In the News

D.C. Renters’ Lawsuit Is a Blueprint for Tenant Organizing


July 22, 2021

A lawsuit filed on Wednesday by a group of tenants against a major Washington, D.C.-area developer stands to be the first test of the bounds of the most robust tenants’ rights laws in the country.

The litigation could establish a model for renters to enforce their fundamental housing rights amid a spiraling housing affordability crisis that began well before the COVID-19 pandemic — one that has hit Black and Latino Americans particularly hard.

The lawsuit alleges that landlords waged a years-long obstruction campaign against tenants who formed a union to protest deteriorating housing conditions and that the city police department aided property owners in illegally suppressing tenants’ rights.

“They wouldn’t rely on police to actually maintain safety, but they would call the police on tenants who were organizing or approached them about issues in the building,” Tara Maxwell, president of the Park 7 Tenant Union and a resident of Park 7 Apartments, told me.

The group claims problems at the complex include water leaks, mold, pest infestation and insufficient security. The complex previously reached a settlement with the city attorney general to refund nearly half a million dollars to tenants who were improperly charged for water use that was falsely marketed as included in rent, according to an August 2020 report by the Washington City Paper.

Representatives of Donatelli Management didn’t respond to questions and requests for comment. The Metropolitan Police Department also didn’t respond to my questions about its role in the alleged incidents.

Management has prevented the Park 7 community from organizing by calling police, denying access to common areas, and intentionally disrupting residents’ meetings, according to the complaint, which also says management threatened union members and leaders with unlawful evictions, and removed fliers from public spaces.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the suit on behalf of the tenant union and several residents of Park 7, a 377-unit complex in Northeast D.C. composed mainly of Black and lower-income residents. The group is suing Park 7 Residential and Donatelli Management, which are owned by prominent local developer Christopher Donatelli.

The lawsuit was filed under the District’s Right of Tenants to Organize Act, which was enacted in 2006, and gives tenants the right to self-organize and advocate to address and improve their living conditions.

Read D.C. Renters’ Lawsuit Is a Blueprint for Tenant Organizing.