A unit in poor condition at Meridian Heights Apartments on 15th Street NW
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Hemos publicado nuestra historia principal para julio en inglés y español. Para leerla en español, haz clic aquí. The translation was provided by Multicultural Community Service.

On a muggy day in June, the bathroom ceiling inside Eduardo Reyes’ unit is covered in cardboard he put there himself. Reyes, who has lived at Meridian Heights Apartments on 15th Street NW with his wife and 17-year-old son since 2008, blocked the hole after his family saw insects and gunk emerge from it.

The cardboard was supposed to be a temporary fix. Reyes says he notified the property manager in late February, when the problem started. He called the emergency hotline. He visited the property manager’s office. Five months later, the cardboard is finally gone. The property manager made much needed repairs this week after receiving multiple questions about housing conditions.

Reyes organized with tenants in his building and others connected to the same owner—a complicated web of limited liability companies—who have similar repair issues. They noticed a trend among the people living in these properties the city has cited dozens of times for housing violations: Nearly all of them are Latinx Spanish speakers.

Reyes doesn’t want to vacate his apartment. It would be expensive to move elsewhere. Like many people in D.C. and across the world, Reyes struggled to make rent payments during the pandemic. Many people in his building lost their jobs in the service industry, and others contracted COVID-19. One tenant died of the disease.

“If they give me an indemnification, then I will leave,” Reyes says in Spanish. “Otherwise, I won’t.”

“You don’t want to leave but I want to leave,” his wife says. “Because it is scary.”

Reyes applied for rental assistance through STAY DC, a District government initiative that disperses federal funds to help individuals cover up to 18 months of past or upcoming rent. Of the 20 tenants at Reyes’ 62-unit building that applied or started an application for STAY DC money, five have been approved as of July 9.

The D.C. government is trying to get federal dollars into the pockets of landlords whose tenants owe rent quickly, but STAY DC has its own headaches: Many tenants needed help because the application was confusing and required a lot of paperwork, and those with strained relationships with property managers struggled to work together to submit applications. D.C. needs to spend $130 million in rental assistance by Sept. 30 or the Biden administration will revoke the funds.

STAY DC leaves Reyes, other tenants, and advocates feeling conflicted. Tenants apply because they know D.C.’s temporary eviction ban will eventually end. But the troubling conditions at their building and others connected to the same owners have become an open secret in D.C. due to highly visible protests aimed at the landlord and property managers. Tenants and advocates question whether landlords are being held accountable for uninhabitable conditions and if, by funneling money into the hands of landlords overseeing troubled properties, STAY DC actually rewards them.

“How can the Council ensure that the landlords who receive this money have some obligation to fix these problems, especially because this money is what they say they need,” asks Beth Mellen, director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project. “Landlords often say, ‘Well, when tenants don’t pay rent, I can’t make the repairs. I don’t have the money.’ They are about to get tens of thousands of dollars in rent money … But the purpose of that program is not to keep tenants housed in unsafe conditions, in unhealthy conditions.”

Just outside Reyes’ apartment, a man pushing a stroller along the sidewalk stops and stares at a banner displayed on one of the windows of the six-story building. It reads, “Very bad condiciones.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Estela Rosales Vigil, who helped hang that banner and others, explains. “Terrible conditions,” she says. She looks up, in search of the words she feels so intimately but struggles to say in English. Rosales Vigil couldn’t remember the word for “bedbugs,” so instead she expressed herself through facial expressions: She made a yuck face. The man nodded, mildly confused but sympathetic, and went on his way.

Rosales Vigil, who sports a lanyard that says “El Salvador,” moved into the rent-controlled building roughly five years ago. She, her husband, and three children live in a studio that rents for $1,300 a month. She has encountered multiple problems over the years, including a bedbug infestation. The tenants also struggle with rats and cockroaches. When a doctor at Children’s National Hospital saw bite marks on her 1-year-old son, Rosales Vigil says they connected her with a lawyer who could help her advocate for better conditions.

Estela Rosales Vigil / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

She’s had a lawyer for about two years, but it hasn’t helped much. “They did not really listen to the lawyer,” Rosales Vigil says in Spanish. “Everything the lawyer told them, it did not matter.” It wasn’t until Rosales Vigil withheld rent and protested conditions for more than a year that the property manager moved her into a vacant unit in June and started repairing her apartment. Not everyone leaves their apartment during repairs despite there being at least 18 vacant units. But Rosales Vigil, who has become the unofficial leader at Meridian Heights, has been the most vocal.

Rosales Vigil and her family returned to the studio in early July. She worries the repairs are insufficient or poorly done. Her concerns stem from her experience over the years; for example, she says the property manager addressed her problems with mold by painting over it.

Down the hall, the kitchen wall in Blanca’s apartment has softened. Blanca, who has lived in the unit for more than six years with her teenage son, uses her kitchen often because she works as a street vendor. Behind her refrigerator is a hole through which she can see into her neighbor’s bathroom. “I can see my neighbor bathing,” she says in Spanish. “That is a lack of respect. There is no privacy.” She also says her refrigerator hasn’t worked properly for months.

Rosa Perez is also waiting on fixes. She has a hole in her ceiling. It started out as a bulge, then water started dripping from it two months ago. She asked the property manager for help. Weeks have gone by, and the hole is still there. Perez received a letter dated June 18 from UIP Property Management, the company recently hired to handle upkeep, that said someone would come by three days later to make repairs. No one showed up, Perez says.

A UIP spokesperson says via email that Perez “refused” to let staff inside the apartment to make repairs. The property manager tried to make repairs again on July 8 but again was “refused access.” (Perez says she got sick the last time repairs were made, and did not let them make repairs this time around because she wants to move into a new unit while they are done.) The spokesperson also says the company has made repairs to “ALL” but three occupied units, which the company alleges also “refused entry.” UIP has now involved D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to gain access to these units, according to the spokesperson. In addition to fixing individual units, UIP says it “repointed the entire masonry exterior facade” to prevent further leaking of rainwater and provided pest treatment through a contractor in early 2021.

The statement from the property management company sounds familiar to Katharine Richardson, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Stomp Out Slumlords campaign who has been supporting tenants at Meridian Heights since March 2020. (Richardson used to work in affordable housing development, but now volunteers through SOS.) She says UIP often shifts the blame to tenants, as if they would prefer to live in terrible conditions. When she went door knocking recently to encourage tenants to attend a citywide protest, Richardson says tenants again described problems with bedbugs. Richardson believes them—she once got bedbugs after visiting various Meridian Heights apartments.

“They do the minimum, to sort of say that they’ve done it,” says Richardson of the property manager, acknowledging that it’s more expensive to address underlying issues. “They’ll do a minor fumigation but it doesn’t work. They’re not addressing the larger issues, both with the insects and with the mold. That’s something we’ve seen a lot … They come in and they clean it. They paint over it. But the underlying moisture issue hasn’t been addressed, so it comes back.”

UIP manages Meridian Heights Apartments, but does not own them. It became the property management company in mid-December 2020. NOVO Properties previously handled daily operations and finances.

This year and last year, DCRA has identified dozens of housing code violations in 31 units and several common spaces at Meridian Heights. For example, in Perez’s unit, DCRA found that the landlord failed to “correct cracked or loose plaster, holes, decayed wood, water damage, and/or defective surface conditions”; “provide or maintain the required mechanical and electrical facilities”; and install or maintain single or multiple smoke alarms in the sleeping area, during a March 2021 inspection. As a result of this and other violations, the landlord—a limited liability company named after the address—has been fined tens of thousands of dollars. Scanning the list of violations, it’s clear that a lot of rooms in the building—from bathrooms to kitchens—are in disrepair, unsanitary, or not structurally sound. The plumbing in some units was also flagged. As of July 13, the violations still appear on the DCRA website, meaning housing violations have not been fully addressed. The D.C. Auditor said in a 2018 report that DCRA needed to improve its enforcement of housing code violations.

UIP says it has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to abate violations. NOVO Properties did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tenants say the two property management companies are equally bad at making timely, quality repairs. They sometimes conflate the companies. Tenants also believe that NOVO discriminated against them because they mostly speak Spanish.

Perez’s bathroom flooded one day around Thanksgiving last year. She repeatedly called the emergency line, requesting immediate assistance. No one came. She filled buckets with water in the meantime. But when Richardson called and emailed NOVO on Perez’s behalf, she says the property manager came. Unlike Perez, she asked for help in English.

“We see that a lot,” says Victoria Gonçalves of Spanish-speaking Latinx tenants who claim their landlord discriminates against them. Gonçalves is a senior organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center, a tenant advocacy group. “It’s common for management companies to kind of use the fact that they can’t communicate with people as an excuse to not do stuff and an excuse to say that these are problem tenants,” Gonçalves says.

Reyes used to work in maintenance for NOVO. “What would happen is that they would do more repairs for the Whites and not the Hispanics,” he alleges. He recalls a time when a White tenant had an issue with a wall. NOVO had an inspector take a look and they detected mold. Instead of painting over it, as Latinx tenants recount happening in their units, Reyes says NOVO knocked down the wall and put up new drywall.

According to multiple tenants, the NOVO property manager did not speak any Spanish, despite the fact that most tenants speak the language. The UIP property manager speaks Spanish, but not all of the information UIP provides is translated. A form used for tenants to sign off on completed repairs is in English.

UIP’s delays in making repairs have made tenants suspicious that they are being discriminated against again. They also believe that UIP slows repairs so people will leave. A UIP spokesperson says via email that property management does not discriminate against any tenants.

Gonçalves believes UIP to be “hostile” toward Latinx tenants. LEDC has supported residents of multiple UIP-managed properties. While UIP does not own Meridian Heights, Gonçalves believes the company generally buys rent-controlled buildings to force longtime tenants out, then either jacks up the rent or converts the units into condominiums. This practice is known as eviction through neglect. Gonçalves says NOVO is “slightly better” than UIP but both companies treat rent-controlled properties worse than their luxury or market rate ones. On a scale of bad to good, they say both companies land somewhere in the middle in terms of management. “But somewhere in the middle is still bad,” Gonçalves says.

A photograph of Meridian Heights is sometimes featured in national stories about rent strikes, a decades-old protest tactic of tenants withholding rent to compel landlords to make repairs or, more recently, because they can’t afford to pay due to the pandemic. At Meridian Heights, tenants striked for both reasons.

Tenants have achieved some victories since they started organizing and launched a rent strike in the spring of 2020. The tenants who refused to pay rent because they lost their jobs and wages during the pandemic just started receiving government assistance. Despite encouragement from public officials to enter into payment plans with their landlord, tenants declined to pay rent and instead directed any money they did have toward other necessities, such as food. They could have borrowed money from a bank or friends, as tenants in other buildings have, but the security of a collective rent strike empowered them not to.

Perhaps the Meridian Heights tenants’ greatest success was finding strength in one another during hard times. Their collaboration inspired another building with the same management and owner to organize because its tenants face similar problems: Buena Vista Apartments, located at 3308–3312 Sherman Ave. NW.

On a Saturday in June, a group of 11 tenants met to discuss creating an association so they can exercise their TOPA rights now that the landlord is selling the property. TOPA, D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, gives tenants the right of first refusal. They can tell their landlord they are interested in the property because they intend to collectively purchase the property or to select a new nonprofit owner to keep it affordable. The tenants are leaning toward the former because they want a say in selecting the property manager given their experiences with UIP and NOVO.

The tenants discussed the logistics of forming an association, including details such as who the board members would be and how many members would need to be present to make decisions. Multiple tenants expressed concerns about how involved the process is. “I work night and day,” one person said in Spanish. Tenants agreed to work around each other’s schedules because the cause was that important.

“We can’t be living like this anymore,” Eleonor Rivas told her neighbors in the outdoor space where the bikes are locked and trash cans are kept. Her apartment faces this area, so she vividly remembers seeing the garbage pile up during the holidays. This was around the time when management was transitioning from NOVO to UIP, and no one seemed to be collecting the trash.

Thirteen units in Buena Vista have been cited multiple times by DCRA for housing code violations this year. In one unit, the landlord failed to maintain the bathroom in sanitary, safe condition. In another unit, the landlord failed to provide a “proper exhaust system to remove injurious, toxic, irritating or noxious fumes, gases, dusts, or mists” in the kitchen.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Rivas has lived at Buena Vista for 11 years. She lives in a one-bedroom unit with her husband and two sons. “There have always been problems with the repairs,” she says in Spanish. “This building is old, everything is rotting.” The ceiling in her kitchen has collapsed twice, and she got a cat named Tsunami to combat the rodent infestation.

Victoria Miranda can attest to the conditions. Her bathroom wall is hollow and the paint is cracking. The floor lifts and is uneven—she’s convinced her bathtub is sinking. Miranda also struggles to cook in her kitchen. There’s no ventilation, she says, so the walls often get covered in grease and smoke. UIP recently came by to paint but she didn’t let them in because she believed it wouldn’t solve all her problems.

Victoria Miranda / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A UIP spokesperson says the company has completed repairs in 30 of the 34 Buena Vista units. “At Meridian and Sherman, UIPPM has spent in excess of $500,000 on repairs and upgrades since taking over management in December 2020,” says the spokesperson, adding that the company “is singularly focused on addressing all issues in these buildings” and “helping people apply for Stay DC relief.”

“I like the area,” Miranda says in Spanish, explaining why she doesn’t want to vacate Buena Vista. Her apartment is a 10-minute walk to the Metro and a bustling plaza that features big-name retailers such as Target, Best Buy, and Giant. Public schools are easily accessible. These amenities are helpful because Miranda and her husband have three kids. Her apartment is also a short walk to Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, where she is getting her GED and learning English so she can become a nurse. “I think it’s unfair what they charge us for how they maintain things in the apartment,” she says.

Another rent-controlled building, Holmead Place Apartments at 3435 Holmead Place NW, has the same management and similar problems. Tenants there also applied for STAY DC funding. A few Holmead Place tenants went on a rent strike in December 2019 over housing conditions. Nineteen months later, some tenants are still on strike.

The pandemic complicated Holmead Place tenants’ organizing. The building is home to many Central American immigrants who work in restaurants, hotels, or for ride hailing services. When the pandemic forced businesses to close, residents lost wages and struggled to afford housing. The strike over repairs became a strike over rent cancellation as more tenants joined the movement. Two dozen tenants called on UIP to cancel rent, including the air-conditioning upcharge during the summer, says Juan Reyes, a Georgetown student who supports Holmead Place tenants through an initiative at his university and SOS. While rent cancellation became tenants’ immediate ask, they are still demanding quality repairs.

D.C.’s Rental Housing Act seems to protect tenants who withhold rent when their landlord refuses to comply with the housing code from retaliation. But landlords could still file to evict tenants in D.C. Superior Court over unpaid rent. Tenants could try to use the eviction process to negotiate for improved conditions, and then have the landlord drop the suit once parties reach an agreement.

Holmead Place tenants have been using the eviction process to get repairs done. They have legal representation, which helps. According to Juan Reyes, two of the nine tenants that risked eviction managed to get their rent forgiven for just over one year and UIP also promised repairs. The majority of tenants are still negotiating with UIP. “The repairs are by far the slowest thing that is occurring, and it’s what the company is not wanting to do, it seems like,” he says.

Reyna Martinez is among the seven tenants who have yet to strike a deal. The collective rent strike prompted UIP to make some repairs in recent weeks but they are insufficient given the wear and tear of the apartment, says Martinez, who’s lived there with her two sons and 94-year-old mother for the past 14 years.

“Based on my experience, rent strikes are the most effective way to get repairs done, especially when you look at the other alternatives,” Juan Reyes says. A tenant could sue their landlord over housing code violations but he argues that approach “individualizes this process where it makes you feel like it’s just your case against the company.”
“Tenants realize they have a lot more power when they are working together,” he adds.

As the property manager, UIP is the de facto landlord for the tenants at Meridian Heights, Buena Vista, and Holmead Place. It’s common for tenants to mistake their property managers for owners because that’s who they communicate with. UIP not only manages rental properties but owns and develops them. Headquartered in D.C., UIP holds significant influence: It manages roughly 3,000 units citywide and its principal, Peter Bonnell, is president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Board of Directors.

The real owners of the three properties are enigmatic. Tenants and advocates have struggled to hold the landlord accountable because the actual owners of the properties are obscured amid complicated paperwork. According to DCRA and D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue records, the deed of Meridian Heights Apartments belongs to 2801 Fifteenth Street NW, LLC, whose business address is in South Carolina. Patrick Marr is listed as one of four owners. Marr appears to be a known entity in the commercial real estate industry, according to local business publications. (Richardson says she and Meridian Heights tenants have met with Marr once; he presented himself as the landlord representative.)

Buena Vista Apartments is owned by a trust, which Marr also appears to manage. As of October 2013, he worked for the real estate advisory firm Newmark Grubb Knight (now known as Newmark Group), and could not be directly reached for comment. In 2015, the deed of the property was transferred from an LLC called “UIP 3308-12 Sherman Ave,” whose beneficial owner is also Marr, to a trust called “Peter Ryan.” Ryan, a partner at the accounting firm Ryan & Wetmore, is on the deed and says he is not the trustee of the property. A “Peter Ryan” is also listed as a beneficial owner for Meridian Heights.

A spokesperson for UIP confirms that the company does not own Meridian Heights or Buena Vista. Unlike those properties, Holmead Place Apartments is effectively owned by UIP through a limited partnership UIP manages. Bonnell and Steve Schwat are the beneficial owners of the LP. Holmead tenants say the owner is selling the property.

Excelsa Properties, the real estate investment arm of Lebanon-based Excelsa Holding, lists all three properties as “projects” on its website. According to its website, the company is focused on “income-producing investments,” and multifamily residential makes up the bulk of its portfolio, providing a steady stream of income from rent. “The company has benefited from the downward trend in home ownership in the US and the increasing preference for multifamily urban housing,” the website says. Excelsa Properties acquired Meridian Heights Apartments in 2009 for $4.6 million. It’s unclear what the company’s current stake is in Meridian Heights or the other two properties. The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the housing conditions at its investment properties.

Multiple real estate experts say there is nothing inherently nefarious about a landlord being an LLC, LP, or trust. Owners commonly establish those business entities for tax and liability purposes. The D.C. Council has attempted to establish transparency considering that so many rental properties are corporate-owned. Still, it’s near impossible to know who has a stake in properties unless companies disclose their holdings.

“Most likely it’s complicated by design,” says Eva Rosen, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who studies housing instability and eviction policies in D.C. “It benefits the landlord, whether it benefits them financially because of the tax benefits they’re getting or if it benefits them even more materially, in the sense that they are sort of interpersonally removed from all of these types of problems.”

“It makes it really complicated to hold people accountable because you have to sort of follow this crazy paper trail to figure out who is at the bottom of it,” she adds.

Richardson, who first met Meridian Heights tenants after Blanca called the SOS hotline, faults the property owner for the terrible conditions, whoever it is. “UIP and NOVO have just treated people with a lack of respect,” she says. “The underlying issue is the landlord, who’s just not invested in any of these buildings—Holmead, Sherman, Meridian. There’s just so much deferred maintenance. They are clearly just pulling money out of the building and not putting anything in.”

Tenant advocates believe the issues at the three properties underscore policy failures. Reyes believes current rent-control law incentivizes large landlords to keep units in poor shape so longtime tenants are forced to leave, paving the way for companies to significantly increase rent and set prices closer to market rate. The law allows landlords to increase rent on vacant units by 10 to 20 percent, depending on how long the unit was occupied for. Increases on occupied units are limited to 2 percent plus the prevailing rate of inflation.

Reyes says you can tell this is a common practice at Holmead Place given the “insane range in rent prices.” One tenant has lived at the property for nearly 30 years and pays around $800 in rent, while another tenant who’s lived at the property for the last 10 years pays nearly $2,000 for a comparable one-bedroom apartment.

Tenant advocates consider voluntary agreements to be another loophole of rent-control law that erodes affordable housing because landlords establish new rents in order to provide capital improvements so long as 70 percent of tenants agree. UIP has been known to use these agreements. But a spokesperson for the company says it hasn’t used voluntary agreements at Meridian, Buena Vista, or Holmead Place, which would allow for even greater rent increases. “It is far more advantageous to maintain residents in their homes than to incur turnover costs and try to re-lease apartments,” adds the spokesperson.

Tenant leaders at Meridian Heights and Buena Vista met by happenstance at church last year. Meridian Heights tenants shared their strategies to get the landlord to cancel rent and make repairs. That inspired Buena Vista tenants.

Protest has since become second nature. A year ago, Rosales Vigil shared her struggles to a crowd at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza. She carried a sign with pictures of the conditions she and her neighbors deal with. Dozens of tenants from properties across the District attended that rally, where they all spoke about the need to cancel rent.

This month, Rosales Vigil suggested tenants set up tents downtown, near the White House and the Wilson Building, where local and national legislators will determine the fate of eviction bans. She wanted lawmakers to see what the city would look like if they lift bans before people have a chance to receive rental assistance. Rosales Vigil applied for STAY DC and was approved this week. (D.C. government officials say the approval process is taking an average of 45 days, which is longer than other rental assistance programs.)

Tenants representing properties all over the city attended the action on July 3. They marched from Freedom Plaza to the White House, ate pupusas donated by street vendors-turned-organizers, pitched tents, and slept outside overnight. The overnight protest was a first for SOS.

Eduardo Reyes of Meridian Heights and his wife attended, even though he had been on call for his maintenance job and she had just worked a night shift. Their neighbor, Rosa Perez, along with Eleonor Rivas and Victoria Miranda of Buena Vista, also showed up. Miranda—who is inspired by her mother, a fellow organizer who helped unhoused people in their home country of Honduras—arrived at midnight. Her kids and husband joined her.

“Let’s see if we win or not,” Perez says in Spanish. “We hope, with God’s help.”