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.
Losak, whose Renters Alliance group advocates against excessive rent increases and evictions without just cause, said some renters in buildings across the county face the same sort of “obstructionist position from management” when it comes to organizing tenants associations.
“A good portion of the [March 30] meeting was us explaining to them they were doing nothing wrong,” Losak said. “The best buildings, whether they agree with their tenants or not, support the best practice of working with tenants associations to enhance the quality of their communities.”
The 379-unit Eleven55 Ripley building opened in winter 2014. At 21 stories, it’s one of the tallest buildings in downtown Silver Spring and its award-winning architecture makes it stand out near the Silver Spring Transit Center. Monthly rents for a studio apartment start at $1,607, according to the building’s website.
Stewart moved into the building last summer. He began talking with other residents in his hall about unexplained fees on their utility bills and maintenance issues that included a power outage and stretch without hot water.
“It’s a more affluent demographic in Eleven55 Ripley,” Stewart said, “which makes me shudder to think about how many of these sorts of instances don’t get reported on or just get ignored when less affluent people are being intimidated by their landlords.”
Stewart, with the help of Losak, contacted the apartment’s previous management last summer to let it know they wanted to schedule a tenants meeting in the community room. Stewart said management offered up the room, but with a fee of $200 an hour.
After unsuccessful attempts at reaching out to UDR once the company took over management of the property last fall, the group decided to have the meeting in the community room because use of the room is one of the amenities outlined in residents’ leases.
They posted fliers near the building’s elevators announcing the March 30 meeting and said UDR employees ripped those fliers down, leading to the incident in which they said management called police.
Stewart said the roughly 30 or 35 residents interested in forming a tenants association are still in the early stages of formalizing the group, a process that includes selecting officers.
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.
Pictured above: Council member Marc Elrich speaking at the March 30 meeting, via Renters Alliance