Westgate Laurel apartment tenants launch rent strike amid mold and pests

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The Westgate Apartments in Laurel can be easy to miss, a utilitarian collection of three-story brick buildings not far from Interstate 95 exit 33A. It’s the kind of anonymous complex that houses immigrant families and the working class in the suburbs of the country, and, until recently, some of its inhabitants were also foreigners.

Nuvia Martinez, 41, said she simply didn’t have time to befriend her neighbors in the decade she lived in Westgate. She is busy working extra shifts, like many in the complex, cleaning the buildings at long and irregular hours. She is raising three children and trying to see her husband. And she worries about her refrigerator, which doesn’t maintain the right temperature, doesn’t close properly and often leaks. “For three kids, how do I feed them that?” Martinez asked.

Others in Westgate, she learned, had similar concerns – about mold buildup in their carpets, mold growing along their kitchen and bathroom walls, cockroaches – and it was those frustrations that ultimately brought Martinez and his neighbors together. Next month, with rent rising despite deteriorating conditions, around 80 tenants signed a petition not to pay it.

“I don’t feel too confident [right now] it will be resolved,” Martinez said. But she and other would-be strikers say they think they need to do something to draw attention to their concerns.

The petition at Westgate, organized by community activist group CASA Maryland, calls on tenants to withhold their rent for the month of August. These residents, mostly Latin American immigrants, call the recent rent hikes particularly unreasonable given the management company’s lack of response to issues in the units and common areas.

Such rent strikes, along with protests and other collective actions, are on the rise in the Washington area and across the country as tenants seek ways to assert their rights. The DC Tenants Union formed in 2019 to organize tenants in the nation’s capital, and tenants in two other apartment complexes in Prince George’s County went on rent strikes for months starting in 2020.

‘It’s time to unite’: Prince George’s County neighbors begin rent strike over living conditions

For many Westgate families, money was already tight. Martinez’s husband, Jose Escobar, often works 13 or 14 hour days landscaping. Ruth Portillo, 28, picks up all the orders she can as a delivery driver for Giant to split the cost of her two bedrooms with her mother, Norma, who works minimum-wage housekeeping jobs to help to support Portillo’s three children.

In addition to living conditions at Westgate, residents cite issues with additional parking fees, over-enforcement of towing, and replacement fixtures being moved and passed on by former tenants. Some of these dishwashers have been cited by maintenance workers as the cause of unit ceiling leaks.

Residents say conditions at Westgate worsened after Schweb Partners took over management of the resort in February 2020. Concerned CASA Maryland tenants and organizers have been trying to pin down representatives from the New Jersey-based company, have- they said, and couldn’t get an audience with them until Tuesday afternoon, when during a two-hour meeting, four members of Schweb’s management team listened to nearly two dozen residents to express their concerns.

The new landlord was going to almost double the rent. These elderly people in Maryland decided to fight back.

Residents called the meeting, which was limited to residents, management and three local leaders, productive and said they felt heard and respected by the management team. But given what was at stake, some couldn’t help but worry.

“Sometimes we’re scared, because we’ve never had a meeting like this,” says Enrique Medina, 47, a carpenter who lives in Westgate with his family of four and attended the meeting. “Sometimes you feel nervous talking to these people, but we have to talk because the rent is too high.”

Residents said management has agreed to monthly meetings with tenants over the next three months.

“We felt the meeting was very productive,” said Sean Rabinowitz, senior regional manager of Schweb Partners, after the meeting. “The goal was to hear them and make their complaints heard.” He declined to answer further questions in person or by email.

Laurel City Council member Martin Mitchell, who also attended the meeting, said he was sensitive to residents’ concerns. Mitchell advocates relief measures, he said, such as bills to cancel predatory rents, but he knows that promises and ideas are not enough.

The average monthly rent in Laurel is $1,823 in July, according to real estate data firm Yardi Matrix. Rent increases for Westgate residents who spoke with The Post would bring their rates within $200 of that figure.

“We all work hard. We are still going through a pandemic,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t have that safety net. So if they were leaving here, which is one of the most affordable places in the county, where else would they go?

Prince George’s County rent strikers sue landlord over ‘wilful negligence’ terms

Ana Rodriguez Montoya, Laurel resident and community organizer for CASA Maryland, listened to residents’ stories and went door-to-door to gather support for a rent strike. For nearly every Westgate resident, according to his canvass, the monthly rent increases mean the difference between being able to stay in Laurel and having to find another place for their family to live, with its own potential issues.

“They know how the rent is going to go up – and it’s so crazy,” Rodriguez Montoya said. “They know that with CASA and working together as a community, they can get results.”

The looming threat to pack up and leave Westgate got Wilmer Chavarria fired one recent evening, even after getting up at 5 a.m. and working nearly 1 p.m., still wearing his neon orange work long sleeves from his work on a road asphalt laying team. His family’s rent was increased in June from $1,154 to $1,630.

“I had to cut back on my kids’ food,” Chavarria said in Spanish, through an interpreter.

Chased by fire, she had 30 minutes to pack a life

Chavarria, 32, has lived in his apartment for about seven years, he said, and is frustrated by the stench of his carpet, the rat hole in his bedroom closet and the toilet that has spit out sewage at the start of the pandemic. He does not like having to house his wife, his three children and his cousin in such conditions.

“This is my house,” Chavarria said. “I only come here to sleep because I work seven days to pay my rent… but I want to live here.

Just like other families preparing to strike. Brought together by their frustrations on a recent stormy July evening, the Martinez and Portillo families sat down to chat and laugh on the patio and lean Portillos, sharing sodas, water bottles and pastries with friends. other neighbors and watching the storm.

Families want to have many more of these memories together. They hope to make up for lost time.

“I never would have known [Ruth] this long before,” said the Portillos’ neighbor Sandra Chavez, 32, as she ate a sweet bun on their patio.

Westgate families watched their children run around the playground through the parking lot, hoping the rain would pass soon.

About Gene Schafer

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