When Tenants Take On Landlords Over Bad Conditions: A Rent-Strike Explainer A handful of rent strikes have emerged in the past few years. So how do they work?
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When Tenants Take On Landlords Over Bad Conditions: A Rent-Strike Explainer

Organized rent strikes can give tenants greater leverage in negotiations with their landlords. Courtesy of/Stomp Out Slumlords hide caption

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Courtesy of/Stomp Out Slumlords

D.C. appears to be in the midst of a rent-strike resurgence. From an ongoing strike in Columbia Heights to a recently resolved strike in Brightwood Park, the practice has emerged at several buildings in the city as a means to provoke landlord compliance with housing code.

Rent strikes — in which tenants aim to withhold rent until their grievances are addressed — have grown more common in several cities contending with the impact of gentrification on affordable housing. And the strategy isn't new to D.C., where an ultimately unsuccessful 1964 strike nonetheless inspired a spate of similar efforts, with mixed results, through the 1960s and 1970s.

So how does a rent strike work? Here are the basics:

What Exactly Is A Rent Strike?

When landlords won't address untenable conditions — units where mold and vermin are rampant, for example, or heating and air conditioning aren't properly functioning — a rent strike is one possible response. Renters, either as individuals or as a group, typically pay their rent into an escrow account. It demonstrates good faith on the part of tenants in setting aside the funds, and it eliminates the burden of holding onto unused funds as the strike progresses.

Are They Legal?

D.C. tenants are allowed to withhold rent if housing-code violations have not been sufficiently addressed. While there is nothing in the law that expressly states that right, as Office of the Tenant Advocate legislative director Joel Cohn notes, there are tenets that can provide a legal basis for a strike. One of these is the retaliation provision in the Rental Housing Act of 1985.

"That provision says that there's a presumption of retaliation if [the] tenant has exercised a legal right within the last six months, and that would include withholding rent due to housing-code violations," Cohn says.

There's also the "implied warranty of habitability," a legal precedent that permits tenants to withhold rent when landlords are non-compliant with the housing code. This interpretation of landlord-tenant law is incorporated into the D.C. Tenant Bill of Rights.

Maryland allows tenants to legally withhold rent if a landlord fails to take care of required repairs. Virginia tenants are advised to continue paying rent, or risk eviction; they can take the case to court if a landlord does not respond to requests to address the issue.

How Does A Rent Strike Work?

Tenants have the right to withhold rent on an individual basis, and in most cases, rent strikes are carried out this way.

"One of the most important things to understand about rent strikes is that ... organizers build them on the basis of things that tenants kind of do spontaneously," says Rob of Stomp Out Slumlords, who requested that WAMU not use his last name to maintain privacy regarding his political activity. "It's a pretty intuitive thing that people understand at a gut level — that if you're not getting the things that you're paying for, why would you pay?"

Organizations such as his argue that there may be more strength in numbers. Recent strikes in D.C. have been organized by an amalgam of local groups, including the Latino Economic Development Center, the recently formed DC Tenants Union, Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Stomp Out Slumlords, the campaign mentioned above, which is under the local wing of the Democratic Socialists of America.

A rent strike may be set in motion months before it's publicly announced. Prior to a launch date, organizers may canvass the building and plan resident meetings, help tenants draft letters to property managers, circulate petitions and build community support through public demonstrations. If demands are still not met, organizers may then assist with a formal strike, which may include all or a portion of residents in a given building. They may also help connect tenants with escrow accounts for rent collection or with legal representation should they go to court.

What Happens In Court?

"One of the quickest ways to get to court is to withhold your rent," says Marc Borbely, senior attorney and founder of the D.C. Tenants' Rights Center, a "low-bono" firm providing legal services to tenants. "You don't have to sue the landlord, you don't have to serve the landlord — the landlord takes you to court. And often landlords do that quickly."

At the initial court meeting, many tenants first meet with the landlord's attorney, about 95% of whom have attorneys, says Beth Mellen Harrison, the director of the Eviction Defense Project for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Landlords usually give tenants a consent judgment, she says.

"In general, those consent judgments call for all of the rent that is allegedly due to be paid. They have very short timelines for payment; they're usually 30 days or less," Mellen Harrison says. "And typically, they do not include any repairs being made by the landlord."

The case then proceeds to the presiding judge and can end quickly if tenants aren't challenging the landlord. Yet for those who do, the process can be much longer.

"During that process, we're getting information from the landlord, we're going out to the property and looking at the repair needs, we're documenting with photographs and video what's going on at the property and repairs that need to be made," says Mellen Harrison, whose office sees hundreds of tenants facing the threat of eviction each year. "And then we're negotiating and we're trying to reach something that is a compromise as opposed to kind of what the landlord wants."

That process, on average, takes about six months.

What Resources Are Available?

In addition to the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate, which provides some legal services, several other legal organizations provide assistance to D.C. residents appearing before the Landlord and Tenant Court. A handful of those, including the Legal Aid Society, have offices on-site and can provide representation free to qualifying residents using the city's eviction defense fund.

Residents also have other options beyond rent strikes, such as filing a complaint with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or suing a landlord using the housing conditions calendar. But those processes each have their challenges, Mellen Harrison says. She says she would like to see the city follow the model of other jurisdictions, such as in Maryland, that allow tenants to pay rent to the court without first being sued by a landlord — and winding up with an eviction case on their record.

"The hope would be that when money is on the line, the landlords will have a much stronger incentive to make those repairs quickly and end the court case quickly," Mellen Harrison says.

In Virginia, tenants can find out more about their rights through the Attorney General's Consumer Protection division and access legal help through local legal aid organizations.

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