In our last blog covering two problematic South Houston apartment complexes, Cabo San Lucas and the Redford, we detailed how tenants prevailed in court against a mass improper eviction with the support of legal aid. We also revealed that following the court hearings, tenants held a meeting to discuss grievances and next steps on how to take action collectively.
Since then, tenants at both complexes have united with urgency as they face another wave of evictions and relentless landlord retaliation. Over the past two months, tenants and their families have demanded swift action from the local government to avoid being pushed on the streets and once again be forced into homelessness.
Following the dismissal of eviction cases for Cabo San Lucas tenants on September 5, the residents were informed by management to expect new Notices to Vacate in the following weeks, giving them 30 days to move or another eviction lawsuit would be filed against them. Having one eviction filing, let alone several, on a tenant’s record has numerous harmful impacts on renting in the future. Moreover, this round of evictions would push many tenants closer to homelessness, as they lacked the time and resources to secure new housing in such a short timeframe.
Knowing the time restrictions they were under, tenants of Cabo San Lucas and the Redford – supported by the Keep Harris Housed coalition and Texas Housers – began holding periodic tenant meetings at a local library to brainstorm avenues to best voice their concerns.
Aside from the short timeline, there were numerous other factors that complicated taking collective action. While the tenants at Cabo San Lucas and the Redford endured similar horrendous living conditions, no communication from management , retaliatory harassment and utility shutoffs, and the imminent threat of eviction, the economics of their renting situations significantly differed from one another. This rendered the solutions they sought to be varied, making the accountable party to demand action from unclear.
Every tenant had a different story as to what brought them to their apartment.
- There are market renters who could afford and had attempted to pay rent on time, but due to chronic mismanagement issues and abrupt changes in complex policies, such as the payment portal issues or cash only requirements, they were unable to pay.
- Other market renters received rent relief from either the state or the city, and reported discrepancies in their owed balance. Management has refused to turn over the ledgers, leaving many tenants frustrated as to why they had such a large owed balance and why they were facing eviction.
- Some recipients of housing choice vouchers lost their assistance due to an inability to renew their program, as they were unable to receive mail at the property or due to a failed inspection and no relocation assistance. Lack of communication from the Houston Housing Authority, which oversees the voucher program, jeopardized their ability to remain on these programs.
- Previously homeless tenants were placed at the apartments through Rapid Rehousing, a housing program overseen by the Coalition for the Homeless and various partners within the Way Home network, whose strategy of “housing first” places individuals experiencing homelessness in a unit and then offers supportive services like job training and mental health services and access to case managers who support them in their journey out of homelessness. The reality of many tenant’s experience in the Rapid Rehousing program was bleak. Case managers became difficult to contact or refused to visit the apartments out of safety concerns. Lack of communication from the programs resulted in lapsed programs or inability to relocate to a safer location following the end of the program.
While tenants attended evening meetings, spoke with their neighbors, and devised tactics to command attention from the various organizations who left them on the brink of housing insecurity, they were simultaneously fending off retaliation from management. Since the court hearings, tenants have reported that management had begun shutting off power and air conditioning in many units during intense heat, and several tenants even experienced medical issues requiring hospital visits following their AC being shut off. Management would often lock themselves in the leasing offices, avoiding tenants’ questions about owed balances or requests to turn over ledgers or leases when approached multiple times.
Tenants knew they had to demand action from a higher authority as a united group, forming the Southeast Tenant Information Organization.
They delivered a letter to the Houston Housing Authority, outlining the struggles they’ve experienced at their respective complexes and urging swift action from the Housing Authority in person and followed the message by staging a demonstration in front of the building.
Tenants marched onto the sidewalk along Fountainview Drive with the Housing Authority building in sight. As the letter was read through a bullhorn, employees from the Housing Authority began to gather on the porch of the building, whispering concernedly and glancing around at the demonstration with confusion. Tenants walked up to deliver the letter to the Vice President of the Voucher Program, who was called down from his office to respond to the demonstration. They spoke at length, but the tenants left the Houston Housing Authority that day with more questions than answers. The demonstration was captured by local news, shining a spotlight on the issues faced by the tenants and giving many tenants a renewed hope that someone would take notice of their problems. Emails of the letter were later sent to the Houston Housing Authority and the Coalition for the Homeless, asking for a meeting between employees at both organizations and the tenants.
The following week and with no response from either agency, tenants signed up to speak at Houston City Council to share their concerns and personal stories to the council members. Their goal was to charge the City to investigate the numerous issues at the complexes and take meaningful action to solve the problems plaguing these households.
As the tenants spoke, many council members’ faces displayed shock or concern. Mayor Sylvester Turner responded to several of the tenant’s speeches with a simple response: “I’ll look into it.” The stories of the tenants certainly captured the attention of the city council, but it was unclear what action or direction the council would take to help them get out of these properties or hold the various housing support programs accountable.
We are excited for the wins that are in the Southeast Tenant Information Organization’s future. At Texas Housers, we firmly believe that tenant associations are a key way to rebalance the uneven playing field between renters and landlords that has been fortified over the years through tactical policymaking of landlords and apartment associations. Collective action is always stronger than individual action, and well-organized tenant associations can leverage the power of the press to uplift their struggles when they may feel individually ignored.
However, tenant organizing can be especially challenging in Texas, as the Property Code only protects tenant organizing within the first six months of the tenant participating in organizing efforts. Furthermore, calling the police on tenant associations is not considered retaliatory behavior under the property code – which endangers many organizers and can stifle organizing efforts before they can take substantial action against a property or landlord. Another challenging aspect of the current anti-retaliation protections set by the Texas Property Code is that tenants who are delinquent on rent while organizing do not have protection against eviction for nonpayment of rent while organizing. Given how fast the eviction process can be executed in Texas, this offers little protections to the most vulnerable organizers and can stifle momentum of tenant organizations.
This is why we at Texas Housers advocate for additional tenant protections to be enshrined into local ordinance or state law that confer additional protections for organizing tenants. These additional protections would include the right of tenants to organize past the arbitrary six month limit set by the Texas Property Code, and deeming calling the police on lawful tenant meetings and demonstrations a form of retaliation. Another protection that is critical for tenant organizations is adding additional protections for volunteer organizers who work with tenants at the complex. This would ensure that they cannot be removed from the property for their work assisting organizers and providing additional education or canvassing.
The organizing work of the Southeast Tenant Information Organization that has taken place over the past few months is indicative of the power that comes from tenant associations. When tenants, despite having different housing situations, are united, they are able to collectively raise their voices and capture the attention of those in power who can help them. Tenants are interconnected, helping out their neighbors and informing one another of their rights. Their work has laid the foundation for solutions to emerge in the coming weeks that hopefully will allow them to remain housed or seek new housing in healthy and liveable conditions. The Houston Housing Authority agreed to hold a meeting at the complex with the tenants who were on housing programs – marking a significant first step towards sustainable, tenant-guided solutions to their looming housing crisis.
Time is running out, as many tenants at Cabo San Lucas have their second eviction court hearing scheduled in the coming weeks. Some tenants at the Redford had their second eviction hearing already, and while some of their cases were dismissed due to issues with the Notices to Vacate, some were not as fortunate and had their cases defaulted or ruled in favor of the landlord. Many tenants still have nowhere to move if they are evicted, and confused about how to locate truly affordable housing that is safe and habitable.
Even in the face of adversity, the work of the Southeast Tenant Information Organization is not stopping. Tenants are energized to continue fighting for justice, and seeking solutions to remain housed. We at Texas Housers will continue to support the Southeast Tenant Information Organization in their pursuit of safe, affordable housing.