At-large Laurel City Council member Martin Mitchell and CASA rally against high rents and poor service at Laurel's Westgate apartments. (Richard D. Elliott/The Washington Informer)
At-large Laurel City Council member Martin Mitchell and CASA rally against high rents and poor service at Laurel's Westgate apartments. (Richard D. Elliott/The Washington Informer)

In one of Prince George’s largest municipalities, a community of seniors and a majority-immigrant community have teamed up with members of the City Council, CASA de Maryland and others to fight back against rising rents and unaddressed safety concerns. 

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, rents have risen sharply across the country as real estate investors such as Blackrock have bought up new homes and inflation has reduced purchasing power for home-seeking Americans. Rents have risen over 14% in the past year and this has most directly affected Black communities and seniors who rely on Social Security and fixed income to pay the rent and utilities.

This has been an unfortunate local trend as well: 15% rent increase in D.C. for one-bedroom apartments and studio apartments over the past year with similar increases along the Prince George’s Purple Line corridor. 

A 2022 survey of landlords showed that the more properties a landlord/property management group owns, the more likely they were to raise rents and to increase rents by larger amounts. 

After months of rising rents and unaddressed health and safety concerns, more than 80 residents from the Westgate Apartments in Laurel signed a petition organized by CASA de Maryland calling for a rent strike last month. The Westgate apartments, like many other apartment complexes, were bought up by large firms during the pandemic. Their complex was bought out by Schweb Partners LLC, a New Jersey-based real estate developer who has purchased residential properties in Lake Worth Beach, West Palm Beach and Winston-Salem over the past 18 months. 

Westgate residents held their first meeting with representatives from Schweb Partners last month. Meanwhile, residents of a Schweb-owned property in Springfield, Massachusetts, similarly continue to protest against high rents and safety and health concerns that still have not been addressed.  

At 332 11th Street, longtime Laurel residents, including Robert Pendarvis, have recently been challenged by rental costs that have nearly doubled as well as possible evictions following the sale of the property. However, a compromise implemented in March, which recommended a $150 monthly rent increase and city spending from the American Rescue Plan, satisfied most residents. 

The same owner agreed upon a similar deal at Patuxent Place Apartments on Laurel’s Main Street with negotiations that led to an initially-proposed rent increase of between 30% to 60% being lowered to 13.5% increases for 15 apartments. 

Meanwhile, these evictions attempts have caused “heartache and anxiety,” said Martin Mitchell, council member at large for Laurel. 

“One of our biggest obstacles to getting changes has been a lack of desire to systematically change the way we do business and what protections we provide for our tenants,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell has partnered with Council member Carl DeWalt on legislation to regulate rents, prevent extreme rent hikes and improve clarity in any forms of communication related to housing. 

The two council members have also joined forced with the Laurel Housing Justice Coalition, led by CASA and which includes coalition members like the Prince George’s County NAACP, Laurel Area Referral Services, PG Changemakers, Fish of Laurel and the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign. Their focus remains to protect tenants and improve housing conditions in Laurel. 

Meetings, held on a monthly basis, provide opportunities for coalition members to coordinate their efforts. 

One of the next steps in the planning stages expected to better protect tenants, which Mitchell said he supports, includes the creation of a rental registry that would make it easier for city agencies, property owners and tenants to address alleged city infrastructure inadequacies and to track rental rates and evictions more efficiently. 

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