“This was once a great building,” says April Goggans of Marbury Plaza, the place she calls home. The 1,500 resident complex was once the site of a community of black professionals and middle class families. Soul legend Isaac Hayes also called it home. “It was known as ‘the jewel of the community,’” says April.
But that was decades ago, before a long string of ownership changes brought a pattern of neglect and decay. Residents have endured years of broken heat and plumbing, poor security, rodent infestations, even some serious accidents. At times entire days have passed without air conditioning, which can be life-threatening to the buildings' many elderly residents.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of April, her fellow tenants, Bread for the City lawyers, and even city officials like Attorney General Peter Nickles, Marbury Plaza’s long decline is about to reverse. Last week, the tenants reached an initial settlement with the owners of the housing complex, who will invest $5 million into repairs and upgrades. (See coverage in the Washington Post here.)
“This victory demonstrates the power that tenants have when they act collectively,” says Phylisa Carter, Bread for the City’s community lawyer, who worked most closely with the Marbury Plaza tenants. “By articulating clear demands and taking action, these ordinary people were able to hold landlords -- and government officials -- accountable.”
This success came after years of hard work. Tenant organizing efforts at Marbury actually date back to 2005, when an explosion in a laundry room killed a mother and young daughter. Tenants organized RAMP (Residential Association of Marbury Plaza) to build support for the family of the victims -- and also to push for investigations, repairs, security, and upgrades. Led by Connie Chic Smith and Vanessa Vedder, RAMP saw some measure of success. Vincent Gray, then Ward 7 Councilmember, attended their meetings. Security at the building began to improve. Tenants did not see many building repairs -- but they did learn their rights.
Years later, Marbury Plaza’s owners started looking to sell. DC’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) gives tenants the right to attempt to purchase their building before a landlord sells it to a third party. This was when April got involved: she helped launch the Marbury Plaza Concerned Tenants Association (MPCTA), which worked with the Office of Tenant Advocate to make a purchase proposal for the tenants. In the end, both bids fell through.
But now that the Marbury Tenants Association was mobilized, they picked up where RAMP left off. “Each day at Marbury Plaza brought the possibility of any number of things going wrong. Intermittent heat, hot water and air conditioning, roaches, mice, leaks -- it was always something,” according to April. Tenants decided to take things to another level.
April first came to Bread for the City in October of 2008, seeking legal advice for a rent strike. A group of ten tenants were ready to withhold their rent in demand of improvements. They knew that by taking this action they were risking their very homes -- but they believed the law was on their side.
“When Bread for the City heard there were major problems with the building and the tenants had decided to hold the management accountable, I didn’t hesitate to offer our assistance,” recalls Stacey Long, who was Director of Advocacy at Bread for the City at the time, and helped initiate the relationship. “We recognized [Marbury’s] significance as a fixture within the community.”
This connection made for a strong team. “As the tenants designed their overall campaign plan, we were able to offer our legal skills to help them achieve specific campaign goals,” says Phylisa Carter.
“This is the essence of community lawyering,” she explains. “We offer our tactical legal capacity as one key piece of the process for a community trying to build its own power.”
“Bread for the City helped us get educated and organized,” explains April. “They have a great depth of experience and knowledge, and they were able to work with us in a way that wasn’t soft and wasn’t hard, if that makes sense. It was like they were the glue that helped hold us all together. They helped us gain access to justice.”
With BFC’s legal guidance, tenants had confidence that they could sustain the rent strike without losing their homes. The strike grew from 10 to 80 tenants; and when the tenants were sued in Landlord/Tenant court for non-payment of rent, our lawyers represented them. Many of these tenants were struggling with unemployment, or elderly and receiving public assistance (like social security insurance). When they needed help, we were able to connect them to services like our food pantry and case management. When another fire left victims without a wardrobe, our clothing bank became an essential resource for them.
With Bread for the City representing the tenants in negotiations, the case came to the attention of DC Attorney General Peter Nickles.
“The Attorney General was instrumental in bringing all of the parties to the negotiating table,” says Phylisa, “including the Office of the Tenant Advocate and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs [the city agency that handles housing inspections].” Under his direction, relatively swift progress was made towards resolving the rent strike and reaching a settlement that would satisfy all parties.
Just this month, the settlement was announced: The management company has agreed to invest $5 million into repairs and upgrades. Tenants will also receive significant abatements on their rent.
The deal is not yet officially done. 80% of the rent strikers must first sign on to the settlement -- but April is cautiously optimistic. “I think this is a really positive step for everyone,” explains April. “We’re looking at a complete replacement of the major systems like air conditioning, heat, hot water, ventilation... and we’re talking about real permanent repairs, not quick fixes that would just break right away. We’re looking to see new things like security cameras, more secure access to the building, and compliance with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].”
“Despite fears about putting our whole lives on the line, we stuck it out and had a huge victory.” Furthermore, the experience has been an invaluable political and organizational education for Marbury tenants. “I believe we [at Marbury Plaza] are the first tenant group in the city to have gone through both a TOPA process and a housing code violations campaign. We know what we’re doing now, we now how the system works. If the owners try to sell again, we’ll be ready to buy it ourselves.”
In the meantime, there’s lots of other good work to be done. “This settlement gives us, as a tenant’s association, the opportunity not to be tied up in court,” says April with excitement. “We’re able to spend our time and energy building community, hosting events, doing parent education -- health education and finance education. We can make Marbury the jewel of the community once again.”
And you can help Bread for the City continue to work with tenants across the city, empowering them to assert their rights and gain control over their homes. It's hard work -- but as we see through this victory, it's transformative work. Make a donation to our legal clinic today: www.breadforthecity.org/marburyplaza