivoli Gardens, at The Summit at St. Martin’s Apartments in Eckington, tenants are also organizing. Lowell Hickman is collecting signatures for rent cancelation at his 178-unit building and believes there’s enough support behind the petition. Hickman, who is co-vice president of his building’s tenant association, says he’s been fielding questions from individuals who can’t pay rent because the landlord, Victory Housing, has not sent any notices explaining what to do. 

“Tenants are now coming to me more and more and asking ‘What do we do? Are they going to do a rent freeze? What happens when this is over? Are we going to pay back rent?’” says Hickman, who is also a DCTU member. 

Hickman, like many of the people asking him questions, has been laid off; his position at the nonprofit Community Family Life Services was eliminated during the pandemic and he doesn’t have enough savings to pay the $1,358 in rent. 

Hickman typically pays rent into an escrow account at D.C. Superior Court because he’s in the middle of a lawsuit with his landlord involving maintenance issues that have only gotten worse during the emergency. Hickman says the property manager isn’t regularly cleaning common areas even though one tenant was self-quarantining due to a potential COVID-19 diagnosis, but Victory Housing says office personnel have been sanitizing everything, from handrails to elevator buttons, daily. 

In a statement to City Paper, Victory Housing says no late notices or payment demands are being sent out. Instead, property managers are “encouraging” tenants to contact the rental office if they are having issues with rent. As of April 14, three residents had reached out and all were placed on payment deferral plans. “Such plans are available for all residents who are experiencing economic impact,” says Dan Lukomsky, the asset management director with Victory Housing. 

Organizing isn’t without challenges, especially during a pandemic. One of the three individuals on the tenant association board at St. Martin’s is a hospital nurse who works around the clock, so Hickman is taking on a lot of the organizing. The association cannot even hold an in-person meeting because such gatherings go against social distancing advice. 

Appreciation for tenant organizing is building at Tivoli Gardens. Roger Williams, who’s lived in his unit for more than 20 years and a DCTU member, was trying to form a tenant association before the pandemic. “The only reason we got movement now in my estimation is because there has been a paradigm shift,” says Williams, “The paradigm shift is the state of emergency.” 

Sometimes tenants are asking for rent relief without organizing. After realizing he cannot pay April rent, Fredy Acabal reached out to his landlord independent of any tenant association or petition. Acabal isn’t working after the hotel where he used to shine shoes shut down. Acabal lives with his brother, who was laid off too. They have lived in a 12-unit apartment building in Columbia Heights for the last 11 years and have never been late or missed a payment. During their meeting, the landlord told Acabal that he and his brother do not have to pay rent until the pandemic is over and they have work again, but it is not clear if the landlord is canceling rent altogether or Acabal and his brother have to pay back rent. Their rent is $1,385 a month. Acabal is not eligible for any government assistance because of his immigration status. 

“If we are going to pay it again in the future, that’s almost going to be $4,000 dollars,” he says. “I can’t pay.” 

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh knows many residents are interested in a citywide rent cancelation. She’s raised the idea with her colleagues but believes there is not enough interest among the Council and Mayor to pass such legislation. She is also unsure if rent cancelation is the right solution.  

“If we have an across the board ‘OK, nobody has to pay their rent,’ I think it’s too—it’s not sufficiently responsive to people who need help and puts all the weight on the landlords who themselves are not monolithic,” Cheh tells City Paper.

Cheh floated an idea of her own during a call between the Council and mayoral staff on April 8. While not fully fleshed out yet, the idea is to create a payment plan program for eligible tenants so they can make up rent they missed during the emergency. Cheh was inspired by a provision in the Council’s second round of emergency legislation that lets select mortgage holders create a program where an eligible borrower can apply for a 90-day deferment.  

“It’s a way to make it so it’s not like this avalanche of indebtedness,” she says.

Cheh is having her legislative director write up the proposal so she can circulate something before the next legislative meeting. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White was the only other member to raise concerns over rent in the April 8 call. “It’s going to be even worse when it’s over,” White warned. 

A spokesperson for At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds tells City Paper that the lawmaker, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, is also interested in establishing “guidelines” to implement a rent repayment program in the third emergency bill. Like Cheh, Bonds believes residents should work with their landlords to pay owed rent in smaller amounts over a period of time rather than in a lump sum. 

During press conference on April 17, Bowser said she is not familiar with any of the proposals outlined by tenant organizers or council members. 

“We are very focused on making sure people get cash in their hands,” said Bowser when asked about rent cancellation or a rent payment program.   

Since Bowser declared a public health emergency on March 11, the Council has passed two COVID-19 bills that provide some relief to both tenants and landlords. Highlights include a ban on evictions and foreclosures, a freeze on rent increases, and a prohibition on utility and internet disconnections. By the Council’s own admission, the relief offered thus far is not nearly enough. 

The first bill temporarily stopped evictions but not filings. Since March 16, landlords filed nearly 900 eviction cases, according to Beth Mellen Harrison of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Though the number is lower than the weekly average of 600 per week, Harrison says, tenants are still receiving eviction notices from D.C. Superior Court, if not the landlord who’s serving the complaint. 

“Even if they’re dismissed, even if they’re able to work out a repayment agreement, it is considered a strike against them when they look for new housing,” says Harrison of the filings. “The point of stopping filings right now is to have a pause so that tenants can get unemployment insurance in place and get the federal stimulus checks and whatever other financial relief the Council is able to provide—hopefully, more emergency rental assistance—so that they can just resolve any issues of nonpayment.” 

The Council still has many housing issues to address in its next round of pandemic legislation in order to provide immediate relief and long-term recovery, but to the members’ credit, they’ve passed some of the most sweeping tenant protections in the nation. So far, no state has passed rent cancelation legislation, though city leaders are calling for this elsewhere and a bill that would make it happen is sitting in the New York legislature. Tenants hope solutions are included in the Council’s next relief package.    

“If the city—and this isn’t just in this city but nationwide—doesn’t come up with a solution,” Williams says, “there is going to be a whole lot of people who are going to be between a rock and a hard place when these courts open back up.” 

This post has been updated to include remarks from the mayor and that Rob Wohl is answering the Stomp Out Slumlords hotline not DC Tenants Union’s, though he helps support the DCTU hotline.