In the corner of a Dollar General parking lot on the southwest side of Louisville, across the street from the Nottingham Plaza Drive-Thru Liquor Barrel and an abandoned coin laundry, the Louisville Tenant Union convenes for Sunday afternoon canvassing.
It is nearly 90 degrees with the June sun beating down from the mid-day sky, so organizer Josh Poe invites the red-shirted union members to gather beneath the spotty shade provided by a small tree at the corner of the parking lot. Most have canvassed before, but Poe still walks everyone through the process. Today’s goals: have residents of Newberry Parc apartments submit comments online to the Federal Housing Finance Agency about rent hikes and poor housing conditions, and also to invite them to the next tenant union meeting.
“The person at the door is trying to assess whether we’re a Jehovah’s Witness, a cop or some kind of a scam,” Poe tells the union members as he distributes clipboards and flyers. “But we don’t apologize for bothering someone at their home because we aren’t sorry that we’re doing this.”
Newberry Parc has been in the local news lately after a massive water leak in one building led to a total shutdown of water to residents for more than three days. But Louisville Tenant Union, or LTU, one of a growing number of tenant-led community-wide organizations coming together to fight for renter rights and better housing, is here because of a less-publicized fact about the complex: Its owners have benefitted greatly from U.S. government assistance, while the tenants struggle with increased rents and a lack of repairs. In 2019, Durham Hill Properties LLC received an $8.2 million loan to buy Newberry Parc, a loan that was backed by government-sponsored entity Fannie Mae, an arrangement that typically leads to significantly lower financing costs.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA, manages both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which play a big role in the multifamily housing market by buying the mortgages issued by banks to multifamily landlords, thus assuming the risk of nonpayment. The Newberry Parc arrangement is quite common. Last year, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchased a combined $142 billion in multifamily housing loans.
The problem, LTU members and a nationwide network of tenant organizations say, is that tax dollars provide these huge benefits to landlords without requiring them to protect the rights of tenants. LTU is a member of the People’s Action Center’s Homes Guarantee campaign, which says that the Biden administration should require these federally-backed landlords to limit their rent hikes, keep the housing in good condition and agree not to evict or not renew tenant leases except for good cause. Greater tenant protection in federally-backed housing would have a huge impact: It could apply to over 12 million rental units, nearly one in three renting households in the country.
Advocacy by LTU and other tenant organizations convinced the Biden administration to announce in January a new public process by the FHFA to “examine proposed actions promoting renter protections and limits on egregious rent increases.” This comment-seeking was seen as a victory for corporate landlords, since it was far less than the immediate rent control and eviction protections that tenants were demanding.
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But tenant advocates decided to use the process as an opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on the Biden administration and to organize an even stronger base of support. “The rent is too damn high, and the government is in business with our landlords,” People’s Action Homes Guarantee Campaign Director Tara Raghuveer said. “We need the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the chief regulator of their industry, to take tenants’ expertise seriously, to weigh it against these profiteering lobbyists, and to enact the tenant protections we need.” So People’s Action is one of a dozen organizations pushing to flood the FHFA with comments from tenants before July 31.
‘They got richer, and we got priced out!’
Josh Poe knocks on the basement apartment door of Serena (I won’t use tenants’ real names here), who cocks her head to the side and squints a bit at the sight of two strangers. But when Poe explains the purpose of his visit, she is eager to talk. A few months ago, a pipe in the apartment above her burst, unleashing a torrent of water that caved in her ceiling and flooded the family living room.
It took the landlord more than a week to clean up the mess, who in the meantime only dropped off a fan for Serena’s family to use to try to dry the flooding. Two of Serena’s daughters have asthma, and they struggled to breathe through the whole ordeal. Serena says she did not expect much better: The property has had four or five different managers in the past three years — she has lost count — yet her monthly rent has increased by $200. Poe walks Serena through the process of submitting an online comment to FHFA via her phone.
One floor up, Jasmine responds to Poe’s question about whether her rent has been increased, too. “Hell, yes it has!” she replies. While a dog barks and growls behind the apartment across the hall, Poe explains the reason for the visit. “Did you know your landlord used government money to buy this building? This is your chance to say that tenants should have rights in buildings we taxpayers helped pay for.” Jasmine agrees to contact the FHFA, too.
Two weeks later, many of these same LTU members join hundreds of other tenant leaders at the national People’s Action convention in Washington, D.C. Among the speakers at the opening rally was LTU member Jasmine Brown, who tells the crowd about the time they had spent living out of their car, and their experiences dealing with raw sewage pouring into their rented apartment.
“But now we are actively building power with tenants from public housing complexes to trailer parks!” Brown says, then pauses for applause and yells of support. “It is our vision that one day we will have rent control and quality maintenance. Housing security belongs to everyone!”
The convention closed with some 900 activists flooding the street and sidewalks outside the offices of the National Multifamily Housing Council, or NMHC, in Washington, D.C. NMHC represents the some of the biggest corporate landlords apartment industry and is a die-hard opponent of rent control and other renter protections. They and other housing industry powerhouses were the main forces lobbying hard against Biden taking more significant action regulating government-backed rental properties.
Wearing “The Rent is Too Damn High!” T-shirts and chanting, “Do you see us?” to the 11th floor NMHC office windows, a series of tenants told their stories and called for action. “The government is in business with our landlords!” Katie Talbot from the Neighbor to Neighbor organization in Massachusetts shouted into the megaphone. Talbot, who like Brown was once unhoused, lists some of the biggest corporate landlords that are NMHC members — Greystar, Related, Starwood Capital. “They got richer, and we got priced out! There are $150 billion in loans backed by public money that go to these landlords every year — no strings attached. And that ain’t right!” The crowd yelled in response, “That ain’t right!”
Living paycheck to paycheck
Back in Louisville, LTU members Adrian Silbernagel and Scott Pittman knocked on Kenneth’s door in Newberry Parc. Kenneth immediately pulled his neighbor Manuel out into the hallway for an animated conversation. They took turns explaining how the landlord shadow-raised their rent by pulling gas and water into their monthly bill, only to hide what that monthly amount was until the last minute. Then, if the tenants are a day late, they are fined $200 extra, with an additional $100 for every day after.
Kenneth, a Lyft driver, introduced his wife and two small sons, then showed the LTU members a basketball-sized hole in his kitchen wall created where yet another leak had to be repaired. The maintenance office has ignored his calls and texts about fixing the hole. Like Serena and her family, Kenneth plans to move at his first opportunity.
But he knows he risks the same problems at the next home, so he is happy to submit his comment to the FHFA and to join the union. So is Daniel, walking outside on his way to his apartment. His rent has increased nearly 30 percent in four years, while his salary has barely budged. “We are all just living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. He is excited to see the union walking his neighborhood. “I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to come out here to talk about all this.”
The LTU intends to do a lot more than just talk, or submit comments online: the union and other tenant groups affiliated with Peoples Action have targeted both landlords and government officials with protests and in-person demands, and they intend to keep ratcheting up the pressure for Biden to take action.
Which is why these LTU members say there is no substitute for their analog organizing, even in a digital age. “The most powerful interactions are in person,” LTU’s Erika Sommer said during a break. “When you think about it, people online often don’t really recognize that the person on the other end is a real human being — but that is not a problem when we are standing outside your door.”
The others nod at Sommer’s explanation, then head back to the apartments. Poe put the rest of the paperwork in his truck, grabbed his own clipboard, and followed. “I wish we could just do a text blast or social media post and organize a tenants’ movement,” he said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”
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