For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
Employers nationwide cut 140,000 jobs last month (the first decline since April), with the unemployment rate remaining unchanged at 6.7%. We do not yet know D.C.’s unemployment numbers for December, but throughout the pandemic its unemployment rate has remained slightly higher than the national average. And in November it was 7.5%.
With so much sustained unemployment, many have been unable to pay their rent and have had to make tough financial decisions.
So, how are our local and federal governments helping the millions of people who are struggling to pay their rent, and the landlords who are not receiving rent from them?
There is a federal eviction moratorium and one in D.C. (both of which have been extended several times), with the federal moratorium set to end at the end month and the District’s ending on March 31. And though Maryland and Virginia have put protections in place for renters, loopholes mean eviction is still possible. But all eviction moratoriums will expire at some point. What will happen then?
And could rent be simply canceled?
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. All this month we're looking at economic inequality and the effect the pandemic has had in making disparities worse. In this, the first in our Kojo Connect series we're looking at the effective of massive job losses on renters and landlords. With so many people out of work as a result of the pandemic many have been unable to pay their rent and have had to make tough financial decisions.
KOJO NNAMDISo how are our local and federal governments helping the millions of people who are struggling to pay their rent? And how are they helping the landlords who are not receiving rent from their tenants. Joining us now is Ally Schweitzer, Business and Development Reporter with The Affordability Desk at WAMU. Ally, thank you for joining us.
ALLY SCHWEITZERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlly, the federal eviction moratorium was extended until the end of the month and the Districts moratorium was extended to the end of March. So what does that mean for area residents who have not paid rent in months or have been struggling to keep up with the rent?
SCHWEITZERIt means they continue to have temporary protection from immediate eviction. So in D.C. you can't be evicted legally for any reason while the city is under a state of emergency. That's not the case in Maryland-Virginia. Tenants in those states can seek protection under the federal ban. But it requires them to be really proactive. You know, they have to prove they're struggling, because of COVID. You know, there's paperwork and documentation involved and they can still be sued for eviction even if they aren't ultimately evicted. So the federal eviction moratorium is helpful, but it's not truly comprehensive.
NNAMDIAnd you did mention the eviction moratorium in Maryland. But it is my understanding that there is a loophole that still allows landlords to basically evict tenants.
SCHWEITZERWell, technically there's no eviction moratorium in Maryland. You know, you can still be evicted there. It's just a little harder. You know, more than 1100 actual evictions took place in Maryland in October and November. And some of those stem from this loophole you refer to. It's what's known as tenant holding overreactions in Maryland. That's when a landlord sues a tenant for eviction not because they haven't paid their rent, but because the tenant has overstayed their lease. There's no protection against that in Maryland right now or in Virginia. So while not paying your rent may not get you evicted, your landlord can still refuse to renew your lease because you haven't paid your rent. And if you don't vacate they can file and eviction suit against you.
NNAMDIMaryland's legislative session started yesterday and lawmakers introduced a big package of renter legislation including a just cause eviction bill. What is a just cause eviction bill?
SCHWEITZERJust cause eviction laws make it harder for tenants to be evicted. They usually prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for reasons such as a lease expiration. D.C. has a just cause eviction law. There's a provision like this in temporary legislation from Maryland State Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins and State Senator Will Smith. The bill is still in the works. I haven't seen it yet. But what Delegate Wilkins told me this morning is it requires landlords to have a good reason to not renew a tenant's lease through May of 2022. The objective is to close this effective loophole in the law that's allowed Marylanders to be evicted during the pandemic, because their lease is up.
NNAMDIAlly, what are the protections and resources for renters in Virginia?
SCHWEITZERVirginia has a very large rent and mortgage relief program for state residents. And landlords can't evict tenants legally until they provide information to their tenant about that program. And they can apply for assistance on behalf of the tenant, which is important. I've heard praise for this program from both landlords and advocates for low income renters. But I've also heard landlords say it's hard to get the money. One sticking point is that landlords and tenants kind of need to work together to get the money. And that's not happening in every case, because tenants are frankly scared of their landlords and they don't want to talk to them.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Stephanie Bastek, a Volunteer Tenant Organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords. Stephanie, thank you for joining us.
STEPHANIE BASTEKThanks for having me again, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou were on the program talking about this issue and your organizing efforts back at the end of April. What's been happening since then and how have you been able to help renters who are struggling?
BASTEKA lot has happened. I don't think any of us thought this pandemic would go on this long. But since April, we have been organizing in almost 30 buildings with 16 on rent strike and the rest of the buildings working towards rent strike. You know, when I first came on we had just begun organizing rent strike. We had just begun organizing protests, but since then we've held public demonstrations. We have marched on a lot of landlord's houses. We marched on the mayor's house, and we gained some real ground.
BASTEKYou know, it's not an accident that the mayor suddenly found $10 million in rent relief less than a month after we showed up on her doorstep. It's not an accident that no one has been legally evicted in D.C. since March. You know, it's not, because the Council here is so much kinder than in Maryland. It's because tenants are being brave and fighting back and refusing to be ignored. You know, we're choosing food over rent every month. We're choosing the health and well-being of our families and neighbors over a landlord's profit.
BASTEKWe're helping each other. We're talking to each other. We're organizing, because we've said it before and we've said it again, you know, this pandemic is not our fault. And tenants should not be forced to pay for this crisis while landlords profit.
NNAMDIWhat is the goal of Stump Out Landlords? What is your objective?
BASTEKWell, the objective right now is to cancel the rent. You know, a huge number of tenants are on the hook for millions of dollars right now. As many as 715,000 renters in D.C., Maryland and Virginia are at risk of eviction now. You know, that's more than a third of all renters. We want to make sure that nobody is evicted over this crisis, and we want to make sure that the rent is fully canceled. That we don't just keep kicking the can down the road.
NNAMDIOne of -- among the things you help organize are rent strikes. Talk about rent strikes. What are they and how do they work?
BASTEKYeah. So a rent strike is essentially an organized effort among a group of tenants in the same building or in a bunch of buildings owned by the same landlord to not pay the rent. Now before the pandemic it was often over building conditions that were really abhorrent, you know, slum conditions, sewage leaking in, ceilings falling in, no, you know, locks on doors. And in the pandemic it's become much more about people being unable to pay and also having to live in really bad conditions.
BASTEKYou know, people are being required to stay home. You can't really go out and what can you do if you have a ceiling leaking on you. You've got, you know, tenants at Meridian Heights, for example, which is managed by UIP and owned by a Lebanese investment firm. Tenants at UIP have been sent to the hospital with rat bites, right, during the pandemic. They have caught untold numbers of mice, cockroaches.
BASTEKAnd some of their ceilings are so soggy -- and some of the floors have fallen in. It's just really appalling. So, you know, tenants came together. They called our hotline and they decided that they weren't going to put their rent over the food. They were going to choose themselves and their families and not this Lebanese investment firm's profits.
NNAMDIWhat are the legal issues when it comes to rent strikes? And given eviction moratoriums in place, are rent strikes even necessary right now?
BASTEKRent strikes are absolutely necessary, because landlords are not negotiating with tenants or even forgiving rent or fixing anything without them. You know, there are a number of landlords who have come to the table explicitly because their tenants are on rent strike. Now some of the deals they've offered were rejecting out of hand. For example, J. Alexander wanted his tenants to start paying full rent in October and would only count anything extra as double against the balance if it was extra. And nobody could start paying full rent in October let alone more than full rent.
BASTEKSo the tenant committee rejected that deal and decided to fight back even harder. And they've organized another J. Alexander building in Maryland. And you might say, Well, why haven't those tenants applied for rent relief? Well, Jose at that J. Alexander building was told he was approved for assistance after he navigated the really complicated process for getting it and they never got the money, you know, or a handful got some help for a few months, but it's a very short-term solution.
BASTEKIt's not enough to fully weather the pandemic. So every single person who got assistance is still at risk for eviction when the courts open.
NNAMDIHere is Kelly in Washington D.C. Kelly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KELLYYeah. So I am organizing here at the Whitner Apartment building, which is the largest apartment building in D.C.
NNAMDIOn 16th Street, correct.
KELLYYes, correct, on 16th Street. We've been organizing since the beginning of the pandemic. There's been so many people in our building that has lost their jobs due to the pandemic. A lot of the people in our building are Black and brown people that work in the hospitality industry. And as you know that was hit the hardest during the pandemic. Right now we have been organizing. We are providing food to more than 200 individuals in our building that are facing food insecurity. We have mutual aid to help families during this difficult time. But mostly we've been trying to negotiate with management. And they refused to negotiate with us. Their response has been to harass us for having window banners in our windows. And they are still trying to illegally evict tenants.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, Kelly. Stephanie Bastek, have you seen successes with rent strikes and how do you define success?
BASTEKYeah, I mean, so the perfect success would be full cancelation of rent, right? So we haven't gotten that quite yet. But we have gotten some really big wins. I can think of two really good examples. So at Park 7 where tenants have been on rent strike since April, we actually went and protested at Chris Danatelli's house in August. And not long after that he came forward with a rent forgiveness plan that would, you know, not means test anyone, which means no one had to prove they deserved it or prove that they'd been out of work, which can be really complicated for people especially who work under the table or are paid in cash. And, you know, that was automatic and that was great.
BASTEKBut, you know, for someone like my friend Jewel who has been out of work since April that doesn't really help because she's not getting enough unemployment to cover her bills. She doesn't have any money left over to pay the rent.
BASTEKBut that never would have happened if hadn't been on rent strike. And another example comes when a bunch of different buildings that are rent striking under the same management company come together. So we've been organizing at Oak Hill in Ward 8 since before the pandemic. It's managed by Urban Investment Partners or UIP. And for months, for years, they refused to meet with tenants about sewage pipes leaking into the apartment or putting up a fence around the property or dealing with safety even though a bunch of kids had been killed or locks on the doors until UIP took over the contract for two other buildings on rent strike.
BASTEKSuddenly UIP wanted to meet. Suddenly they would count every dollar towards rent as three dollars. You know, all of those buildings are owned by a Lebanese investment firm that could count all of the rent, you know.
NNAMDIOkay. We're out of time in this segment. But we're going to take a short break and come right back to this discussion on rent as it affects both tenants and particularly small landlords. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. In this first in our Kojo Connects series we're discussing rent how it's affecting both renters and landlords and small landlords in particular. Joining us now is Polly Donaldson, the Director of D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development. Polly, thank you for joining us.
POLLY DONALDSONThank you, Kojo. It's great to be with you again.
NNAMDIThe D.C. government wants people to know there is money available to help. Polly, can you talk about what funds are available and who is eligible?
DONALDSONSure. Well, first off, I want to say that over the course since the pandemic the District government using both federal and local funds has invested just under $20 million already. Has dispersed $20 million already in rent assistance to residents of the District in need through a variety of programs. And programs were designed based on what their funding source requirements were.
DONALDSONFederal money had a lot more restrictions and such. We saw with some of the local money we've been able to do it. So were been able to help tenants. We were able to help tenants in small buildings particularly where there's a real concern about their housing stability. We were able to help landlords, both small landlords and those who are in the -- who do affordable housing and whose residents have been very much at risk as well. So that's what we've been able to do today. But the best news is that as part of the coronavirus relief package passed by the Congress in late December signed by the president just after Christmas provides nationwide $25 billion to assist households with rent assistance.
DONALDSONThe District's share -- and will say this time we did get the same share that a state would. And so we are getting $200 million in rent assistance provided by the U.S. Treasury. We submitted our application for it this week. We actually had confirmed the amount of money of $200 million by Treasury this week. They are producing some guidelines and regulations so we can't start the program until we actually receive the funds and the guidance on some of the specifics.
DONALDSONBut I can tell you that residents of the District will be eligible to apply as will landlords. There is an income limit of 80 percent of the area median income, which is for a family of four about $90,000 or less. So it will serves folks with zero income up to that amount. And really will be I think absolutely an important step in really helping to make sure that residents across the District stay stably housed.
NNAMDIBut, Polly, when? When will D.C. tenants and landlords be able to receive help from that $200 million in federal rental assistance money?
DONALDSONAs soon we receive the guidance from Treasury and the funds from the Treasury Department, which we have not received yet. This is again part of the relief package passed the last week of December, signed by the president and that is now being processed. We anticipate that the new guidelines and guidance from Treasury will be one of the first actions of the Biden-Harris administration.
DONALDSONSo we don't anticipate that we'll actually have the funds in hand till later in January, early February. And then we will be able to begin implementing. I will say that is a very massive program. We're working very closely at DHCD with the Department of Human Services with Director Zeilinger, and because they've also been doing rent assistance with local funds, and we are revamping and streamlining the systems. We've heard the feedback about the application process and about the distribution of payments and the paperwork that's been required. All of that will be streamlined.
DONALDSONWe're taking those lessons learned to really develop a much more robust and we think responsive program that will truly make a difference. And important, Kojo, this will cover arrears from last year, right, from 2020 -- all rent owed from 2020. But it will also pay rents forward. So for those who are still unemployed it is going to be a critical source for us through the end of 2021. It's absolutely terrific.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the application process. Tenant activists we've spoken to have said that process as you indicated to receive rental assistance in D.C. is difficult and many get frustrated or get their application denied. You talked about trying to streamline the process. Can you be more specific? What steps have you taken to improve it?
DONALDSONSure. Well, we're working together with Department of Human Services is looking specifically at how that application process works, how residents can access the resources, simplifying that process. We're working on that right now as we speak creating both additional electronic access points as well as real-time access points with call centers and the ability to be able to reach the person who is going to be able to give you the answer on how to apply. We've heard the feedback. We know that there's been as we've had a steadier uptick in the number of applications. We have seen that where some of the jam ups are in the system and where we need to fix them.
DONALDSONSo I can tell you that we are actively doing that with the support of the deputy mayor for Planning and Economic Development, with Department of Human Services and Department of Housing and Community Development. We are all working together. These funds will also support utility assistance. So we are working with Department of Energy and Environment so that we can help people pay their utility bills off, any arrears they may have and also assistance going forward to make sure that their heat stays on and their electric bill is paid.
NNAMDIHere's someone in Washington D.C. who identifies as an anonymous landlord. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANONYMOUS LANDLORDOkay. Well, thank you, Kojo. I mean, so basically I am a D.C. resident and a tenant in D.C. and a small landlord in D.C. And I just want to say that I've had sort of a mixed experience so far here, because it feels very often that the city likes to push a lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of landlords, which may be bigger landlords can handle. But us, small landlords, we just cannot especially those of us who, you know, this is not an investment. It's also our livelihood. We have other jobs. And I mean really just mom and pop type of your neighborhood landlord.
ANONYMOUS LANDLORDSo I've had that experience in the past even before COVID like when the city pushed the mental health needs, for example, of a section 8 tenant onto the landlord. You know, that's not something we can do. But during COVID it's been especially difficult, because this relief money that finally relieves some of the rent due in arrears in December for some landlords including myself came really, really delayed. After incurring penalties and late fees on the taxes -- property taxes that are due to the city, D.C. did not put a moratorium on, you know, the late fees and the penalties they charge.
NNAMDIHas the situation improved at all for you?
LANDLORDThe situation has temporarily improved with the relief money that came -- the grant money that came in December. But it's not clear what's going to happen moving forward. And I've still incurred a lot of fees during that time when the courts were closed.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt because we don't have a great deal of time. Polly Donaldson, what would you say to this anonymous D.C. landlord?
DONALDSONWell, I'm glad that you were able to benefit from the landlord program we were able to implement. Do remember that some of the restrictions on the funding is driven by the funding source, you know, and so we have to comply with -- especially on the federal we have to comply with the guidelines and the restrictions and the laws as they exist on how these resources can be used.
DONALDSONWe did find some resources for landlords in December and were able to get out a total of $10.7 million in really just a three week period in December, which I know did help some both small landlords, less than 20 units. And I think the last speaker is one of those landlords as well as some of our affordable housing portfolio. Kojo, let me just emphasize again, the programs that we instituted last year the distributed $20 million are still open, still available. One can still apply in terms of the tenants applying. The new federal program is going to require tenant income information. That is required.
DONALDSONUnless Treasury issues a waiver on that so we're going to really need landlords and tenants to work together. We will help facilitate that. We will help make that happen. But we really are going to need folks to -- encourage folks to apply not just for the arrears, but for rent money going forward, as well.
NNAMDIWhat's the website where people can apply?
DONALDSONThe links to the website are on the coronavirus.dc.gov website -- coronavirus.dc.gov/rent. That is where you will find all the links to the rent assistance programs.
NNAMDIPolly Donaldson is the Director of D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development. Thank you for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to this first in our series called Kojo Connects. We'll be looking at economic issues. Today, we're talking about renters and landlords, and small landlords, in particular. We're talking with Stephanie Bastek, volunteer tenant organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords. Stephanie, before the break, Polly Donaldson was talking about some of the financial resources available to D.C. residents. Are renters who need this assistance aware that there are funds available? And are they aware about how to apply for them?
BASTEKYes. People are definitely aware of how to apply and that these programs exist. But, you know, the money that the city has put into rent relief, and that 200 million is a big amount of money, but it's still just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in missed rents that are due just until December. I think the estimate is on the order of 400 to $500 million just from May to December. It's not even half, you know.
BASTEKAnd people know these programs exist, but my friend Jewell at Park 7 got furloughed, and she tried to apply, and then she never heard back. It's been months and months. So, you know, frankly the programs are -- like, it's good that there's money available, but they're really hard to apply for.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, as a tenant organizer, are you and other tenant support organizations helping people to apply and to try to navigate these systems?
BASTEKAs a volunteer, you know, tenant organizer, we don't really focus on that. We focus primarily on organizing people to bring landlords to the negotiating table, because we've seen that's much more effective in getting, you know, landlords to treat tenants like equals at the table. And I think that's paid off, you know. The program that the mayor rolled out in December that required landlords to apply, you know, helped way more people at buildings that have gotten it than earlier programs that required tenants to apply piecemeal.
BASTEKBut even so, Park 7, which is owned by Chris Donatelli, is one of the buildings that got a slice of that $10 million pie, and tenants are still living in really bad conditions. There's no security. It's really bad, and we have to make sure that that 200 million that the District hands out doesn't just go towards subsidizing really bad, frankly, slum conditions.
NNAMDIWell, before I go to the phones, Ally Schweitzer's also with us, business and development reporter with the affordability desk at WAMU. Ally, many landlords, especially small landlords, are also struggling. And as we heard from Polly Donaldson, there's help for them in D.C., as well. Please talk about what's available to landlords in the District and, frankly, around the region.
SCHWEITZERWell, technically every rental assistance program in this region, you know, on the state level, city level, county level, all that money ultimately goes to landlords, right. So, every rental assistance program technically, you know, benefits landlords. But not every program allows landlords to apply directly for the funds themselves. So, Virginia state fund, that's open to landlords. As Director Donaldson mentioned earlier, D.C. has money that landlords can apply for. Maryland had money set aside for affordable housing providers.
SCHWEITZERAnd as this new federal money begins to move through the system, you know, depending on what programs the funds are being distributed through, landlords may also have direct access to those resources. I would suggest, though, for the best and most current information, housing providers should check with their local jurisdiction's housing authorities for specific items on whether they themselves can apply for funds.
NNAMDIStephanie Bastek, D.C. has a $10 million fund to help tenants living in affordable housing where the government will give the landlords 80 percent of the rent due, but landlords have to swallow the remaining 20 percent. Do I understand that correctly, and how is that program working?
BASTEKYeah, that is correct. And that's a step in the right direction, for sure. But as I was just saying earlier, Park 7 -- which is owned by Donatelli -- is one of the buildings that applied for and got that money. And, last week, tenants found, you know, heroin-filled syringes in the hallway. And people are still living in really bad conditions. So, it's good that landlords are forced to pay for some of this, because it's not fair for tenants or even the government to bear the entirety of the crisis. But, you know, I think the implementation who gets it should probably be looked into a little bit more carefully by the administration.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Jason in Bethesda, Maryland. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASONYes. Thank you for taking my call. I think the most difficult part with this whole situation is that it seems to me that there are many barriers in place for landlords accessing this money. I'm hearing about building conditions. I'm hearing about landlords working with tenants. I'm hearing about nonprofit organizations and pro bono lawyers that are ready to stamp out different conditions. But what we're not hearing is for the landlord that has a 9 to 5, that is a small kind person, when does he or she have that time to work with the tenant to get the application in in order to get the assistance that they technically deserve?
JASONSo, if we're going to hold landlords accountable for the conditions of their places during a pandemic, then aren't we prejudicing our situation to say, oh, your building's not up to code. We're not going to give you this money, but you're still dealing with a pandemic. So, I think it's unfair to really hold -- listen, I think buildings should be repaired, but it's difficult to say that, oh, during the pandemic, we're going to fight for these rights, and we're going to hold the money hostage until this is fixed or corrected.
JASONAnd lost in all this is a small-time landlord like myself who has had a tenant living in my place since December without paying a single dime, and I haven't filed for an eviction. Now, if I don't file, with a three-month backup in the court system, I'm really doing myself a disservice if this money doesn't come through. So, I really have no guarantee, and I kind of just have to wait and hope that the local municipalities make the right choices with the federal money.
NNAMDIYou're saying that this tenant hasn't paid since December. Do you mean December, 2020 or December, 2019?
JASONNo, December, 2020. So, we went an entire year -- oh, I'm sorry, December, '19, I apologize. So, December, '19, we went an entire year, because I didn't file a failure to pay. The pandemic hit, so then it became like, oh well, there's going to be this money coming. It never came, and now we're in January. And meanwhile, I'm waiting to hear how this money is going to trickle through the system.
NNAMDIWell, let's hear from a couple more landlords, and then we're going to go back to the tenant point of view. We got an email from Rudolph, who says: I'm a struggling mom-and-pop landlord who has been confronted with tenants who are using COVID-19 as a cover not to pay the rent. A tenant family has ample income to pay the rent, but they're not communicating with me to resolve this and are not living by the law to renegotiate or even discuss payment plans. It is simply frustrating.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, for landlords -- and this is in the state of Maryland -- there is no recourse for landlords, and we are not profiting as the stomp out landlords advocates state. And now, here from Wilson, in Washington, who identifies as a commercial landlord. Wilson, your turn.
WILSONThank you for taking my call, Kojo. My curiosity comes in when I have three commercial buildings, all restaurants. Two out of the three tenants have actually closed up shop because of COVID. And my banks are now foreclosing on my -- or in the process of foreclosing on those two buildings because there's nothing set in place for commercial. Is there anything set in place? Am I in the dark, here?
NNAMDII'll have to ask Ally Schweitzer. Ally Schweitzer?
SCHWEITZERCommercial rent relief is much harder to come by. It's true. It's also easier for commercial landlords to evict, however. So, because I'm not a lawyer, the best I can do is refer you to somebody who is. There are a lot of commercial landlord attorneys in the District that can help you out, but, yeah, it's true. Renters, residential tenants are more protected than commercial tenants. And commercial landlords, though, do have a little bit more ability to actually evict tenants during the crisis than residential landlords in the District.
NNAMDIWilson, thank you very much for your call. Stephanie Bastek, we got this anonymous email: I live in a building where they have been striking. I did not lose my job, so I'm able to pay my rent, but their pamphlets are telling residents not to pay rent, even though they can. I don't want my credit ruined. I'm trying to buy a house. What is the logic behind this? Stephanie Bastek?
BASTEKYeah, that's a really good question. And we have a number of buildings where there are folks on solidarity rent strike with people who just can't pay. And, you know, the truth is there are also just a lot of people in the city who are going into credit card debt, who are asking friends and family to pay rent. So, even if people are, you know, paying the rent, it doesn't mean that they can really afford to. So, the choice to rent strike is essentially the choice to refuse to put, you know, your house and your food below the rent.
BASTEKAnd, you know, the question of what happens to me if I withhold is a really scary one, you know, and the system can be really frightening. But, right now, there are so many protections in place that help tenants, particularly when it comes to credit, you know. In D.C., you do have the right to withhold your money and to show up in front of a court of law and, you know, explain why you shouldn't have to pay the rent for X, Y or Z reason.
BASTEKAnd what we've seen is that buildings where, you know, a lot of tenants who could pay, if, you know, they borrowed money from friends or could pay because they have been employed do go on solidarity rent strike. It has moved the needle with the landlords, and it has brought them to the negotiating table and resulted in a more equitable situation.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Rebecca in Columbia Heights, in D.C. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi, good afternoon. I actually missed the first half portion of the show so far, because I was out participating in our weekly food distribution here at Tivoli Gardens. And I want to say, I appreciate the anonymous, small landlord who acknowledged that big landlords can (unintelligible) responsibility. I live at one of those buildings owned by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and they are not footing some of this responsibility yet. So far, they haven't done anything for the struggling tenants here that is not required by the law.
REBECCAInstead, we are, for the 29th week in a row, feeding our neighbors who are struggling. Minutes before I called into the show, I brought down two bags of groceries to a neighbor who is kind of taking in her family members who were laid off themselves, who otherwise would literally be on the street. They have pallets and air mattresses set up in the living room. (unintelligible) the responsibility right now.
REBECCAI think -- I was raised on do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. And I know that doing that might be complicated, legislatively, but there's nothing stopping a big, wealthy landlord like the Cafritz Foundation from at least saying so, for at least (unintelligible) intent to help right now.
NNAMDIAnd how would you expect -- what do you want the Cafritz Foundation to do to help tenants?
REBECCAWell, I think Polly Donaldson said that she will encourage landlords and tenants to work together. And I'd like to know if -- will she encourage landlords to work with tenant associations and tenant organizations that have been writing letters and asking them to work together with us to come to the negotiation table.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by working together and coming to the negotiation table? What do you want?
REBECCAYeah, well, we are on rent strike. We have been withholding. We wrote demand letter. The demand is to cancel rent for tenants who cannot pay during the pandemic. At our building, an average tenant, at this point, that was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic is going to now well over $10,000 in back rent. And that's a modest estimation.
REBECCASo, I'm withholding -- my rent is in escrow. I know that it's been mentioned for other rent strikers that they're in escrow. Technically, you know, that money is on the table. I'm not in this to -- I think as someone mentioned -- have an excuse not to pay, but this is what rent strikes have done in the past. That's what we're doing now. We want the tenants who have lived here, in some cases, for 20 years, to not be evicted and not have to go into $15,000 in debt just to keep a roof over their head.
NNAMDIOkay, gotcha. Ally Schweitzer, last month, a D.C. superior court judge struck down D.C.'s ban on eviction filings. How significant was that ruling, and where do things stand now?
SCHWEITZERThat ruling did not have an immediate impact on renters facing eviction, because it actually only affected one narrow aspect of the city's comprehensive eviction ban. The concern, though, among tenant advocates about the ruling is that it could pave the way for more legal challenges from landlords against other components of the eviction ban. D.C.'s eviction ban is kind of multifaceted. The tenant advocates are worried that it will lead to more legal challenges.
SCHWEITZERAnd can I just go back to something that I heard on a call earlier, Jason, the landlord in Bethesda, had said?
SCHWEITZERI just want to make very clear, one of the things that Jason had said is that landlords in Maryland don't have any recourse, you know, for tenants who haven't paid their rent, in his instance, for more than a year. If you have a tenant who has not paid rent since before the pandemic, that actually is not -- that tenant probably doesn't have legal protections in the way that somebody who has not paid rent because of COVID does.
SCHWEITZERLandlords in Maryland actually do have recourse. They can file an eviction. And it's on the tenant to show that they are not paying rent because of COVID in order to not be evicted, to seek the eviction protection. So, you do have more protection than you think. D.C. is the place where it's a lot harder for landlords to evict, for any reason. I just want to point that out, because I think landlords are mischaracterizing, you know, the rights they actually do have in the state of Maryland.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you. Here now is Esther in Washington, D.C. Esther, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ESTHERHi. I live here in Park 7, and I just want to make people aware of how Park 7 residents are being treated.
NNAMDITell us where Park 7 is again.
ESTHERPark 7 is on Minnesota Avenue Northeast, about a block away from Minnesota Avenue station.
ESTHERSo, Park 7 is a pest-and-drug-infested freefall. The building is actually falling apart. There has been -- I'm on the tenant association. We have a tenant association, and I'm on the tenant association. And we go out knocking on doors of the tenants. And there have been -- just last weekend alone, we're heard complaints of feces, human feces and animal feces in the hallway.
ESTHERI was the one that, I was going out the other day, and when I opened the door, there were two guys in the stairwell, and one of the guys threw something. So I thought it was a piece of paper. And when I got down to the second floor, to the second stair, there were syringe stuck in the carpet, because there are carpet, and it was filled with heroine. And I just freaked out. There's no accountability. No one wants to do anything. My window is broken. And if I want my window -- if I don't want air seeping through my window -- I live on the sixth floor. If I don't want air seeping through my window, I have to climb on the ledge and close the window myself.
ESTHERAnd the management told my lawyer that one of my windows has been locked for my safety. I just don't understand that. Chris Donatelli won't do anything. There's no accountability. Jason (unintelligible) and Cheryl, which work in the -- which are part of the management team -- they are the management team, they won't do anything at all. So, I just wanted to make people...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Do you know, have the tenants in that building organized? Have they been attempting to get into discussions with management and being turned down?
ESTHERYes, we have. So, there's intimidation and retaliation. You know, they will send you emails or tell you -- sometimes they'll tell you that you didn't pay your rent or -- I have a neighbor that she used to go to the tenant meetings. But when they saw her, they barred her from the office, because they said she was problematic. So, they barred her from the office, so she's no longer able to go to the office. These are some of the things they do to you, like...
NNAMDIOkay. Let me bring Stephanie Bastek into the conversation. Stephanie Bastek, have you been working with the tenants in that building?
BASTEKYep, I have been. Yeah. And I think we've seen that management is really scared of tenants organizing, because we've shown that we've gotten a lot of gains when we have come together collectively, because ultimately, these are collective issues. And the rent strike at Park 7, the protests at the landlord's house -- which is an $8.8 million mansion -- is the only thing that has even brought them to the table. But, you know, they're really not doing as much as they could be doing.
NNAMDIAnd, Esther, thank you very much for sharing your story with us, and I'm hoping that the situation improves for you and your fellow tenants. Stephanie, the federal eviction moratorium was extended to the end of the month and D.C.'s was extended to the end of March. But have you seen cases where landlords are still evicting people, despite the laws that are there to protect them?
BASTEKAnecdotally, there have been a handful of what we call self-help evictions, where a landlord will sell them something like a notice to quit, or will just tell the tenant that if you don't leave, I'll call ICE on you, because you're undocumented. And then they have left. Luckily, though, there has not been a single legal eviction in D.C. And when we were asked by some tenants in Maryland to show up for an illegal eviction under the federal ban, we successfully blocked those two evictions.
BASTEKBut, you're right. It's abundantly clear that with these attacks on the eviction ban coming from landlords, like, we're also worried that the D.C. Council is going to put the rights of, you know, landlords over tenants.
NNAMDIHere now is Patrick, who is somewhere in the D.C. metro area. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICKYes. Thank you for taking the call. I have my own property management company, and I came in late to this, but I felt like it would be great to put my perspective into the conversation.
PATRICKWell, so first of all, we like to tell our potential clients that you don't know what you don't know. As a self-management landlord, we have spent dozens of hours in this last year, almost a year, trying to figure out the laws and the changing laws. And I got to say, fortunately, being in the D.C. metro area, most people are paying on time, and they're doing everything they can. And also, because we have a fantastic government system -- I'm talking statewide, nationwide -- that put money into place to help these people, the money's there for everybody. We just have to figure out how to get it to everybody.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. We were just talking earlier about some of the difficulties of accessing that money, both for landlords, but especially for tenants. Here now is Andrew in Washington, D.C. Andrew, your turn.
ANDREWHey, Kojo. I'm a legal advocate for tenants in the District of Columbia. And I just have to take issue with all of these landlords calling in saying they're mom-and-pop landlords, and that somehow, they're entitled to some kind of different way of doing business than any other business in the District of Columbia. The only difference is that many of these mom-and-pop landlords are sitting on tons of equity. So, if they can't handle the business, they need to do what any other business would do and shut down, sell your property, and move on. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Let me go to Roger in Arlington, Virginia. Roger, did you hear what Andrew just had to say?
ROGERYes, I did. And I would make a point...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Take the loss and shut down.
NNAMDIThat's what, essentially, Andrew was saying. But, Roger, what would you like to say?
ROGERWell, I think the burden should be shared. That is when people cannot pay their rent, for the landlord, it makes no sense for me to get rid of them. I'd rather have them paying something than have an apartment earning nothing. Here in Arlington, I wrote a letter to the Arlington County Board and to the Fairfax County Board, saying, if a landlord -- if I have to take a 20 percent, say, or a 30 percent cut in income from a lower rent, then the county board -- which controls the property tax, which is my major monthly expense in addition to the lights and electricity, water, sewage, the major thing, I pay almost $1,000 a month in just property tax in Arlington.
ROGERIf that was reduced by the similar proportion to my reduction in rent, I think that would be a wonderful, shared burden. I wrote this up, sent it to the county boards at both Arlington and Fairfax and never heard a single word of reply. I went to the county board offices and talked to the staff of the county boards in both cases, and they just looked at me like I must be from another planet. County governments never give up any money.
NNAMDIWell, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. And, Roger, better luck next time when you approach officials in Arlington, Virginia. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Stephanie Bastek, Polly Donaldson, Ally Schweitzer and our callers Esther and Rebecca, thank you all for joining us. Today's show was produced by Kirk Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, on The Politics Hour, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Delegate Eric Luedtke join us.
NNAMDIBefore I go today, I'd like to share some views. After 23 years with The Kojo Nnamdi Show, I have decided to step down from hosting the daily broadcast. We'll wrap production in early April, but, fear not, resident analyst Tom Sherwood and I will continue to bring you The Politics Hour every Friday, holding local officials accountable and hearing directly from you, as we always have.
NNAMDIIn addition, I'll continue to host events across the region in a revamped Kojo In Our Community series of town halls, and you will still hear special broadcasts of those events on air. In the meantime, we've got a special slate of shows and events coming up, the Kojo Connect series that we've been talking about earlier. This month, we're focusing on economic inequality amidst the pandemic. We launched with today's show on help for renters. And you can join us on Tuesday, January 26th for a virtual event focused on the ways local organizations and ordinary Washingtonians have stepped up to help.
NNAMDIIt's been a privilege to be in this host chair. And for those of you who would like to know, this was ultimately my decision. The station and I eventually reached an agreement about how it would take place. But I look forward to continuing to engage with all of you. So, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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