MoCo Tenants Need New Laws

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Full disclosure: I do pro bono legal work for Matt Losak and the Renters Alliance. Vaughn Stewart is also a friend and I have discussed the events reported by Bethesda Magazine with both of them. So I’m not a neutral observer here.

Montgomery County has seen an explosion of high end apartment buildings in recent years. Fancy high rise places with all the trimmings, every bell and whistle you can imagine. Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville Pike, you name it, there’s been buildings going up everywhere and the demand is such that there’s no end in sight.

The rents are similarly high, as much as $3000-$5000/month and sometimes more.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that landlords catering to upper middle class apartment dwellers would be, let’s say, just a little obnoxious and overbearing than they often are with lower income tenants like immigrants and seniors. Right? Higher class of people, higher expectations, little bit more tact?

Hahaha. No. If anything, landlords in these new upscale buildings are if anything even more appalling than ever. A recent incident reported today by Bethesda Magazine make this clear.

About 30 residents in one of downtown Silver Spring’s newest, most prominent apartment buildings scheduled a March 30 meeting in the facility’s community room to talk about issues including unexplained utility bills and a lack of communication from apartment management.

When they arrived, they found a member of the apartment’s management team blocking their access to the room, according to one resident and Matt Losak, executive director of the nonprofit Montgomery County Renters Alliance.

“One of the members of the staff was just sort of standing in front of the room with her arms crossed, saying, ‘There’s not going to be a meeting,’” said Vaughn Stewart, an Eleven55 Ripley building resident and board member of the Renters Alliance who helped organize the meeting.

When Losak pointed to Montgomery County code that allows tenants to organize and hold meetings in their buildings, apartment management called police, Losak said. Officers arrived and determined the residents were allowed to hold the meeting, which proceeded with speakers including District 20 state Sen. Jamie Raskin and County Council member Marc Elrich.

Elrich is the lead sponsor of a bill now at the council committee level that among other measures aimed at strengthening the rights of renters, would require landlords to provide meeting space for tenant associations once a month.

“We were thinking about just putting together a small organization to talk about hot water or these other sort of small issues that affect our daily lives,” Stewart said. “Mostly, it was really benign. The initial interest was less about specific, overarching grievances and more about just sort of a general need to have a community organization to represent the residents in front of management. But that incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

When asked about the incident, representatives from management company UDR’s regional office referred all questions to the company’s corporate office in Denver. A representative from UDR’s corporate office didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bethesda Beat.

What the apartment management did was illegal under Section 29-33 of the Montgomery County code, which provides tenants with the “right of free assembly in the meeting rooms and other areas suitable for meetings within rental housing.” Trying to block a meeting and then calling the police does not in any way comply with this law.

Landlords also try to play bully in more traditional ways, too, as the article notes.

Losak said the problem isn’t confined to Eleven55 Ripley. He pointed to a June 11 incident in which he and others staffed a table at a Silver Spring Giant Food store to give out literature on landlord-tenant relations and recruit new members for a tenants association at The Blairs property. The Blairs property off East West Highway includes an apartment complex and the shopping center home to the Giant.

Losak said The Blairs management called managers of the Giant and demanded the table be removed, but Giant, which allows nonprofit community groups to distribute literature, allowed the group to stay.
“Forming tenants associations is critical and unfortunately too many, not all, but too many of the landlord and property management community is indignant about it,” Losak said.

In addition to everything else, this seemingly new tactic of calling the police when tenants engage in clearly protected organizing and free speech activities is abusive and a waste of police and county resources. But it’s a clear sign that landlords are stepping up their abusive tactics in the face of increased tenant organizing in the County. Tenants are now almost 50% of the population in the County, and that number is expected to grow. We need more broadly applicable and enforceable tenant protections to level the playing field between landlords and tenants. Council Bill 19-15 would be a great place to start, addressing rent increases, retaliatory evictions, and form leases, among other tenant protections.

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