The 300 block of H Street in NW Washington, D.C.

The 300 block of H Street in NW Washington, D.C.

The first of the month is approaching — the day when rent and mortgages are typically due. But, what if you don’t have the money to pay it because you lost your job as a result of the pandemic?

Many activists have held “Cancel the Rent” protests around the country, including in the D.C. region. And last week Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced legislation to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationwide during the corona crisis, but that bill is not likely to be enacted. So what are our local leaders doing right now to help their constituents struggling to pay their rent or mortgage?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier

Guests

  • Will Jawando Councilmember, Montgomery County (D, At-Large); @willjawando
  • Stephanie Bastek Volunteer Tenant Organizer and Board Member, DC Tenants Union; @DCTenantsUnion
  • Ikram Meskaoui Apartment tenant in Alexandria, Va.

Transcript

  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Coming up we'll check in on efforts to help people who are struggling to pay their rent during the coronavirus pandemic, but first earlier this week D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the creation of an advisory committee to help her roll out a plan for reopening the city.

  • 12:00:21

    KOJO NNAMDILast night the mayor hosted a Town Hall meeting to hear from District residents and members of the Reopen D.C. Advisory Group. WAMU's Martin Austermuhle is here with more. Martin Austermuhle is a Reporter at WAMU. Martin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:36

    MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me.

  • 12:00:38

    NNAMDIMartin, what was the headline out of last night's meeting? Is the mayor ready to reopen the District?

  • 12:00:42

    AUSTERMUHLEI think the short answer here is no. The city officials are being very cautious about when they say D.C. could come back to normal businesses reopening, schools reopening, restrictions lifted. They're saying the earliest at this point could be late May. Right now the stay-at-home order expires in theory in mid-May, but it potentially could be extended after that. On the downside they say depending on how case counts go it could be as late as June or July before restrictions get lifted. They said they're just going to follow the science and see where the numbers take them. But if the numbers aren't good, it could be into the summer that we're going to be stuck at home.

  • 12:01:17

    NNAMDILet's talk numbers. D.C. Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt gave an update on the metric the city is using or the metrics the city is using to track the spread of coronavirus. Is the District flattening the curve yet?

  • 12:01:30

    AUSTERMUHLEThe city is not yet flattening the curve. They did say one good thing is that the curve is lower than what they originally expected. Some models had D.C. with above 10,000 cases. At this point we're at roughly 4,000 cases. So they're saying that we have made some strides and keeping case counts below where they were expected to be. But they're still seeing day to day increases. Like just today they say a jump of 200 some odd cases whereas a day ago they were just around 100 cases in terms of increases. So they haven't gotten to the point where they can say they're decreasing cases, which is going to be the most important metric. They want to see 14 straight days of decreases in case counts before they can start considering reopening businesses or lifting restrictions.

  • 12:02:10

    NNAMDIThe current stay-at-home orders in D.C. are set to expire May 15th. Did the mayor give any indication of whether those orders will be extended?

  • 12:02:17

    AUSTERMUHLEShe did not. She said that it's pretty much going to be a game time decision, because they're following the numbers they can't really say anything two plus weeks out about whether the May 15th deadline will hold. She said that if the numbers look very obviously one way or the other, she might be able to give a week's heads up notice. But the chances are that we're going to know that May 15th is going to stay put around May 15th. We're not going to know a lot ahead of time.

  • 12:02:43

    NNAMDIMartin, the mayor has received criticism for the people -- from some for the people who have been appointed to this Reopen D.C. Advisory Committee. The group is being led by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, but it also includes prominent lobbyists and developers. Is this committee representative of all the communities within the District who have been severely impacted by this shutdown?

  • 12:03:07

    AUSTERMUHLEWell, I feel if you ask any of those communities they're going to say that they felt left out. Initially there was no representation for public school teachers on the committee until -- I mean that changed after the outcry. And now Elizabeth Davis who is the head of the Washington Teachers Union, she's going to be part of the committee dealing with schools and childcare. And then restaurant owners complained that there was -- actually bar owners, excuse me, complained that there were no bar owners on the restaurant committee. So there were concerns there.

  • 12:03:35

    AUSTERMUHLEAnd then there were more broader concerns that there are some close allies of the mayor that made it on to some of these committees that are going to debate who the city is going to reopen and lobbyists. I mean, people who have interests before the City Council and who represent big development firms or just other kind of businesses that could raise some ethical concerns about what this committee is going to advise and how they're going to go about reopening the city.

  • 12:03:56

    NNAMDIAnd apparently there are going to be some additions to the committee as it moves along. Just before we came on the air the mayor announced at her daily press briefing that the city has reached agreements to move forward with the construction of two new hospitals. I think Tom Sherwood broke this story last night. What's the latest there, Martin?

  • 12:04:15

    AUSTERMUHLESo yeah, this is technically unrelated to the COVID crisis, but when it comes to healthcare everything kind of is related at this point. So these would be two hospitals. One at St. Elizabeth's Campus in Southeast D.C. and that would replace the existing United Medical Center, which is being operated by the city. The new hospital would be built by the city, but would be operated by George Washington University Hospital. The second one would be Howard University's Hospital, would be built by the city and run by Adventist Healthcare.

  • 12:04:45

    AUSTERMUHLESo they announced this with great fanfare both because East of the river, the United Medical Center is the last remaining hospital. It's facing a significant amount of problems. The city has been looking for an operator for a long time and has been promising to build a hospital for a while. And then Howard University's hospital is just as historic as the university. It's the training ground for African American doctors and nurses. And any sort of -- there were concerns that it might not survive. I mean, the finances have never been great over there. So this is big news, again, unrelated specifically to what's happening with the COVID crisis, but still there is all this relation when it comes to health.

  • 12:05:19

    NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:05:21

    AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me. I appreciate it.

  • 12:05:22

    NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle is a Reporter at WAMU. Later in the broadcast if you've seen the hit Netflix show "Tiger King" you probably learned very little about tigers or their plight. We hope to change that later in the show. But first, tomorrow is May 1st when rent payments are typically due, but now many people are struggling to make those payments because of lost jobs or less income as a result of the pandemic. Maryland and Virginia and the District have all banned evictions while the public health crisis continues, but the pause on evictions does not forgive rent payments.

  • 12:05:53

    NNAMDIMany activists have held "Cancel the Rent" protests around the country including in this region. And last week Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Michigan introduced legislation to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationwide during the crisis. That bill is not likely to be enacted. So what is being done at the local level? Joining me now is Stephanie Bastek who is a Board Member with the D.C. Tenants Union. Stephanie Bastek, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:06:20

    STEPHANIE BASTEKThanks so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:06:22

    NNAMDIWhat is the D.C. Tenants Union and what is the "Cancel the Rent" movement?

  • 12:06:27

    BASTEKYeah. So the D.C. Tenants Union is like a labor union, but for tenants. So we organize in buildings to keep rent affordable and to get better conditions. And then we also do political stuff like our phones app on Tuesday and our petition to cancel the rent and the reclaim rent control campaign to give tenants a seat at the table with the Council. So all that info is on our website dctenantsunion.org. And as far as the "Cancel Rent" movement, I mean, it sounds exactly like what it is.

  • 12:06:54

    BASTEKMillions of people around the country can't pay rent and we won't pay. It's hard enough to pay the rent in D.C., you know, when you're working a full time job or when you're working overtime, two jobs, how are you supposed to pay the rent when your entire industry is shut down by the government and you don't know when you'll go back to work? And, you know, we're not just seeing this in D.C. Our friends in the Autonomous Tenants Union Network across the country in the L.A. Tenants Union, New York, Philly, Chicago, they're all saying the same thing.

  • 12:07:21

    BASTEKSo we're petitioning our governments and we're organizing in our buildings to cancel rent, reduce rent, go on rent strike, get actual, you know, sanitary conditions during this health crisis. And we're talking about big profitable corporate landlords that the government is already spending extraordinary amounts of money to keep afloat alongside other businesses. And we want to see the same thing for tenants. We want a bail out for tenants.

  • 12:07:46

    NNAMDII was about to say, what do you say to small landlords who said, I got to pay a mortgage too. How am I supposed to do that if I'm not getting paid rent?

  • 12:07:54

    BASTEKRight. I mean, we want to find a sensitive solution, right? We're human, but we're a tenants union and historically in D.C., you know, we're not particularly concerned that landlords aren't getting enough attention. But I think it's important too to stress that most people aren't renting from mom and pop landlords. We're talking about big corporate landlords like the Cafritz Foundation, which has been around since 1948 and has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars. They own Tivoli Gardens outright. They could cancel rent. We're also talking about Donatelli. They have a long track record of discriminatory treatment of black tenants. They bought the land under their Park 7 building for $10 when it was valued at $13.1 million. They got a $56 million tax credit from the city.

  • 12:08:36

    NNAMDIOkay. Got it.

  • 12:08:37

    BASTEKLandlords like those can afford it.

  • 12:08:38

    NNAMDIGot it. Joining us now is Will Jawando. He is a Member of the Montgomery County Council. Will Jawando, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:46

    WILL JAWANDOGood to be with you.

  • 12:08:47

    NNAMDIFifty Democratic lawmakers have come together calling on Governor Larry Hogan to cancel rent and mortgage payments for Marylanders hurt by the pandemic. Do you think that movement will grow? And how have you and your fellow councilmembers helped renters in your county?

  • 12:09:01

    JAWANDOI appreciate, again, the opportunity to be on. It's obviously an unprecedented time where everyone -- you know, you saw today, 30 million Americans have requested unemployment insurance or some sort of help over the last six weeks. Unprecedented unemployment levels and our most vulnerable tend to be renters, right? Because that's what they can afford and many of them and this is true in Montgomery County are in a housing together, were multiple families in some cases.

  • 12:09:31

    JAWANDOSo what we've done here is use our county authority to cap the increase of rents. Unfortunately I had received many letters and emails and calls from residents, who were getting rent increase notices during the pandemic. I got a teacher on April 1st that said her rent was going to go up 20 percent from $1600 to $2000, which in untenable in any normal time. You know, our Department of Housing in Community Affairs considers 10 percent increase in one year a constructive eviction.

  • 12:10:01

    JAWANDOAnd while we've halted evictions here we were the first to do it in Montgomery County. And the governor followed suit. We're happy about that. What we don't want is for people to have stacked up rent increases and fees so that we have an eviction crisis at the end of this as we're trying to get out. So I do think state and federal government need to step up and do more to your first question. But we have to be concerned about small businesses and landlords. They have to pay their bills as well. Many of them have been able to defer mortgage payments. There's no similar relief for renters. Provide some with our Renter Relief Act here, but there's certainly more that can happen at the state and federal level.

  • 12:10:39

    NNAMDIYou introduced a bill to prevent large rent increases? What prompted that? Is it really true that some landlords increased their tenants rent 10 to 20 even 60 percent after the pandemic began?

  • 12:10:52

    JAWANDOThat's correct. And as I mentioned I have one from -- you know, I got her permission. Tessa Steward, who's a Montgomery County school teacher got a notice a notice on April 1st and the State of Emergency was put into place in March as you know. That her rent was going up $350, a 20 percent increase. We got others at the Grand and North Bethesda that range from 14 percent to 60 percent increases. We saw some in Long Branch where I grew up, very low income residents that were getting 10 percent increases also having to pay late fees and fines.

  • 12:11:26

    JAWANDOYou know, no one should be taking advantage of this crisis. And many of our landlords are doing the right thing and have halted rent increases and are trying to work with their tenants. But with a third of over a million residents being renters, that's not been uniform. And as we introduce this bill, which passed last week and is now law, it capped rent increases at our voluntary guidelines of 2.6 percent. I would have preferred zero percent. But, you know, the legislative process had its will and it was amended to cap them at 2.6, which will at least get rid of the most egregious increases.

  • 12:12:00

    NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds in this segment, Will Jawando, but have you heard from property owners and landlords in the county? Are they willing to help tenants during this public health crisis?

  • 12:12:08

    JAWANDOWell, as I said, many of them are.

  • 12:12:10

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:12:11

    JAWANDOBut in by forestalling fees and holding rents where they are. But we know that not everyone is.

  • 12:12:17

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:12:18

    JAWANDOAnd we need to help landlords, tenants and renters. We need federal relief that we can have everyone at every level including our small business owners, who their number one cost is rent. We need to make sure that they can come back after this crisis. So we need money at the federal and state level.

  • 12:12:32

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:57

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about what problems renters are facing during this pandemic crisis. And joining us now is Ikrim Meskaoui, who is a mother of two, a cafeteria worker. She lost her job when the pandemic began. She currently cannot afford her rent at the apartment building in Alexandria where she's been living since 2008 and is about to not pay her rent for the second month in a row. Ikrim Meskaoui, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:13:24

    IKRIM MESKAOUIThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:13:26

    NNAMDIAs I said, you didn't pay your rent on April 1st. You won't be paying it tomorrow, because you lost your job and cannot afford it. But what is your landlord saying?

  • 12:13:35

    MESKAOUIWell, I did not pay since month April. And I'm not going to pay for May also because (unintelligible) started sending emails and the letter so the hot list like early in March. I mean, the latest March. I wasn't expecting something else that has a little more empathy from them, but there was adverse that just I was thinking about the action how people want to get the money from us? They don't care about us or our safety. So whatever the safety net I have right now it even is not enough to pay my expenses. And I don't know how long this pandemic is going to last for. So I cannot pay my rent.

  • 12:14:27

    NNAMDIYou and some of your neighbors in the apartment complex where you live in Alexandria have organized and you're working together with hopes of starting discussions with your landlord as a group. How is that going?

  • 12:14:39

    MESKAOUIWell, it's going great. I mean, at the beginning we start talking about neighbor we're doing some meeting, the Zoom meeting of talking to them and about their voice need to be heard. They keep showing us regular to the Zoom meeting. We organized and call also tomorrow May 1st, we're doing a public action with the car caravan to show a landlord that we cannot pay the rent and we won't pay the rent, because we cannot afford that.

  • 12:15:17

    NNAMDIWell, there's a temporary moratorium on evictions in Virginia, but are you worried about being evicted when that moratorium is lifted?

  • 12:15:26

    MESKAOUIWell, this is the thing. It's kind of a nightmare for me. I mean, the things are just freaking me out. And like what I said, this pandemic, we don't know how long it's going to take for. And I cannot be on the street with my kids, because I cannot afford a rent. Whatever what the help they're sending us it's not helping us to pay the rent. I mean, the last update the landlord he give us to pay the rent through a third party, which is a collection agency with -- what's this called, with a fixed one payment fee. So we cannot afford that. I mean, everybody is living in anxiety right now.

  • 12:16:13

    NNAMDIHere is Robin in Washington D.C. Robin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:18

    ROBINHi. I live on H Street and I've been organizing the tenants in my building to try to ask our management and ownership for collective terms that would apply equally to everyone in the building who needs access to help and rent relief right now. Things like repayment plans for people who can't pay their rent, and extending the moratorium on evictions during that repayment period. The problem is that our building just flat refused and said they needed to negotiate with each individual tenant. And yet what's happening is that going through our management company, Gray Star, they're insisting on hardship forms and declining everyone. And so I'm curious what people are doing to get any sort of relief here if you're building is unwilling to cooperate?

  • 12:17:07

    NNAMDIStephanie Bastek.

  • 12:17:10

    BASTEKYeah. I mean, that's something we're seeing all across the city. You know, tenants want nothing more than to negotiate with their landlords collectively. And they're just refusing to come to the table. So what some tenants are doing is going on rent strike because fundamentally the one thing that you can withhold from your landlord is your rent. And if that's done collectively, you know, that's something that can really persuade your landlord that they are going to have to come to the table and negotiate with you.

  • 12:17:36

    BASTEKThe calculus is a little bit different now, right? But fundamentally that's the story. But, you know, your instincts are right to work collectively, because you're always going to get a better deal that way.

  • 12:17:45

    NNAMDIStephanie, you are also familiar with the building where Ikrim Meskaoui lives, aren't you?

  • 12:17:50

    BASTEKYeah. So the D.C. Tenants Union has been in touch with the organizers at Southern Towers. And I was at the car protest that happened last week, and I plan to be there tomorrow.

  • 12:17:59

    NNAMDIOkay. You began a petition, Stephanie, to urge D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council to cancel rent and mortgages during this crisis. How are those efforts going?

  • 12:18:11

    BASTEKI mean, it's gone pretty well. We had a phone zap on Tuesday and we apparently clogged some voicemail boxes. So that was great. I think there's a lot of widespread support. We have thousands of signatures, but, you know, the Council still hasn't passed what we've wanted them to pass. You know, a temporary freeze on rent increases is better than nothing, but what's that going to do if you've lost half your income or all of your income? None of the legislations so far like touches on the core issue, which is that we need to cancel rent because we can't pay. Anything short of that leaves thousands of people being evicted after the moratorium lifts. And I don't know. Is that something the D.C. Council wants on its hands?

  • 12:18:51

    NNAMDII want to go to Okani in Maryland. Okani, we don't have a great deal of time left. So I'm urging you to be brief. But go ahead, please, Okani.

  • 12:18:58

    OKANII rented this space to this tenant and she has always paid late and refused to pay late fees and everything like that. However, I had to take her to court. She went to court. And she and her person that she shares the house with, she said it was her husband. And now since April she hasn't paid. Is it her responsibility to get in touch with me to tell me that she cannot afford the rent or she's asking me to wait or something like that? I depend on this rent too.

  • 12:19:35

    NNAMDIAnd you have not -- you have not heard anything from her?

  • 12:19:38

    OKANINothing. Nothing. No checks. Nothing.

  • 12:19:41

    NNAMDIWill Jawando, who's responsibility is it in cases like this?

  • 12:19:45

    JAWANDOIt's the responsibility of the tenant to reach out proactively to the landlord. So she should be reaching out to you to work out an agreement. The bill we passed as I said just capped rent increases. We also this week gave $2 million -- appropriated $2 million to (unintelligible) rental support. So that's money that will pass through from the county government to tenant's hands to landlords. So you need to work it on both ends. We know landlords are struggling like the woman, who was just asking the question right now. And so we're encouraging people to contact your landlords whether it's a big multifamily property or it's an individual landlord.

  • 12:20:22

    JAWANDOAnd if you need help, if you need to access that money we just appropriated contact the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs and call 311 and we can help you with that. But you have to pay your rent. We understand it's difficult. That's why we're advocating at the federal level and the state level for money that can help keep money in the system and keep everything going, because we don't want that wave of evictions at the end.

  • 12:20:46

    JAWANDOSo we're going to keep working on this. It's a tough issue. This is unprecedented. But you still have the responsibility and many landlords will work with you to put a payment plan together even if it has to be long term accept partial payments we want to keep that going. At the same time while we advocate and put more money into the system and then have reasonable restrictions on fees and increases.

  • 12:21:09

    NNAMDIHere's Ann in Washington D.C. Ann, your turn.

  • 12:21:12

    ANNYes. My concern is if we contacted the rental management and the owner and they both will not negotiate, because they say that when we signed the lease it said in there that no matter what the problem is that we would have to pay for the eviction cost or any court.

  • 12:21:37

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Stephanie Bastek respond, but we don't have a lot of time left. Stephanie, you got about 30 seconds.

  • 12:21:42

    BASTEKI mean, I think this says everything, right? Landlords are refusing to come to the table for tenants. And people would much rather be in a position where they could pay rent. So I think it definitely behooves landlords to talk to their tenants. Reach out. Come to the table. The system is failing us. We have no other choice. We can't pay rent and they need to understand that and work with us. Most of them can absolutely afford it especially if they have a management company.

  • 12:22:06

    NNAMDIIkrim Meskaoui, do you feel safe living where you live in your building right now?

  • 12:22:12

    MESKAOUIActually this is my second point. I don't feel safe at all. I mean, the way how, you know, (unintelligible) the sanitizing, they don't do it at all. I mean, you know, we have the water shut off weekly like twice. Even one of the elevators is broke and we have to jump on the elevator like three, four, six people packed like yesterday. I live in the 13th floor. And I have to take out of the 11 floor, because the people that just get into the elevator.

  • 12:22:48

    NNAMDIWow. We're almost out of time. But thank you for sharing that with us. Ikrim Meskaoui it obviously shows that you or your building needs help from organizations like the D.C. Tenants Union. But I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Will Jawando, Stephanie Bastek, Ikrim Meskaoui, thank you all for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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