Veteran tenant organizer, Spencer Wells, offers to help train a new generation of tenant organizers

by Chuck Hoven


The closing of the Cleveland Tenants Organization has left a gap in services to help tenants deal with problems with their landlords. The Legal Aid Society has stepped up to fi ll some of the services once provided by Cleveland Tenants Organizations, but not all.

Spencer Wells, a veteran tenant organizer has offered to help train people in neighborhood organizations to fill that gap. Wells headed up the Cleveland Tenants Organization for many years before moving on to work with the Coalition for Homelessness and Housing and now is helping the Cleveland Lead Safe Network with efforts to rid Cleveland housing of lead hazards.

Wells says he would like to “help younger people learn how to use some of the techniques we used back in the old days.”

At a June 18th meeting of Hispanic Alliance’s La Familia group, Wells shared some thoughts about how advocacy for tenants’ rights will proceed in the wake of the demise of Cleveland Tenants Organization.

Legal Aid will be responding to questions from tenants coming to the telephone information line, said Wells. He noted that Legal Aid staff will respond to questions about legal rights, eviction questions, leases, rental agreements and how to get repairs done.

Wells offered some advice tenants can use to get landlords to make repairs that are health and safety violations. Here are the steps he recommended:                                    1) Tenants must give landlords a written notice of violations that need to be corrected.

2) Keep a copy of the notice

3) Wait a reasonable time – not more than 30 days

4) The tenant can take their rent payment down to Cleveland Housing Court

5) The Housing Court will notify the landlord that the rent is paid

6) Landlord can get the rent if the Housing Court is satisfied repairs have been made. If some, but not all of the repairs have been completed, the Housing Court may decide to give the landlord just a percentage of the rent reflecting the percentage of repairs completed

7) The tenant can ask for a rent reduction based on having to put up with a maintenance issue that wasn’t addressed in a timely manner. “

Housing Court has a lot of discretion as to how money gets divided up between landlord and tenant,” said Wells. While the process is not simple and may involve meeting with a landlord or a hearing before a judge, Wells said, “it does work.”

One area where Legal Aid will not be able to help is in organizing tenants in multifamily buildings to take action on an issue that affects all the tenants. Wells says he is willing to talk to neighborhood organizations to help share techniques on organizing tenants.

One member of La Familia related a problem at her apartment building with a huge hole in the parking lot by the entrance. Residents and their visitors have had their cars damaged going over the hole. Wells said a court ruled three years ago that landlords are not only responsible for tenants but for tenants’ guests when it comes to health and safety violations in common areas.

Wells said every three months the Cleveland Housing Court holds a meeting for landlords to teach them about their responsibilities.

Wells shared some examples of landlord tenant law. If a tenant is behind in their rent, a landlord is not allowed to seize their belongings or furnishings; turn off utilities; or padlock the property.

Wells addressed the problem of landlords trying to retaliate by raising the rent or making threats when a tenant asks for repairs. Retaliation is a tricky thing, said Wells. “You have to prove the landlord intended to get back at you for complaining about the conditions.”

To gather proof, Wells said it is important to communicate with the landlord in writing so you have a record. He said text messages or email are just like writing. Another way is to have a witness with you when you communicate with a landlord or take a tape recorder with you, he said.

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