(Reuters) - A lawsuit filed on Wednesday by a group of tenants against a major Washington, D.C.-area developer stands to be the first test of the bounds of the most robust tenants’ rights laws in the country.
The litigation could establish a model for renters to enforce their fundamental housing rights amid a spiraling housing affordability crisis that began well before the COVID-19 pandemic -- one that has hit Black and Latino Americans particularly hard.
The lawsuit alleges that landlords waged a years-long obstruction campaign against tenants who formed a union to protest deteriorating housing conditions and that the city police department aided property owners in illegally suppressing tenants’ rights.
“They wouldn’t rely on police to actually maintain safety, but they would call the police on tenants who were organizing or approached them about issues in the building,” Tara Maxwell, president of the Park 7 Tenant Union and a resident of Park 7 Apartments, told me.
The group claims problems at the complex include water leaks, mold, pest infestation and insufficient security. The complex previously reached a settlement with the city attorney general to refund nearly half a million dollars to tenants who were improperly charged for water use that was falsely marketed as included in rent, according to an August 2020 report by the Washington City Paper.
Representatives of Donatelli Management didn’t respond to questions and requests for comment. The Metropolitan Police Department also didn’t respond to my questions about its role in the alleged incidents.
Management has prevented the Park 7 community from organizing by calling police, denying access to common areas, and intentionally disrupting residents' meetings, according to the complaint, which also says management threatened union members and leaders with unlawful evictions, and removed fliers from public spaces.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the suit on behalf of the tenant union and several residents of Park 7, a 377-unit complex in Northeast D.C. composed mainly of Black and lower-income residents. The group is suing Park 7 Residential and Donatelli Management, which are owned by prominent local developer Christopher Donatelli.
The lawsuit was filed under the District’s Right of Tenants to Organize Act, which was enacted in 2006, and gives tenants the right to self-organize and advocate to address and improve their living conditions.
Most states provide little to no protection for tenant union organizing, according to a 2018 law review article by Christopher Bangs in the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy, at least for standard residential tenants. Those who are tenants of mobile home parks or manufactured home parks, for example, tend to have far more statutory rights, “perhaps because of their status as both a tenant” and “as a homeowner," Bangs wrote.
Roughly 29 states offer limited rights, but they have little statutory support, and no formal certification process for tenant unions, according to the 2018 law review article. And about 19 states have no general protections for resident organizing.
D.C., California and New York have relatively strong legal frameworks for protecting tenants’ rights, including providing protection from retaliation against organizing and exemptions from trespassing laws for organizers who are invited onto the property by an occupant.
And D.C. likely has the strongest tenants’ rights laws in the country. It’s the only jurisdiction where tenants have a right in most circumstances to form a tenant organization and a corresponding right to bargain with property owners over housing terms and conditions.
Owners can't interfere with most self-organization activities – including meetings, canvasing and distributing literature in common areas and at tenants’ doors. The District also grants tenants whose landlords decide to sell the property the broadest set of rights, including first refusal.
The hurdle for renters, though, lies in the fact that this area of the law is largely untested.
Tenant unions “have received little attention in the legal scholarship,” outside of law student comments from the 1960s proposing to introduce collective bargaining into some landlord-tenant relationships, according to the Bangs article.
There is a lack of existing case-law regarding the District’s own robust statutes, Bangs wrote, including on the issue of a landlord’s duty to meet with tenants’ groups.
Brook Hill, one of the Lawyers’ Committee attorneys on the case, told me he’s unsure of whether a case has ever been litigated under D.C.’s specific provision against interfering with tenant organizing. Westlaw’s databases show the provision has been cited just a handful of times, although those cases mainly interpreted tenants’ rights regarding an owner's sale of residential property.
New York’s laws and regulations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development “are very similar to D.C.’s law, so we’ve looked at caselaw from those jurisdictions to inform how we think about this statute,” Hill said. “We do think that having a judge actually speak to some of these issues would be good."
That said, D.C.’s law is “written in plain and detailed language, unlike other statutes, and we think it’s hard to look at the facts and not conclude that Park 7 management has been systematically violating multiple provisions of the Act," Hill added.
Indeed, the allegations, if true, seem akin to what are known as “hallmark violations” of the federal workplace organizing law that D.C.’s statute is modeled after -- management responses to organizing that have a clear chilling effect on organizing, contrary to the spirit of the law (for example, closing down a business under the NLRA compared with removing literature about organizing from common areas under D.C.’s Right of Tenants to Organize law).
The court’s analysis of the allegations could be the first time Washingtonians actually discover the scope of their rights as tenants. And any gains by the residents could make their advocacy and lawsuit a blueprint for tenant organizing in other states and jurisdictions.
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