I have the best clients—clients who inspire me and show just how good humanity can be. Clients like Su and Anne, two first-time homebuyers I worked with this winter.
Su and Anne used to live in a 52-unit apartment complex in Burien. That building sold last year, and while Su and Anne were still living there, the new owner promptly raised rents throughout the complex. The cost to live in each unit leapt anywhere from 44 to 84 percent with just 60 days notice. In Burien, this is legal.
Legality and morality don’t always line up. Those increases were going to drive many of the current occupants into homelessness. Many of the tenants had lived there for years, with their budgets based around what had previously been semi-stable rent. But if the landlord slaps on a surprise $500/month? A surprise $700/month? People can’t afford that.
As Su will tell you: “There are things that are illegal, and there are things that are legal but wrong—and you can do something about both of those.”
Anne and Su contacted city council members, but most didn’t respond back. Those who did respond admitted that although the situation was terrible, there was nothing they could do.
Fortunately, Su and Anne believe in tenants’ rights, and they believe in banding together for the common good. They brought their organizing experience to their fellow tenants who were “pissed off and ready to fight.” They were a very diverse group in every criteria: race, nationality, language. There were elderly tenants and young families, immigrants and long-term citizens. As Anne said, “if one or two people are willing to step up and lead, people respond.”
The tenants held several meetings in which they moved from strangers to allies to friends. After many discussions, they came to a consensus on what they would to propose to the landlord. Of the 52 units in the building, 44 units signed the letter:
You recently bought the Name Blocked Apartments in Burien, WA and notified tenants of an extreme rent increase, a new fee for water/sewer/garbage, and monetary penalties for tenants who do not sign a new 6-month lease. These changes are on top of two rent increases residents received earlier this year.
The cumulative impact on tenants is a 44% to 84 % increase in monthly rent and fees in 2017. … The exact situation varies apartment-to-apartment, but this is devastating to all of us. We are the working poor, seniors on a fixed income, students, single moms, and people with disabilities. We are a rainbow of races, ethnicities, languages, and nations of origin.
Many residents simple cannot afford the rent increases; it is an economic eviction. Many will become homeless if not given enough time to relocate. People with disabilities, low-income, elderly, and families with children will be displaced as the weather gets colder.
The tenants also listed more specific concerns and requested a meeting. As a result of their efforts, the new owner dramatically reduced the rent increases and gave the tenants more time to find other housing if they still could not afford the rent hikes.
Su and Anne took a group of strangers and united them into a supportive, organized team, dedicated to bettering each other’s lives. As individuals, they had no influence. But as a group, they became a force for positive change. The power of the collective—the power of people looking out for each other—worked.
One woman who had lived in building for decades moved out shortly after the tenants banded together. She said her one regret was “leaving right after getting to know my neighbors.” In 30 years of living there, people next door to each other had never met each other until this.
However, all their work didn’t fix everything. Now, the landlord isn’t providing maintenance on the building. The tenants succeeded in delaying and mitigating rent hikes, but not in securing their long-term well-being.
Anne and Su have found a house of their own, and they’re no longer there to help the tenants organize. But even without their leaders, the tenants have kept their community. The tenants are still organizing, and they’re still fighting to make their homes livable.
“Having that first success and seeing you can make a difference gives people the power to stop the next thing,” Su said. “If only we could do one thing and fix something permanently. We didn’t stop the guy from being a greedy dick, but it’s not about what he’s doing. It’s about what we’re doing.”