Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Clifton Terrace and Tenant Organizing

1350 Clifton Terrace NW

During the 1960s, the once-elegant apartment complex originally known as Wardman Courts, but renamed Clifton Terrace in 1921, had fallen into severe disrepair. As tenants were forced to endure a lack of heat, crumbling ceilings, peeling paint, leaky faucets, missing light fixtures, rodent infestations, and general filth, the complex became the focal point of a citywide battle between negligent landlords and fed-up tenants. Apartment-dwellers across the city began waging rent strikes in protest of poor conditions and code violations.

Just two years after his purchase of the three-building complex in 1962, White landlord Sidney Brown’s company First National Realty Corporation was cited for 1,200 building code violations. A few years later, thanks to a War on Poverty program that provided legal services for the poor, an office headed by a recent George Washington University Law School graduate opened at Clifton Terrace. In partnership with the new legal-aid program, tenant Pat Garris persuaded nearly 30 other tenants to withhold rent until repairs were made in each of their apartments. While most soon gave in to threats of eviction, six tenants upheld the rent strike and entered a lengthy court battle. The case, Saunders (a.k.a. Javins) v. First National Realty Corporation, centered on the legal right of renters to withhold rent in the face of housing-code violations.

After a lower court ruling upheld the case in favor of Brown, supporting the right to eviction, tenants staged a sit-in at the office of HUD Secretary, Robert Weaver, and demanded action by the city. Weaver succeeded in pressuring Brown to sell the building to the nonprofit Housing Development Corporation (HDC). Like the legal-aid program, HDC was supported by the War on Poverty's Office of Economic Opportunity.

In January 1968, HDC took over the building and hired Mary Treadwell and Marion Barry's Pride, Inc., to begin cleaning it up. A black-owned company served as the general contractor for rehabbing the building, with Clifton Terrace and neighborhood residents given hiring preference. Over 250 African Americans worked on the project.

More than two years later, in  May 1970, US Court of Appeals Judge J. Skelly Wright ruled that tenants could not be evicted or held liable for withholding rent if their residences were uninhabitable. Judge Wright later wrote, "I did what I could to ameliorate, if not eliminate, the injustice involved in the way many of the poor were required to live in the nation's capital." The tenant actions at Clifton Terrace and the ruling in this case inspired activism elsewhere, especially in apartments where services declined, but rents went up as black residents replaced whites. Continued demands for the city to regulate landlords led the DC Council to pass a rent control law in 1974.