In Defense of Tenants: An Interview with Omaha Tenants United

Devon Bowers | Social Movement Studies | Interview | September 27th, 2018

This is a transcript of a recent email interview I had with the organization Omaha Tenants United about their beginnings and the activism the group engages in. Catch them this month in Heartland News, which is running a front page story on OTU and allowing them to write monthly updates from then on out.

Talk about how the organization formed and the work that you all do.

A group of us were aware of housing issues like tenant mistreatment and gentrification, and were inspired by other socialist organizations that help tenants, like those in Seattle or Philadelphia. From initial meetings where we discussed housing issues and read the state tenant-landlord statute, we came up with potential items to organize around. We began to focus particularly around the issue of "slumlords," or low-rent, low-maintenance landlords who skirt legality and mistreat tenants, largely getting away with it due to non-existent local enforcement and a tenant population of marginalized and low-income people, like refugees or immigrants.

We met our first tenant through Feed the People, an organization devoted to food distribution some of us were members of at the time. Since he had moved in to his apartment six months earlier, he did not have hot water despite repeated maintenance requests, with the landlord saying it would cost thousands of dollars and weeks of work. We met with the tenant, and after we went over portions of the state tenant statute and discussed the tenant's options, he made the decision to take a more direct approach to resolving his dispute with the support of our organization. We drafted a demand letter citing the various parts of the statute that the landlord was infringing upon, and demanding that steps be taken to resolve the issues or face escalation. The tenant then signed the letter, and we went together to his landlord's office to deliver it. The landlord wasn't home, but after hearing about the large group who delivered the letter, he contacted the tenant, angrily demanding to know what was going on. The tenant sent him a picture of the letter and explained our involvement. Less than 24 hours later, a maintenance crew repaired what turned out to be only a broken gasket, and the tenant had hot water.

We built our approach on this experience. We try to establish contacts among the working-class people in our neighborhoods, and learn from them about the situation of tenants in the city, particularly tenants of slumlords. Through this process we identify situations we can help resolve through forming demands of landlords, and stepping in to back the tenant up in a confrontation or meeting. It's important to our mission that we serve to empower the tenant themselves rather than be seen as performing a charitable service. Our first tenant, mentioned above, was shocked when we proposed delivering the demand letter as a group with him. He had assumed that we would deliver the letter ourselves, and was delighted to take for himself the action of delivering his demands to his landlord with our support. Typically, non-profit organizations who work in working-class communities are seen as doing things for working-class people or on their behalf.(just to clarify, we're not a "non-profit" in the 501c3 sense, nor do we have any desire to be. We merely use that phrase to draw a line of demarcation between how we operate and how many other organizations do (especially 501c3 nonprofits) and the perceptions surrounding them) We want to work with tenants to support them in doing what they are already capable of doing, and through this process, we hope that the tenants will learn more about their own power and the power of an organized working-class community.

Recently, we helped a tenant win a big fight against one of Omaha's most notorious slumlords in which we occupied the slumlord's office with about 20 people and were able to get over $1,000 in made up move out fees waived and $500 of the tenant's deposit back. (Do you want us to go into greater detail about that here? We recently did a long write up on that story at our Medium which I highly recommend reading. Not sure if you want to just link that or if you'd like us to make additional comments on it here. Definitely the biggest victory we've been a part of so far.

What problems do many of the tenants deal with? Would you say that the legal system is biased in favor of landlords?

A recurring problem is a lack of proper maintenance in a tenant's home. A landlord will only put in to a building what they can get out in profit, and a slumlord, already working with crumbling buildings and tenants paying low rent, lacks motivation to make any repairs at all. Living in such a building often comes with the mentality that "well, at least the rent is cheap," and slumlords take advantage of the expectation that better maintenance is just something that one has to pay more for, rather than a housing right. As a result, many tenants are living in conditions that are not merely uncomfortable, but actively dangerous to their health.

The legal system is definitely biased in favor of landlords. While there is a state statute that outlines a tenant's rights and what a landlord owes them, the only enforcement to be found is in the courts, which tenants with low income and little time cannot afford. In addition, city housing laws were drafted essentially directly by the landlords themselves, and even the ensuing weak laws are not enforced. The statutes are also written in an obtuse, self-referential way that is not easy for a busy person to understand, much less take action based upon. As a result, after reaching some familiarity with the statute, our strategy has been to outline areas in which an offending landlord is in infringement of the statute, because while a tenant can't necessarily afford to go to court, the landlord knows that it is better for them to concede a small maintenance request than to go to court for a case they most likely know they will lose.

How do landlords utilize pricing for their own financial benefit (ie increasing prices in Silicon Valley to kick out current tenants and price gouge techies?)

Gentrification is a continual problem in the city. Landlords will redevelop housing, and/or demolish and build new housing, raising the prices, which cause working-class people to be kicked out of their own neighborhoods. Occasionally a slumlord will allow a property to deteriorate to the point that it is considered "blighted," attracting public funding for redevelopment. Slumlords have used the money they've drained from working-class tenants in dilapidated buildings to redevelop or bulldoze those buildings to make way for a higher-paying demographic.

How do you help people understand that landlord-tenant relationships are not alright and are predatory?

People we talk to already understand that they are being mistreated by their landlord, and that their friends and neighbors are too. But this is seen as the way things are. We don't need to show them that landlords are exploitative, but we can help them to fight back, showing them that it doesn't have to be that way.

It's a matter of class consciousness. The relationship between landlords, particularly slumlords, and tenants, is one of the most obvious examples of class struggle we have. These landlords are profiting by charging working-class people to live in places that they would never sleep in themselves, a property that they rarely maintain, for the most part receiving passive profit for owning a place where others take shelter. It brings up the question of private property. Anyone can see this is unfair, and we try to systematize it when we have conversations with tenants. We don't want to get caught up in individualizing the systemic injustices to a given landlord, focusing on how they are evil individually; rather, we try to have conversations in terms of landlords as a class, and us, the working people, as a class that can fight back through organizing together.

First and foremost, we are an anti-capitalist organization that believes the renter-landlord system, and more generally private property as a whole, should be abolished. In the meantime however, we recognize the need to help tenants get what they can under the current system. We hope these experiences empower our fellow tenants and other working class people to begin to fight back and get organized so that the way can be paved for more fundamental revolutionary change.

Explain the day in the life of someone who is battling their landlord.

For a tenant working with us, a large part of it is about just getting to know us. When we're essentially doing cold calls (knocking on doors of places we know have problems, there's a natural hesitancy from people when random strangers walk up to your door asking about your living conditions, let alone trying when they're trying to convince you to take a big step in actually confronting your landlord about them. So we make sure to take a lot of time attempting to build a relationship with the people we interact with. This helps us build trust in each other, and feel more confident working with each other. Ultimately, we of course want to get them confident enough that they're willing to take the steps needed to get their problems resolved.

Since OTU has kind of blown up, however, we've received a big influx of people reaching out to us with issues they're already having via our Facebook page, so this eliminates some of the initial awkwardness and need for agitation, since they're obviously already agitated enough to feel the need to reach out. At this point, we set up a time to meet in a semi-public place, and learn about their situation in greater detail. Here you sometimes sort of face the opposite issue that we do when cold calling. The people who reach out are typically already pissed off and wanting to do something fast. We really have to be careful to not over promise anything, or lead them to believe that we can just magically help them fix things.

We like to be sober and honest about what our odds are, and if it's something that we might not have the capacity to deal with, we have to be honest about that and be willing to say no to certain cases. In either situation - whether it be a cold call or someone who has reached out to us - we try to be sure to walk people through exactly step by step what all of their options are, so they aren't blindsided by anything later on. We try to explain some possible outcomes, and how we would respond from each one. Based on where the tenant is at in terms of willingness to act, and based on what the situation is, we try to formulate a plan and proceed from there. While many people would maybe like to go straight to the big confrontation method like we did in our story about notorious local slumlord Dave Paladino, we generally try to escalate as necessary.

This means first setting up a meeting with the landlord, the tenant, and maybe two OTU representatives max to read off the tenant's demands in a more low-key setting and seeing how the landlord responds. There's of course always pushback, but we give the landlord a deadline by which we expect these changes to be made. If they're not made in the amount of time given, we escalate things from there. The important part is that at all steps in the process, the tenant is taking the lead.

We don't want to get out ahead of the tenant and get them into a situation they don't feel comfortable with, and on the other hand, we don't want to hold back the tenant or discourage their own initiative, even when we may have to be frank about a situation or explain how being too rash might jeopardize the entire process. We take a lot of influence from Mao Zedong and movements inspired by him that apply what is known as "the mass line", which essentially means everything we do is informed and enacted in a way that is "from the masses, to the masses."

In what ways can people learn more about your organization?

You can find us on Facebook at Omaha Tenants United. We also have Medium, where we'll be publishing our longer-form material summarizing our work and stating our positions on things. We will have our Points of Unity out soon which explain our beliefs that we expect people to uphold in order to join. While we are a multi-tendency organization, we do ask that anti-capitalism be at the forefront of one's politics (amongst other things), and that people are willing to regularly commit time to disciplined work.