As pop and hip-hop music vibrated down Peabody Street in the Brightwood Park neighborhood on a February afternoon, frustrated tenants silently marched down the front pathway to their apartment building, holding signs over their faces.
“No justice no rent.”
“We deserve to be safe.”
Some building staff uncomfortably looked away. Amid the thrumming lyrics, these signs did the loudest talking.
On the same day tenants planned to protest living conditions in their building, their management decided to stage a festive “resident appreciation day.”
The staff brought food from Olive Garden. The sun reflected off the warm, silver trays, and the food went untouched.
A group of Brightwood Park residents are staging a rent strike to protest the living conditions of their building. They say it’s poorly maintained and has many problems including cracks in the walls and floors that are falling apart. It is also infested with pests including mice, rats, bedbugs and roaches, they allege. To make matters worse, some of the tenants say their mail wasn’t delivered for the latter half of last year, resulting in lost bills and immigration papers.
Freta Asheber, a tenant who has lived in the building owned by Khan Properties for 10 years, said she’s had enough of the conditions. Last year, she had to go to the emergency room for rashes all over her body. She said it was because of bedbugs in her unit. According to Asheber, she reached out to management several times for help. However, she said that despite her many complaints no one from management responded to her. The D.C. housing code standards require rental units to be free of insects and other pests.
After Asheber’s emergency room visit, the hospital sent her a bill for the care she received. But she didn’t initially receive it, because the building was not receiving mail. She missed the hospital bill and had to pay a late fee. It was a significant blow to her bank account.
“We have a lot of problems,” Asheber explained.
Some tenants at the building on Peabody Street are in the process of scheduling housing code inspections with the Department of Buildings for other possible infractions, according to Eleni Reynolds, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, who has been working with the tenants for about eight months.
Several residents also missed receiving other important documents in the mail, including immigration papers for Asheber’s husband. A majority of residents are from East Africa, with Amharic as their first language. Tariq Abegaz, who has lived in the building for 11 years, said she missed receiving multiple credit cards in the mail.
These are not the only problems residents say they have had to contend with. Sinks and toilets have broken and gone unfixed for many months, according to several tenants. Asheber says that in her apartment, yellow water has been coming out of her kitchen sink since 2018. The kitchen cabinets are also falling apart, she said.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs found at least one unit at the property to be in violation of multiple housing code violations in 2021, according to the agency inspection portal. These violations included a failure to correct water damage, loose plaster and decayed wood in living areas, pests and issues with plumbing, resulting in over $5,000 in fines.
Residents also say there’s a critical lack of security at the building — there are no bars on the ground floor unit windows, for example. This concern echoes that of other past tenants who lived in other Khan-owned properties in the neighborhood. Last July, the DC Superior Court ruled that Khan failed to provide a safe and habitable environment for its tenants at two different apartments in Brightwood Park, and required the company to pay the District more than $2 million. Residents at those properties suffered assaults and theft, according to an Office of the Attorney General press release.
The success of the lawsuit inspired tenants at this Peabody Street property to organize a protest and demand better living conditions at their own building, Reynolds said.
“It was a big win for the community,” she said.
Monna Khan, the vice president of Khan Properties, declined to respond to requests for comment.
At the protest, residents lined up behind the microphone staged in front of the front steps of their building. They all had a lot to say but the music was drowning it out. Some tenants and organizers thought it was a coordinated attempt to silence the protest. Paige Dennis, one of the organizers of the group Stomp Out Slumlords, said she thought the timing of the resident appreciation event was “100%” intended to distract from the demonstration.
During the protest management initially refused to turn down the music while residents demanded to be allowed to voice their frustrations.
Lashanna Chapell, the property manager who oversees six buildings owned by Khan Properties denied any accusations that the resident appreciation event was meant to distract from the protest and that she didn’t know “it was going to coincide the way that it did.” She also added that she has only been on the job for a few weeks.
The protest also drew the attention of Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George who told protestors she is disappointed with the conditions at the apartment building and is aware of similar issues with other Khan-owned buildings in the neighborhood.
“I want you to know that you deserve to live with dignity; you deserve a clean and safe apartment. And you deserve to be respected, to be listened to and for action to happen,” Lewis George told the crowd.
Chapell said in an interview after the protest that she’s started conducting inspections at the buildings to get a better idea of resident concerns. At the rally, she asked residents to come forward with complaints.
“It’s a difficult road, just because I constantly asked for people to come up and talk to me and meet with me,” she said. Nobody came to speak with her, she said.
But residents, including Asheber, said they’ve already been loudly voicing their concerns to the management for several years now.
“They have to respect that they have to communicate with us. That’s all we need,” Asheber said. “The communication is not there.”
Asheber and Abegaz said they will continue to rent strike and are not scared of eviction. They will not pay their rent until living conditions improve, they said.
“I know my rights. The D.C. law supports me,” Abegaz said. “I need justice.”
The Office of the Tenant Advocate provides legal assistance and offers tenants advice on how to resolve disputes with landlords. It can be reached at (202) 719-6560. For information on how to request a housing code inspection, call the Department of Buildings at (202) 442-9557 or [email protected].