The tenants of Buena Vista Apartments are forming a cooperative — a win for the 21 residents who have been on rent strike since May 2020.
The residents have withstood the pressures of being priced out of Columbia Heights and the deteriorating conditions of their building for years. On Jan. 23, they voted unanimously to purchase their building and form a limited equity cooperative (LEC) under TOPA, D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.
TOPA promotes a unique pathway to tenant ownership. Under TOPA, tenants are first in line for purchase when a landlord states intent to sell their property. Landlords are required to give notice and allow a window of time for their tenants to form an association, declare interest and agree to purchase.
As owners and members of a LEC, the residents of Buena Vista will each have a share of their property and make collective decisions about governance and maintenance. Untethered from D.C.’s inflating housing market and the periodic rent increases by their landlord, the future owners must preserve the affordability of their units by keeping the resale price of their units within the reach of low-income earners in D.C.. Buena Vista LEC will contribute to the more than 4,300 affordable housing units that have been saved by tenants since TOPA was first enacted in D.C. in 1980. In addition to financing the purchase of their building, the tenants will secure public financing assistance from the D.C. government for a full renovation of their building to rectify poor conditions.
The poor living conditions of the Buena Vista building, including mold and bed bug infestations, coupled with rent increases at the onset of the pandemic, first precipitated their rent strike in 2020. The building deteriorated to the point the DCRA condemned it in February 2021. The same day that D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs deemed the building unsafe, property management called tenants to demand rent. The tenants plan to continue their strike until the landlord addresses the poor living conditions.
“Very Bad Condiciones,” was painted in red and black on a banner that was hung across a second-story window of the Buena Vista building throughout the summer. The words were flanked by depictions of bedbugs with frowning faces, looking down on Sherman Avenue. The name of the property manager, “UIP” was painted on the banner in bold. UIP Property Management and the building’s owner, Peter Burnell, absorbed PPP loans and emergency rental assistance funding during the pandemic
The Buena Vista strike is part of a network renter strikes in D.C. that sprung up during the early months of the pandemic. Buena Vista residents found their impetus to strike when they connected with tenant leaders at the Meridian Hill Apartments through church. The Meridian Hill building is also owned by Burnell and managed by UIP, and has been on strike since 2019. Meridian Hill leaders linked Buena Vista tenant leaders to Stomp Out Slumlords, or SOS, a campaign that supports tenant organizing in D.C. The Buena Vista residents collaborated with the group to form a tenants association and launch their strike. Now, the Buena Vista Tenants Associations is continuing work with SOS to secure ownership and actualize their co-op plans.
Some residents of Buena Vista have lived in Columbia Heights for over two decades. “People were motivated to start the co-op because they want to stay in the area,” said Katharine Richardson, an organizer with SOS who works closely with the Buena Vista tenants. “They have seen family and friends displaced, pushed out of the area into Maryland and Virginia. The co-op presents an option to stay, take control of the conditions, and to keep the rent affordable.”
Buena Vista residents’ TOPA rights were activated when speculators eyeing the Sherman Avenue building purchased a contract from the building owner. Within a 45-day notice of their opportunity to buy the building from the owner, they submitted a letter of interest and secured their right to purchase ahead of the speculators interested in developing the property. The interested buyer initially offered $5,000 to each tenant to hand over the rights to their unit. When unsuccessful, they followed up with offers of $15,000. Unswayed by attempts to be bought-out, the residents are moving forward with their plan.
“From the beginning, it was clear that this group was especially driven to fight for something better than themselves and their families,” said Richardson. “There is really strong leadership at the building; people with experience organizing with the labor movement at their workplaces and through the church.”
Support from the community funded an initial feasibility evaluation through the tenants’ GoFundMe campaign. Now, the Buena Vista tenants are working with the National Housing Trust to secure an initiation deposit loan and will continue to fundraise for the renovations needed for the building. After entering a contract with the owner, tenants have 120 days to secure the funds to purchase their building from government funding streams, including D.C.’s Housing Production Trust Fund.
According to Richardson, there is significant work to be done before the co-op is confirmed. However, she said she believes the tenant organizers, who she describes as a “powerhouse,” are more than capable of making it happen.