As pandemic ends, some Langley Park tenants still struggle to stay in their homes – Greater Greater Washington
In February I written on owner divestment at Bedford and Victoria Station Apartments in Langley Park, Maryland. The tenants of the complex were then almost a year after the start of the pandemic and were desperate for help repaying the rent and hold their owner accountable. Tenants finally benefit from rental relief, but their landlord has still not corrected the main violations of the housing code.
In a healthy housing market, tenants could speak with their feet, but this is not an option for many in the region, where the demand for affordable housing far exceeds. Thus, tenants will fight to stay put and hold their landlord to account.
Rental aid offers a thin lifeline
When I spoke to tenants at Bedford and Victoria Stations in February, they told me they were trying to negotiate payment plans for their rent. Many had lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, and could not pay their rent. Unfortunately, their owner was difficult to reach. In fact, they were not sure Who their owner was. The property is owned by a limited liability company (LLC), Bedford United LLC. He does not have a phone number in the 411 system and the Maryland Real Estate Database lists the address of an office building in Bethesda, but no office number.
Rent assistance for the tenants at Bedford and Victoria stations eventually arrived, but not from the landlord. Instead, they get help from Prince George County Emergency rental assistance program (ERAP), which is funded by the federal government (see here for context). Tenants can apply for rental assistance on their own or their landlords can apply on their behalf. When an owner files the request, he must agree to two stipulations. If the tenant recovered rent from before April 2020, the landlord must definitively give up thirty days of it. The owner must also ‘waive any self-help action such as eviction for 90 days.”
The county has also partnered with nonprofits to ensure that as many nominations as possible are submitted. HOUSE, a non-profit organization, works with tenants at Bedford and Victoria stations. CASA’s senior regional organizer Trent Leon Lierman estimates his organization has helped 60 tenants apply for rent relief on their own, and the management company has filed for 30 more tenants.
The pace of relief was slow, however. As of June 11, only seven tenant applications and 29 landlord applications had been approved. The total claims represent a small fraction (15%) of the total number of units on the property (587). The accepted applications represent an even lower proportion (6%).
Slow applications are problematic as other protections to help tenants stay put are being phased out. In early May, for example, the moratorium on CDC evictions was deemed unconstitutional. The judge suspended his order to give the Biden administration time to appeal, but it won’t be necessary. On June 24, the CDC announced it was extending the moratorium until July 31, but said it would be the final overtime.
Things are not getting better in Maryland. Governor Hogan, fair lifted the Maryland state of emergency, as of July 1. The moratorium on state evictions is linked to the state of emergency, so it will end after a 45 day grace period (August 15th).
Meanwhile, owner divestment continues
In February, tenants told me their landlord would not fix serious resort issues, including pest infestations, untreated mold, faulty heating, and holes in ceilings and walls. After my first article came out, nearly three dozen renters filed complaints with the county housing inspector. The owner has responded with cosmetic fixes, but serious issues persist.
What can tenants do? – A strategy is rent escrow program administered by the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Bureau. The process begins when a tenant files a written repair request. If the landlord does not complete the repairs in sufficient time, the tenant can apply for a rent escrow account with the district court. They pay rent into the escrow account until the repairs are done. Escrow accounts can only be established for conditions that are “serious or dangerous. ”
Renters in Bedford and Victoria Station can easily report serious and dangerous problems with their units, but most would not qualify for rent escrow because they no longer have a valid lease. They are what housing experts call remaining tenants. As CASA’s Trent Leon Lierman explained, the landlord did not renew the leases of the late renters.
As a result, some of the tenants in the complex have started a rent strike. They’ve been working on it for months. For tenants awaiting PIU payments, the strike will cover the coming months (PIU payments go directly to the landlord). Their reasoning is simple: why should the landlord receive the rent money when he refuses to fix major code violations?
After visiting two apartments in June, I can see their point. A tenant named Oscar showed me a hole in his bathroom ceiling, just above the tub. Yes history is a precedent, he will wait a long time to see it repaired. In the meantime, he’s worried about using the shower in case more of the ceiling collapses. His kitchen cabinets were in a similar state of disrepair. The wall they were hanging on had bubbles in the plaster, and he told me that water was regularly flowing from the wall into his cabinets.
The lower level was visibly damp. Oscar also showed me what was left of his fire detector. When it broke, the management company brought in a new detector, but not a base plate to connect to the electrical outlet. According to Oscar, the management company told him to “just put [the detector] On a table.”
When I visited Anita’s downstairs apartment, she told me her family’s problem was vermin and showed me two holes in her baseboards. The owner didn’t take care of the problem, so they bought a foam gun to plug the holes. But, rats / mice keep finding new ones. A man in the apartment told me, “I woke up one night and saw a rat on the table between the beds.
What Can Prince George County Do? – Prince Geroge County has an uneven housing code enforcement record. A 2019 report on the serial divestment at Langley Park found that the county’s permits, inspections and enforcement department had “limited staff, resources and leverage to enforce the housing code. “These issues will take time to resolve, but for now, the county should keep ERAP funds intended for Bedford United LLC in receivership until significant improvements are made. To protect the remaining tenants, the county should also require that landlords who have received rental assistance renew leases for tenants who are behind on their rent.
It should also improve its rent escrow program. Willow Lung-Amam, the lead author of the aforementioned report, pointed out Los Angeles Rent Escrow Program for example. In LA, if a homeowner does not make repairs, their property is forced to go into the escrow program and pay a mandatory fee. Their tenants also get rent reductions until repairs are done.
What can Maryland do? – Maryland is expected to start by extending the statewide moratorium on evictions until the fall. The pandemic devastated low-income immigrant communities and they need time to recover. The General Assembly should also consider adopting a bill similar to a adopted by the New York State Senate. This Bill (S1730) would update the Real Estate Transfer Tax Return to require that any residential property bought or sold by an LLC “include information about the ownership of that company.”
This has been a particular problem for tenants at Bedford and Victoria stations. They have no way of getting in touch with their owner. And, reaching out to the management company hasn’t helped. The company was not responsive in the past, and it does not have the power of the stock market. It can only work with the funds the owner gives them, and these are clearly insufficient. Tenants should be given the opportunity to exert social pressure against the people behind these LLCs.
After a year-long pandemic, our social fabric is unraveling. One way to fix it is to make it harder for people to continuously tear it apart without consequence.