Protester holds sign at July 25 rally about rent cancellation. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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Sifu and M Lovell asked people who showed up at their brick house in Prince George’s County for an eviction blockade on the evening of July 31 to stay overnight if they could. Their landlord, Robert Miley, had threatened to come by and change the locks to their house, they said, but didn’t when he arrived and found dozens of people outside the house shouting things like, “Shame on who? Shame on Bob.” Sifu and Lovell wanted reinforcement if Miley returned. 

And reinforcement they got. More than 50 people from across the region traveled to Chillum after learning about the possible illegal eviction online or by word of mouth, and a handful of those people, who were trained in de-escalation tactics, camped out in the house’s front yard through the next morning. A mix of people, diverse in age, gender, and race, occupied the dead-end street for hours. 

In between chants, individuals took turns using a megaphone to lament not the coronavirus, but racism and capitalism, drivers of evictions and displacement before the global pandemic and now. A few shared their own experiences with eviction. One speaker, Roger Williams, is on the board of the DC Tenants Union and has been on a rent strike since May because many residents in his Columbia Heights apartment building have been laid off during the pandemic and cannot afford to pay rent.

“It’s not about one group of people feeling bad for another class of people. It’s solidarity,” said James McCormack, another board member of the DC Tenants Union, as he sat on the curb. McCormack, too, was laid off during the pandemic. 

The DC Tenants Union and Stomp Out Slumlords, a campaign of the Metro D.C. chapter of the  Democratic Socialists of America, organized the eviction blockade. Volunteers have been organizing protests like these throughout the public health emergency because so many tenants have fallen on hard times and are behind on rent. Hundreds of thousands of people across the D.C. region have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment, and hundreds, if not thousands, cannot access those benefits because they do not qualify or get caught up in bureaucratic red tape. Meanwhile, rent has been due five times. 

Sifu, who declined to give her last name, lost her job at an after-school program during the pandemic. When she and her two other roommates had trouble paying back four months worth of rent in full, along with late fees, Miley sent an email on July 19 and told them they had 10 days to vacate.

“I have scheduled a major remodeling project for the property which will begin on Saturday, August 1,” read screenshots of an email sent by the landlord and shared with City Paper. “I plan to meet you at the property to pick up keys at 5:00 pm on 7/31/20 and to ensure that all your personal property has been removed.” 

Miley did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment. 

Beyond standard tenant protections—Maryland law, for example, requires landlords to give tenants at least one month’s notice before repossessing the property—Governor Larry Hogan barred the eviction of those financially impacted by the pandemic until the state of emergency ends. However, the Maryland District Court did not extend its eviction ban, so hearings were technically able to resume as of July 25. 

Eviction moratoriums have been lawmakers’ most effective way of providing tenants immediate relief. The relief is temporary, and the threat of displacement or homelessness looms. The federal moratorium on evictions expired July 24, and courts in several states, including Virginia, have already started hearing eviction cases. D.C.’s eviction moratorium is tethered to the public health emergency, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wants to re-examine COVID-19 legislation and possibly decouple provisions. (No decisions have been made yet, according to the chairman’s office.) The inevitability of mass evictions once moratoriums end is why tenant organizers have been calling for rent cancellation. As is clear with the Chillum house, some landlords are ready to evict.   

“We wouldn’t have picked this if we thought something less would solve the problem,” says McCormack. “The problem is the scale of the crisis is so massive.”

The DC Tenants Union has been demanding the D.C. Council cancel rent citywide, and has organized in more than a dozen residential buildings to get individual landlords to agree to such relief. No landlord to date has agreed to fully forgive rent. The D.C. Council, along with Maryland and Virginia legislatures, has so far declined to seriously consider rent cancellation, arguing landlords need to pay their mortgages too. 

Lawmakers have been more interested in giving people money to pay rent. “What’s really happening,” McCormack argues, “is people are having to go through an onerous application process that is time-consuming, complicated, and humiliating in order to serve as a middle man between the government and their landlord.”

The Council also passed legislation requiring landlords to offer a payment plan to any residential or commercial tenant who can’t pay all or a portion of rent due to the pandemic. It’s not clear how many tenants, if any, are entering into payment plan agreements. City Paper’s attempts to find a residential tenant who has came up short.  

“We are not hearing about people entering into or finalizing any payment plans at this point,” says Leigh Higgins, an attorney for the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, a private law firm that hears from tenants all across the income spectrum. Neither has Beth Mellen Harrison with Legal Aid of the District of Columbia. 

Harrison has heard from tenants whose landlords got in touch with them about a payment plan and questioned whether they were ready to enter into an agreement. She’s also heard of some instances where landlords are creating agreements that she believes are inconsistent with the local law. For example, one landlord asked a tenant to submit proof of all assets, presumably to see if they have any money saved to pay rent.    

“The idea of a payment plan is nice in theory, but they don’t have the money right now, or know when they will have the money, to pay back the rent. And so it’s not something that at this moment in time feels particularly useful to them,” says Harrison. “I don’t think that necessarily means this law will not be helpful at some point. But I don’t think we’re at the point yet where the free fall has ended and there’s stability.” 

Luis Andrade is weighing whether to enter into a payment plan agreement with his landlord. His options are paying a portion of his rent or feeding his 3-year-old daughter. 

Andrade has not paid rent since April, after losing his two sources of income as a restaurant worker and day laborer. He now owes $5,080 in rent. He does not qualify for unemployment benefits and was certain he wouldn’t qualify for the city’s de facto excluded workers’ fund, which provided a one-time donation of $1,000 to 5,000 families, or the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which 1,347 individuals have applied to during the pandemic, and so did not apply.  

But Andrade was not the only one in his building without a job, or who did not qualify for virtually all local and federal cash assistance. With no government support, Andrade and dozens of others who lived at the New Hampshire & First Apartments near Fort Totten decided to help themselves and organized their complex. With support from the DC Tenants Union, the renters participated in various Zoom meetings to work out their demands. On April 28, they asked their landlord to cancel rent. At first, J. Alexander Management Company, the property manager, offered nothing. Eventually, the property manager offered to forgive $200 in rent for every $100 a tenant pays during the first year of paying.  

Andrade is unsure if he’ll accept the offer. Entering into the payment plan means he might still have to pay thousands of dollars for an apartment where he can’t have two air conditioners running while the lights are on without losing power. And since he’s still not working, he doesn’t think he can swing it anyway. Unlike Andrade, J. Alexander Management Company received government assistance, a $150,000 to $350,000 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. In an email, the company’s vice president said it’s not policy to make on-the-record comments with regard to residents. 

That being said, organizers say the payment plan offered at New Hampshire & First Apartments is one of the better deals they know of. Most landlords are just agreeing to let tenants make up missed rent over a specified timeframe as they continue to pay current rent.  

After he declined to enter into such a payment agreement, Sami Bourma’s landlord filed an eviction case against him. As soon as Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons allowed courts across the state to resume eviction hearings in late June, Bourma’s landlord, by way of the property manager, Bell Partners, filed cases against tenants. The landlord sued more than 100 tenants at Southern Towers, Bourma’s apartment complex in Alexandria. Tenants had their first appearances at an Alexandria courthouse over the span of three days in mid-July, and a judge ordered Bourma to return on Sept. 16. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that the landlord doesn’t have a heart,” Bourma tells City Paper. “All of us are in the same situation: laid off, no income, and kids at home.” 

Bourma has not been able to pay the $1,515 in rent for his one-bedroom apartment for a few months now. He lost his three sources of income when the pandemic hit—he was laid off from his job as a chef at the National Institutes of Health and his part-time job as an organizer at UNITE HERE Local 23, and he does not feel safe driving for Uber. He started receiving $758 a week in unemployment in late April, a full month after he applied. (As of this week, that $758 dropped to $158 after the federal government’s $600 benefit ended.) He also applied for a state rent relief program, but has not received an answer yet. He learned he was one of the luckier ones while watching eviction proceedings; many of his neighbors did not qualify for government assistance.   

Bourma is continuing to rally for rent cancellation and helped organize a rent strike at Southern Towers that is four months strong. To him, the idea of putting the little money he is getting toward rent seems foolish. What if he contracts COVID-19? How would his family pay his medical expenses?   

“It’s not about keeping the money. It’s about surviving until the city comes back together. I have an 11-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, my wife,” Bourma says. 

In an email to City Paper, Bell Partners defends its payment plan offer, saying it’s taken steps to ease the anxiety and financial burden of tenants.

“Our team has regularly attempted to reach every resident who is experiencing rent challenges (by phone, email, and notices delivered to their apartments) to understand their situation and walk through their options. We have offered those residents the ability to enroll in a payment plan at no additional cost, extended due dates for rent and waived late payment and credit card fees,” writes a marketing executive at Prosek Partners on behalf of the company. “Bell Partners is absorbing any fees associated with enrolling in the payment plans, and residents who enroll will not pay more money than they would have otherwise.”

Bourma attended a rent cancellation rally in Columbia Heights on July 25, and made no mention of his eviction. In 99 degree heat, Bourma commanded a crowd of dozens, denouncing government bailouts to businesses but not the working-class people these businesses employ. A Spanish translator reiterated his remarks to the crowd in real time.

After Bourma, tenants of other buildings shared their own frustrations and struggles. Estela, a tenant of the Meridian Heights Apartments in Columbia Heights, held a poster with photos of her own unit as she spoke about the rent strike there. The images show the ceiling caving in. 

Many tenants of Meridian Heights have been laid off from their service industry jobs during the pandemic, and some are undocumented. Even so, they’ve been facing ongoing pressure from the building manager to pay rent, including threats of calling the police, according to a tenant letter addressed to the property manager, NOVO Properties. NOVO Properties did not respond to questions about the letter.  

Like hundreds of tenants in the region, Meridian Heights residents are months into their rent strike. They keep each other motivated, and as they learn of their neighbors’ situations, they feel compelled to act, according to one Meridian Heights tenant who asked not to be named. They do not intend to accept anything short of rent cancellation.  

This post has been updated to include comment from Bell Partners.