Back in 2011, before gentrification had completely overrun the neighborhood, Silvia Inéz Salazar and her fellow tenants took collective control of their apartment complex. The organizing drive started because the rent-controlled building they lived in had fallen into disrepair. There were roach and rodent and bedbug infestations. The elevator was always breaking. And the landlord wouldn’t do a damn thing about it.
So the largely working-class residents of The Norwood, an 84-unit complex near Washington, DC’s Logan Circle, got together and began pressing the building’s owner to fix the problem. They formed a tenants’ association. They knocked on doors and recruited neighbors. They organized meetings in the building’s foyer that featured home-cooked food and theater productions put on by residents’ kids.
And though they never managed to make their landlord repair their building in a satisfactory fashion, they did something better. With the aid of tenants’-rights groups in the city, and support from a series of crucial local laws and loan programs, they acquired the property outright. They bought the building from their landlord and turned it into a low-cost co-op managed by people who had lived in the building for many years.
“The landlord would never fix anything, and we realized the only solution was to buy it ourselves,” says Salazar, a 47-year-old health researcher who was one of the leaders of the organizing drive. “From the moment we did, we’ve had a say over everything. Everything is done collectively.” Today the co-op is thriving—and it is insulating its owners from the rents that are inexorably rising outside their front door.
This small-scale collectivization of one community’s housing conditions, meanwhile, is no anomaly—at least not in Washington, DC, a city that has some of the most progressive tenants’-rights laws and housing programs in the country. One such law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, which was passed some four decades ago, gives renters the first right to purchase the building they live in when it goes up for sale. Another program, called the Housing Production Trust Fund, offers tenants low-interest loans to purchase their buildings and turn them into co-ops. And, to make it all the more possible for tenants to take advantage of these laws, renters in Washington, DC, have a right to organize, as mandated by city law.
Together, this progressive housing regime has spurred the growth of a useful tool in the fight against gentrification and for affordable buildings in the city. It has created a constellation of limited-equity co-ops across the metropolitan area that enable renters to become owners and thereby ward off displacement at the hands of our country’s merciless real-estate market. It is an intriguing, though little-known, model that might be copied elsewhere to good effect.
“The TOPA law has proved to provide people with a lot of protection over time,” says Amanda Huron, an assistant professor at the University of the District of Columbia, who has extensively studied TOPA and co-ops in the city. “And the landlords hate it; I mean, they hate it.”
TOPA emerged out of the early-1970’s civil-rights movement and the fight for home rule in Washington, DC, and it gives tenants the opportunity to purchase their housing accommodations when a landlord wants to sell. Tenants, in other words, have a legal right to be first in line to buy the building in which they live. The law, says Huron, is the only one of its kind in any major city in the United States, though some counties and municipalities in Maryland have less expansive versions of the measure on the books.
“Every single tenant in this city has a right” to use TOPA, Huron adds. “It really hampers landlords’ ability to dispose of their property as they see fit. And it works.”
The law works, in large part, because tenants can access enough resources to make full use of it. For decades, Washington has operated a “housing production trust fund” that both finances the development of affordable housing in the city and makes loans to tenants who are trying to purchase their buildings and turn them into co-ops. While the fund has had a tumultuous life, including a stint during the Great Recession when its funding plummeted by 80 percent over three years, it has lately experienced something of a revival. Thanks to political pressure from affordable-housing advocates and developers, the City has in recent years allocated $100 million annually to the trust fund, an enormous sum that helps finance tenants who want to take control of their buildings.
“There aren’t many trust funds around the country that are as big as ours,” says Elizabeth Falcon, a former organizer with the ongoing local Homes for All campaign, which pressed the city government to fully restore the trust fund after the recession. “And having both TOPA and the trust fund together means tenants really get to decide what happens with their homes.”
In total, TOPA and the housing-production trust fund have together led to the formation of 137 limited-equity co-ops comprising 4,278 units across the city, according to Huron. Residents of limited-equity co-ops, which preserve affordability by strictly limiting the resale value of their units, tend to pay substantially less than most renters do. Indeed, Huron says monthly fees for DC’s limited equity co-ops are roughly half the average rent in the city.
Consider the case of the building in Logan Circle where Salazar lives. Residents there received a low-interest, 30-year $9.7 million loan from the city’s housing-production trust fund to purchase the property. And because they now own the place, they have managed to avoid watching their rent skyrocket like the rest of the neighborhood. Salazar says a one-bedroom apartment in her building costs roughly $1,300 a month in fees while tenants in rent-controlled apartments just down the street pay more than $2,200 a month for the same amount of space.
“I think our neighborhood was the fastest-gentrifying mile in the country at one point,” says Salazar. “What used to be the bodega, where you could buy cheap food, is now an art gallery. Everything that was here before is gone altogether and has been replaced by new shiny things.” Everything, that is, except the residents in her building, who have happily stayed put.
Tenants’-rights organizers in Washington have long recognized the part that co-ops play in combating the loss of affordable housing and the concomitant gentrification. Cecilia Behgam is an organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center (LECD), a nonprofit that primarily organizes among low- and moderate-income Latinos, and she says her group regularly identifies tenants in the city that are going through the TOPA process in order to support and encourage their efforts.
“We get a list every week” of buildings that have received TOPA notices from their landlords, she says. “So we go out to these buildings and see if they want to organize, and if they do want to organize, we provide information and technical assistance.”
The Phoenix Cooperative, a 15-unit complex in the city’s northwest quadrant, is one of the buildings that has benefited from LECD’s attention. James Washington, a longtime DC resident who works in building security, is the president of the co-op association, and he says that when the mostly working-class residents in the complex heard their landlord wanted to sell, they decided to try to buy the property. They organized a series of meetings with LECD and a team of lawyers from Georgetown University, who told them their rights and explained their options. Washington says the association applied to the housing-production trust fund and came away with a $1.2 million low-interest loan. In August, the residents officially closed on the building for approximately $1 million, forming a limited-equity co-op in good standing.
“If we had just moved out, we would have ended up paying a lot more, but now we get to choose our neighbors, we get to set our own rules, and we’re in control of our living conditions,” says Washington, whose monthly co-op fees are less than a thousand dollars. “I am loving it,” he adds. “It is a great way to own a piece of the city.”