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Teach-in outlines efforts to protect renter’s rights

Teach-in outlines efforts to protect renter’s rights

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, March 2022)      Edmikia Minter, a resident of Ericsson Apartments in East Akron, and an organizer for The Freedom BLOC, was elected in 2021 to lead the Ericsson Apartments Tenant Union. The Black Led Organizing Collaborative (BLOC) builds Black political power in the Black community through civic education, civic engagement, campaign management, and leadership development. She described conditions at her residence in a virtual meeting for Renter’s Rights Teach-in last month. Neighborhood Connections organized the event. Established in 2003 by the Cleveland Foundation, Neighborhood Connections offers grants to support resident-led projects across Cleveland and East Cleveland.

     “I have been living in the Ericsson Apartments since 2020. I was forced to move from my three-bedroom unit, with my children, into an unsafe two-bedroom unit in 2021,” said Minter. “The apartment was infested with mice and black mold. My rent was increased. Management stored my washer and dryer without my consent, forcing me to use the laundromat.”

     Minter said the hardship of paying for a laundromat was too much. She lived without a stove for over a month. Her three children slept in the bedrooms while she slept on the couch. Mold was everywhere. Then her apartment was vandalized.

     “There was too much mold in the bathroom,” she said. “We could not even take a shower or bath. Management did nothing.”

     Minter refused to sign a lease until repairs were made. Management threatened her with eviction. With three young children to consider and facing eviction, she signed the lease against her will. She was relocated to a third apartment and forced to sign another lease. Roaches infested the new apartment. 

     “I spent the first night with my kids killing dozens of roaches,” she said. “Our utility room was flooded. Raw sewage back flowed in the bathroom. I was without a toilet for two days. I had to pay for the cleaning. I became an organizer for Freedom BLOC and President of the Ericsson Tenant Union as a result.”

     Stasha Powell recently moved to Cleveland from California. She said after the owner of her apartment complex in Redwood City died, their building fell into disrepair. At the time, Powell was an apartment manager. She had no heat or hot water for more than ten months. Sewage backed up into her bathtub and toilet at least twice a month. She was hospitalized several times, as a result of exposure to contaminants. 

     “A speculator bought the building and removed the stairs without a permit. I fell into an eight-foot ditch and dislocated my hip. I still have multiple surgeries to this day,” said Powell. “They have not paid for any of my medical expenses.”

     Powell organized a tenants’ union, which landed their story in the New York Times. She was eventually displaced to another building along with the other residents. They did receive relocation funds, but barely enough to cover the cost of moving.  

     “I have canvassed over 500 buildings in my work for tenants’ rights. Cleveland has among the worst I have ever seen,” she said. “People are forced to live in conditions that are not humane.” 

     In September 2020, Stout Risius Ross, LLC (Stout) was engaged as the 3-year evaluator of Cleveland’s Eviction Right to Counsel (RTC-C). Stout is a global investment bank and advisory firm specializing in corporate finance, valuation, financial disputes, and investigations. They provide expertise in strategy consulting involving socioeconomic issues, including issues related to access to justice and the needs of low-income individuals and communities. Cleveland City Council President Blaine A. Griffin released the 193-page report to the Plain Press.

     “In 2021, more than 93% of cases represented in Cleveland Housing Court by the Right to Counsel (RTC) effort, that was seeking to avoid eviction or an involuntary move, avoided displacement,” wrote Councilman Griffin in an email along with the report. To help you share the report, he provided a webpage www.FreeEvictionHelpResults.org

     The Stout report includes several key findings: In 2021, approximately 79% of RTC clients indicated there were defective housing conditions in their home including mildew, holes in walls, roofs, and floors, rodent infestations, leaks and flooding during rain, broken or missing doors and windows, exposed electrical wiring and lead paint. RTC clients were disproportionately female and Black compared to Cleveland’s overall demographics. Approximately 77% were female, and 72% were Black. More than $28 million in emergency rental assistance was available for tenants in Cleveland, with $17 million distributed in 2021, leaving $11 million unused.

     Cleveland Eviction Data showed zip code 44102 had the most eviction filings in 2021 with 598. Zip code 44102 includes the Detroit Shoreway, Stockyard, Cudell, Edgewater neighborhoods, and parts of the Clark Fulton and West Boulevard neighborhoods.

     The Stout report found that eviction filings throughout Cleveland were concentrated in census tracts with non-white majority populations. An estimated 15% to 25% of people who experience eviction will also experience homelessness and enter the emergency shelter system. Cleveland residents facing eviction can apply for legal representation by calling Cleveland Legal Aid’s intake line, completing Cleveland Legal Aid’s intake form online, completing an application on FreeEvictionHelp.org, or discussing their matter with a Cleveland Legal Aid representative in housing court.

     Not surprisingly, the Detroit Shoreway and Edgewater neighborhoods, in the zip code with the most recorded evictions, are also the fastest growing real estate markets in Cleveland. Battery Park Lofts Apartments has rental units ranging from 677-1118 sq ft starting at $1,400. Eco-Village townhouses list for $295,000 for 1200 square feet. A $300k mortgage with a 4.5% interest rate over 30 years and a $10k down-payment will require an annual income of $74,581 to qualify for the loan.

     Pearl Chen, a co-founder of the Greater Cleveland Housing Justice Coalition (GCHJC), first started organizing with the climate justice movement, Sunrise Movement. She got involved with housing justice after learning, from the advocacy group Utilities for All, that late and unpaid utility bills often result in eviction notices.

     “Housing is a human right, not something to treat as a commodity,” said Chen. “No one deserves to be criminalized for being homeless. No one deserves eviction from their home because of poverty.” 

     Chen said GCHJC organizes around a socialist perspective, where housing and justice are part of a much larger system of white supremacy and capitalism. “We counter the establishment narrative that people need to earn a living to deserve a place to live,” she said. 

     Mayor Justin Bibb included a recommendation in his 2022 Transition Report to immediately endorse housing policies such as Source of Income Protections and Pay-to-Stay. Pay-to-Stay ensures that if a tenant can make up back-rent, then an eviction lawsuit against them must end. The landlord must accept the money the tenant is offering. The landlord cannot move forward with an eviction lawsuit in court. 

     Source of Income discrimination results when a landlord refuses to rent a unit to a prospective tenant based on their source of income, such as refusing to rent to prospective tenants who pay with Section 8 vouchers. Source of Income Protection protects renters from discrimination based on their income. The source of income is not a protected class under the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

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