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Q&A with Robert Wohl from the Latino Economic Development Center

Can you give us a quick overview of your organization and the work you do to support tenants and their housing rights? 

Latino Economic Development Center’s team of organizers helps renters in the District of Columbia organize tenant associations to take collective action to keep their homes livable and affordable. We go into buildings for a couple of different reasons.  

We predominantly work with tenants in properties that are being sold. DC is one of a small handful of jurisdictions in the country that gives tenants a first right of refusal when their landlord wants to sell, so rather than being a threat, the sale of a rental property is an opportunity for tenants to buy the building themselves or to assign the right to purchase to a third-party buyer who renovates while allowing residents to stay in place.  

In multi-family buildings, a majority of tenants need to be represented by an association to exercise their rights, so our role is to help organize and advise people. We work with about 20-30 new tenant associations in the tenant purchase process each year, and we have a strong track record of helping residents preserve their affordable housing by forming limited-equity co-ops or partnering with mission-driven developers (usually to take their properties into the LIHTC program). Increasingly, we see well-financed developers trying to interfere in tenant association’s internal deliberations, so we have to work hard to defend the integrity of the process. 

In addition, we work with tenants trying to address poor housing conditions. Tenants come to us when they are living with roaches or rats or mold or persistent leaks or a lack of heat or lead paint. These aren’t annoyances, they’re serious environmental health hazards that make people sick, often with permanent consequences. There is a mountain of evidence that bad housing conditions permanently impair children’s cognitive development and education, but evidence isn’t usually enough to convince landlords to clean up their act. We also help people when they face eviction threats or unaffordable rent hikes or other issues, but tenant purchase and inadequate housing conditions are the bulk of our program. 

Can you talk about your work supporting the formation of tenant associations, and why they can be an important tool in fighting displacement? 

Sometimes tenant associations have a legal role to play:  to exercise tenant purchase rights, tenants need to be represented by a tenant association. The idea is that it’s a collective right, not an individual right, and so an organization is required to mediate the collective decision-making. But even when they don’t have a legal role, tenant associations are extremely valuable. There’s power in numbers: it’s a cliché, but it’s true. A landlord might blow off complaints from one tenant, but it’s hard to ignore all tenants taking action together with a real strategy. 

As I said before, the city’s housing inspection regime is seriously broken. An audit of the enforcement agency a few years ago found that they only collect about half the fines they assess, and even getting to the point where the inspectors come to your apartment, issue a citation, and try to enforce it is difficult. Meanwhile, fines are low, so landlords can treat them as just another cost of doing business. 

The failure to enforce the code contributes to displacement. Given fines aren’t very high, landlords in gentrifying neighborhoods can let buildings fall into disrepair in the hopes that tenants will get fed up and leave, allowing them (or a buyer who doesn’t have to worry about tenant purchase) to convert to condos or luxury apartments with new amenities and vastly higher rents. The best way to fight eviction-by-neglect is to get tenants organized to stay in place and make neglect a much costlier proposition.

Are there differences between organizing in public housing communities versus market rate buildings? What about the experience of the tenants in both? 

The housing market is carved up into many different niches: market rate housing, rent-controlled apartments (where the rents vary widely), LIHTC properties, Section 8, public housing, income-restricted affordable units in new luxury development, and people with different kinds of vouchers living all over the place.  

Every building is different, but there are some constants everywhere poor people live. Neglect is the rule, not the exception, and conditions are usually bad. Meanwhile, management companies treat low-income tenants that don’t have anywhere to go like inmates rather than customers. Even the best mission-oriented affordable housing developers often work with property managers whose first resort for dealing with tenants is intimidation, often suffused with racism and elitism.  

What are the current experiences of the tenants that you are working with? Commonalities in terms of landlord threats, building conditions, etc.? 

Most neighborhoods where we work went through a long period of neglect, disinvestment, white flight, and economic decline. Then at some point in the last 15 years, everything changed and affluent residents and capital started flooding back in. That’s led to some improvements in quality of life such as public services and job opportunities, but the people we work with are acutely aware that the new investment isn’t really for them and comes with a lot of downsides. Even as neighborhoods develop, affordable housing keeps falling apart, rents go up, and landlords get increasingly aggressive about trying to get rid of working class tenants.  

I’ve mentioned bad housing conditions a few times, but I really can’t stress enough how ubiquitous they are. If I go into a building with a lot of lower-income tenants, I’m surprised if the housing code is being followed. That’s definitely a shared experience. That can inspire people to be defiant and fight for what they see as theirs, but it can also lead to a deep fatalism. 

And even when people are motivated to fight, it doesn’t always lead to people staying in place. The cleanest, simplest way for a landlord to get rid of their tenants is a buyout, and the level of buyouts keep getting higher and higher. We see developers offering $30,000 or more for a single household to move out. Now, that isn’t always as good a deal as it seems: almost inevitably a tenant who takes a buyout ends up further away from the central city in a worse neighborhood with equally bad housing conditions and paying far more in rent and transportation. But when someone offers you more money than you make in a year to move out of a bedbug-infested one-bedroom, it’s hard to say no. And if you’ve lived in substandard conditions for years, it can be hard to imagine that things will ever improve. So more and more, organizing can end in tenants getting bought out, which suits developers just fine.  I can’t blame people for doing that, but in the aggregate, the consequences of all these buyouts are pretty bad: more displacement, more segregation, less affordable housing.   

What are some innovative tools, practices or policies that you’ve seen implemented for tenants, whether in your city or another? Is there any new technology or data resources that have been helpful? 

I tend to be skeptical when people propose technological solutions to housing (or really any policy issues). From my point of view, the big problem is just the balance of power between low-income tenants and all the people who stand to make money from displacing them.   

The most promising innovations in protecting tenants rights I’ve seen recently are resurrecting strategies that are more than a century old. A couple years ago, the organizers on my team started reading about organizers in other cities, especially the Los Angeles Tenants Union, organizing rent strikes to fight back against displacement and slum conditions. We saw that people were winning, so we started trying it here. We set up an escrow account and some procedures to maximize people’s legal protections when they withhold their rent. In the last year-and-a-half we organized four rent strikes, and have seen pretty good results, certainly more than we had historically seen when people appealed to housing inspectors or tried to take their landlord to court.  It’s definitely a strategy we’re going to lean into more.  

What can CDFIs do to better support legacy tenants in cities and the groups supporting them? 

One of the biggest challenges we run into is figuring out ways to preserve and renovate smaller apartment buildings. The majority of DC’s rental stock consists of buildings with 20 or fewer units, and there are tons and tons of four-unit properties. It’s incredibly difficult for non-profits or co-ops to finance the acquisition of these kinds of buildings, so they easily fall into the hands of market-rate developers who want to get tenants out and flip them. We need to figure out a model to package these buildings together and preserve them, and for whatever reason LIHTC pools have not been very effective.  

Legislation ensuring the right to legal counsel for tenants recently passed in NYC and DC. Is there any legislation that you are currently advocating that you think can provide additional support for tenants? (I.e. changes to eviction policies etc.) 

I could go on for a long, long time about this, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  

This past week New York passed a massive overhaul of its rent control laws to expand the scope of rent control and close loopholes that have allowed landlords to get huge increases even when rent control is formally in place. We’re part of a coalition to make similar improvements to DC’s rent control regime and make it a really robust tool for preserving affordable housing. It seems like policymakers are reconsidering rent control around the country: Oregon passed it at the state level and I’m aware of movements to repeal state-level bans in Colorado, Washington, and Illinois.  That’s a good thing. Rent control isn’t a silver bullet – it doesn’t create more housing where there’s a shortage – but it’s also the single best protection against displacement.  

We need to take housing code enforcement seriously as well. We can do straightforward things like increasing fines and hiring more inspectors, but honestly I would go a lot further. In many cases, neglect is part of a landlord’s business plan, and there’s no way to fine them into compliance, you just need to get a new owner. I would like to see cities experiment with using eminent domain to force the sale of particularly distressed properties to tenants, non-profits, or cities themselves.  

Of course we need to build new housing as well, and the market is not going to meet the demand of the people who have the most pressing need. So we need to find more money. States and municipalities can absolutely do that, but to really confront the crisis of affordable housing, the federal government needs to step up. Federal investment in truly affordable housing has been declining for my entire life, which is really obvious when you look at the appalling condition of most public or federally-subsidized housing. That needs to change, though the political prospects for that happening seem grim. 

The “YIMBY” movement has been receiving growing attention, with proponents advocating for increased development of market-rate housing to increase the housing stock and mitigate displacement. Do you think any increased housing development benefits legacy tenants? What, if any, restrictions would you like to see implemented? 

It’s complicated. Obviously, cities like DC have a shortage of housing and to build more, we would need to relax some regulations on development. On the other hand, if I’m a low-income tenant in a neglected apartment building in a gentrifying neighborhood, it’s not immediately obvious that building some gleaming new condos next door is going to benefit me. I do think activists occasionally overstate the importance of changes in development rules propelling development. 

I’m all for building more, but the question is where and how we do it. The wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods in Washington and the surrounding suburbs keep themselves wealthier through all kinds of zoning regulations designed to keep out any kind of apartments. The first priority for an honest YIMBY movement ought to be to open those neighborhoods (not just to market-rate housing of course, they also need to take their fair share of affordable units). Building denser market rate housing in Ward 3 or Falls Church isn’t going to immediately house the people with the greatest need, but it would create some options for affluent people moving into the area other than buying up otherwise-affordable housing and generally take some of the pressure off changing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, YIMBY rhetoric often gets mobilized to dismiss legitimate concerns about the effects of gentrification, or to imply with absolutely no evidence that tenant protections (even stuff like just cause eviction laws!) are a “supply constraint” that will stop housing from getting built. 

I get frustrated when YIMBYs treat their ideas as a panacea, or even worse, pose a false choice between up-zoning and methods like rent control, eviction protections, and subsidies for affordable housing. I think there is a solid argument for letting developers build higher and denser across the board, but at best that’s going to lead to gradual improvement at the margins. In the meantime, we need rent control, we need tenant purchase, and above all, we a broad coalition advocating for huge investments in affordable housing.