Teaching renters their rights: Advocates share lessons on organizing for change

Tenants in disputes with landlords, ranging from a lack of heat to rodent infestation, often aren’t aware of their rights, many housing advocates say. To raise awareness and promote solutions, several nonprofits hosted a teach-in February 9.

Tenants in disputes with landlords, ranging from a lack of heat to rodent infestation, often aren’t aware of their rights, many housing advocates say. 

Some of these advocates recently held a “Renter’s Rights Teach-Infocusing on tenants rights, including free legal representation for low-income renters facing evictions. The 90-minute, online Feb. 9th event pushed for renters to form tenant unions, or organizations, and to advocate for legislation that would provide protections for renters. 

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM), Neighborhood Connections, and the Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research held the teach-in, which drew 90 attendees. 

“Cleveland is now the poorest (big) city in the country, with a poverty rate of 30.8%,” said Chloe Sudduth, NEOCH’s advocacy director.  “In just trying to find somewhere to live, renters in our community face high application fees, criminal background screenings, credit checks, eviction record checks being denied housing on they pay rent, and the potential to be evicted for being a day or two late on rent,”

Citing statistics from the recent “Cleveland Right to Counsel Annual Independent Eviction Evaluation” for 2021, which the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland presented to Cleveland City Council on January 31, 2022, Sudduth said that nearly 80% of people who receive assistance from the Society reported substandard housing conditions that were often code violations, including plumbing issues, lack of heat in winter, mold, mildew, insect and rodent infestation and  lead.

Sudduth said the evaluation stated that evictions in Cleveland disproportionately affect Black women and children. Maggie Rice, NEOCH’s education coordinator, said during the teach-in that 80% of the eviction notices filed in Cleveland are for non-payment of rent.

Holding landlords accountable

Several renters shared stories that echoed the data Sudduth cited about defective home conditions, including Edmika Miller, who has lived in the Ericsson Apartments in Akron since 2020.

During the time she and her two children have lived in the Ericsson, management has required that they move twice. Both spaces had mice and roach infestation and one of the units had dog feces that had been left by a previous tenant that had never been cleaned. 

The first move landed the family in a two bedroom unit that was without a stove for the first month, and the bathtub was so full of mold that the family was unable to use it. 

In both instances, Minter told management she didn’t want to sign the lease for either of the new places, fearing it was unsafe. Each time, she said she was told if she didn’t sign, she would be evicted.

“Being that it was the only place I could afford to live, I signed the lease, because I felt I would lose my housing for me and my kids,” Minter said.    

Minter said this series of problems and management’s indifference in trying to solve them, prompted her to become President of the Ericsson tenants’ union, and an organizer for The Freedom Black Led Organizing Collaborative (BLOC), saying it would help hold management accountable, and to try to prevent from happening to other renters.

We are better together

Tenant union organizers also spoke at the teach-in, sharing information about the successes they’ve had in helping renters solve problems. The organizers emphasized the need for collective action as the best way to affect change.

Akron’s Dee McCall, Freedom BLOC’s housing organizer, said renters who have struggled with an indifferent system need to be the most directly involved, saying “those closest to the pain, need to be closest to the power, in order for structural change to come to fruition.” 

McCall, who said “we are better together as a unit,” articulated the active goals of the housing coalition, which include organizing a tenant union in every Akron housing complex, creating a citywide renters’ and landlords’ Bill of Rights, and a housing trust maintained by the coaltion.

Even renters in more middle-class or more affluent neighborhoods find that they need to organize to address their housing concerns with landlords.

Casey Miozzi, of the Cleveland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) talked about organizing a  tenant union in his Beachwood apartment complex.

Miozzi moved into the building toward the end of 2021. He found that the amenities and quality of housing weren’t matching up to what was being charged in rent. Many of his neighbors had expressed similar frustrations on an online forum, with complaints about late trash pickups and maintenance requests going ignored.

Miozzi posted on the forum asking other renters to join him for a meeting to discuss the problems they faced and to talk about solutions. 

Ten people reached out to Miozzi. They shared horror stories about rude treatment, as well as concerns that absentee management was becoming a problem, because the complex was sold to a Philadelphia-based company that was ignoring tenants.

Miozzi organized an in-person discussion in the complex’s community room which attracted about twenty residents. When the Omicron variant surged, the meetings moved to Zoom. The union began reaching out to politicians for help, turning to lawyers, and putting their rent into escrow. 

Miozzi said one of the most valuable lessons he’s learned about organizing, from both the tenants’ union, as well as being a member of DSA is to do it from “the bottom up.”

“Organizing in apartment complexes that we live in, and not going into other complexes, and organizing on behalf of other people. We want to share the risk we’re asking the tenants to take, and doing it from the inside, rather than being an outside organization is very important,” Miozzi said. 

In addition to working with the tenant union in his own complex, Miozzi is part of the Cleveland chapter of Democratic Socialist group’s Cleveland Housing Organizing Project (CHOP), which goes into the community to work with people who are facing eviction, to help them better understand their rights.

Protect Cleveland Renters

As the teach-in was nearing the end, Molly Martin, NEOCH’s Director of Strategic Initiatives encouraged attendees to sign the online “Protect Cleveland Renters on Day 1” petition, which encourages the Bibb administration to adopt legislation that would offer renters both “Pay to Stay” and Source of Income (SOI) protection, as well as to create a comprehensive “Renters’ Bill of Rights.”

Pay to Stay protection would allow tenants to remain in their homes, when facing eviction for not paying rent, if they have the money to pay the owed rent, late fees and court costs by the time 

of the eviction hearing. SOI protection prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to tenants who choose to pay with an alternate source of income, like a housing voucher, or emergency rental asssistance.  

As she thanked all those who participated in the teach-in, Martin echoed the sentiments of others by reinforcing the notion of working together to solve housing problems.

“We have to build power from the ground up, by centering people, building a base, and identifying those issues that we have to tackle collectively to see housing justice in our city,” Martin said.

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