Atlanta Activists Learn about Tenants Buying their Buildings, D.C.’s Experience


TOPA-ZOOM-EDIT(APN) ATLANTA — On December 02 and 03, 2020, Atlanta activists and tenants, along with Atlanta City Council President Felicia A. Moore and Atlanta City Councilman Matt Westmoreland (Post 2-at-large), gathered around computers and mobile devices to learn about a Washington, D.C., housing policy that has been helping tenants purchase their own buildings since the 1980’s.


Housing Justice League and Georgia Stand-Up co-sponsored the informational series featuring experts on the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), to share the history and lessons learned from TOPA implementation in D.C. and other U.S. cities.


TOPA: What’s Old Is New Again


Back in 1980, the District of Columbia had already begun to experience high rates of gentrification and displacement of residents; and a severe shortage of vacant, habitable, and affordable rental housing units.  


Lawmakers commissioned studies of housing trends and rental stock in the District.  The findings indicated conversions of rental properties to condominiums and cooperatives were depleting the City’s rental housing stock.  


“Lower income tenants, particularly elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities, are the most adversely affected by conversions since the after-conversion costs are usually beyond their ability to pay, which results in forced displacement,” the District found, according to their legislative findings.


In response to the pending housing crisis, D.C. lawmakers adopted TOPA. 


The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is included as part of the regulation of the conversion of use, sale, and transfer of rental housing in the District of Columbia. 


Under TOPA, tenants have the opportunity to invoke their rights to purchase; have the first rights of refusal; are entitled to receive offer of sale notices; and are entitled to receive notices of the transfer and the conversion of property to cooperatives or condominiums.


Forty years later, cities such as Oakland, California are introducing their own versions of TOPA and similar housing legislation in efforts to curb displacement, gentrification, and homelessness.  


A Model for Atlanta? 


Speakers in the Atlanta workshop included Karen Wright, an organizer and tenant who purchased an apartment through TOPA; as well as three authors on the subject.


The authors included: Dr. Carolyn Gallaher, Senior Associate Dean of the School of International Service at American University, author of The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Julie Lawton, Associate Dean for Experiential Learning at DePaul University, author of Tenant Purchase As a Means of Creating and Preserving Affordable Homeownership; and Amanda Huron, author of Carrying Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C..


“Normally what happens is a landlord will contract their building for sale.  When a sale is contracted, meaning the landlord sells to a potential buyer, at that point the landlord is supposed to alert the tenants in the building that their building has been sold and that they have the right of first refusal,” Dr. Gallaher said during the Zoom workshop, referring to what is called a TOPA notice. 


“That then sets off a process that starts from the date the TOPA notice is given to tenants.  What tenants can then do, if they don’t have a tenant’s organization or association, they have to form one.  They [tenants] have a certain amount of time to refuse the sale,” Dr. Gallaher said.


“They have a period of time to arrange financing to purchase the building.  Most tenants’ associations can’t afford to purchase a building, so when tenants are getting financing lined up, they try to find a third-party developer, a nonprofit or for-profit developer, that’s going to help them purchase the building,” Dr. Gallaher said. 


“They can also work with the D.C.’s housing department, to get bridge loans and other kinds of financing.  Once the financing is arranged, tenants can decide what they want to do with the building; convert it to condo or co-op, or do they want to keep it as a rental,” Dr. Gallaher explained. 


“The right to purchase is a statutory right and landlords have to abide by the statutes, but the right to purchase doesn’t really mean anything if there are not the private actors involved to help the tenants organize, determine whether the tenants want to acquire the building, renovate the building, or whether the tenants want to flip their rights to purchase the building,” Dean Lawton explained. 


“There needs to be a group of development consultants, lenders, nonprofits and community organizers to work with the tenants to help the tenants take advantage of the rights that they are given,” she cautioned.


(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2021)

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