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.