No County for Bad Landlords

Content Warning: sexual violence

Southern Management is one of the largest property management companies in the region. They regularly talk about their commitment to their residents’ safety when opposing renters’ rights legislation. Recent events on one of their properties in Silver Spring casts doubts over their claims. 

Early this year, in January, Maryland District 20 Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins introduced state legislation to change eviction procedures in Montgomery County. This “Just Cause Eviction” bill proposed basic protections for tenants, primarily the protection against retaliatory or unnecessary evictions. 

Southern Management—who owns multiple rental properties across the County such as Summit Hills in Silver Spring—–vocally opposed Del. Wilkins’s bill. Their lobbyist, Gabrielle Duvall, claimed Just Cause Eviction laws would endanger “good” tenants by making it difficult for Southern Management to evict “problem” tenants. This claim is flimsy—landlords can (and do) evict “problem” tenants for violating either County laws or their lease agreement. 

Duvall’s claim that policing apartment communities “…is our job as a management company,” is important. Recent events at the Southern Management-owned and managed property of Summit Hills casts doubt over the credibility and management capabilities of Duvall’s employer. Southern Management is not policing their communities as they claim. 

In the past weeks, residents of Summit Hills reported that numerous employees either left—or were fired from—the company. Residents noted a rapid decline in management quality from that moment onward. Management fixed maintenance issues with half-solutions or left them unresolved altogether. A rumor circulated that a tenant had to leave the complex after their damaged bathroom ceiling, ignored by management, suddenly collapsed. 

On Friday, August 16, a female resident parked her car in Summit Hills’ gated parking lot and headed to her building. She was followed and savagely attacked, strangled, and sexually assaulted in the common area of her own building. 

In the aftermath of the first-degree rape, attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault, Southern Management sent a single email on Saturday, August 17, notifying residents of an “incident” that occurred on the property. Management encouraged people to call the office about any suspicious activity and offered boiler-plate safety advice. Management left residents in the dark about what the “incident” was or what made up “suspicious activity.” One tenant told Commonwealth they suspected a robbery or breaking and entering had occurred on the property.

Management sent a second email and written notice the following Monday, August 20, informing residents that local police had made an arrest. Once again, there was no information about what actually transpired in the community. Southern Management didn’t list steps they were taking to protect their residents in either communication.

Tenants finally got the full account from local news, who broke the story August 20, 2019 based on the arrest notice posted to Montgomery County Police website. The next day, Southern Management issued a final notice which at last disclosed relevant details of the “incident” and admitted that residents had requested more information from their office. Management claimed they withheld details of the attack based on police request and to protect the victim’s identity. 

Even institutions whose primary purpose isn’t renting, such as college campuses, keep detailed records of “incidents” such as the attack that took place at Summit Hills. But there are no similar laws to ensure safety, accountability, and transparency from landlords. 

County Councilmembers are introducing what is perhaps a record number of tenants’ rights bills this year. The Council should consider enhancing tenants’ ability to inspect records of similar incidents on their apartment’s premise. 

If tenant advocates proposed such a bill, Southern Management would likely call upon Gabrielle Duvall again to offer opposition testimony. Working-class tenants would be at a disadvantage, as the debate on such a bill would likely occur in the middle of the weekday.

Confronted on the one hand with their landlord withholding crucial safety information, and the difficult hurdles of the legislative process on the other, what are tenants to do?

One answer is to organize a tenants’ association. Each building could form their own association, or a general association across all buildings is possible. Tenants would simply need to host an interest meeting, elect some basic officers, and inform the management of the association. Groups like the Renters’ Alliance serve as facilitators, allies, and consultants.

A tenants’ association could pressure Southern Management to improve communication with residents. The association could negotiate better security patrols, or more infrastructure like proper lighting and walkways. On a basic level, tenants associations strive to make life in the complex a community-engaging process: organizing picnics, game nights, guest speakers, and more. A tenants’ association is as big or as active as the tenants who comprise it want it to be.

On a tenant-to-tenant relationship level, associations increase community self-awareness and sociability. Basic safety precautions get communicated in conversation between neighbors. Disgruntled, disruptive, or potentially dangerous tenants are more quickly identified by the community. Without an association, individualized and atomized tenants are easy prey for predatory landlords. 

It’s unclear as of now what, if any, effects this tragedy will have on Summit Hills/Southern Management operations. One thing is clear, their words carry little weight. Tenants should organize to hold their landlord accountable.

 

Commonwealth thanks the tenants who bravely came forward about abuses at Summit Hills Apartments.

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