By Leslie Valentine
I wrote this in order to archive the process that took place in organizing a tenants’ union in hopes that you will learn something from our mistakes and successes. I believe all stories of resistance serve as a catalyst for a better world, helping us sharpen our methods. This story takes place on stolen land, the land of the Creeks and Cherokee peoples, currently known as Atlanta.
As I swung the front door to leave my apartment, I found a red letter taped to my door and read the words capitalized in bold: “$350.00 patio fine; we will only accept a certified check or money order; we will not under any circumstances accept next month’s rent if it does not include this amount”. I lit up with fury and came to the conclusion that this must be a mass eviction, as there has been construction noise every morning from the green, gentrification paved walking path at the steps of our apartment complex called the Beltline. It had already demolished and flattened much of Atlanta’s Black elders’ homes in the name of “eminent domain” for so-called progress. As if we hadn’t been slapped by gentrification hard enough this year, with tech’s ‘live work play’ industry taking over and most of the Los Angeles film industry relocating to Atlanta for the tax exemption the city offered them. Not to mention, the Super Bowl that was hosted here in February.
As I chain smoked outside, I thought of what my next steps were going to be. All of a sudden I noticed a lot of people in the parking lot with their red letters, and some were asking for help with translating. Even though roughly 97% of the neighborhood did not speak English, every red letter was written in English. A lot of the community members here, off of Buford Hwy, are originally from Mexico, Central and Latin American countries, China, Korea, and Vietnam.
We all came to find that we were all frustrated with the landlords long before the fines and threats of evictions happened.
After some more shit-talking and beers, I went back inside to start digging deeper. I read through the lease agreement looking for any information I could find about fines and I researched tenants’ rights in Georgia.
There’s a knock on the door, who is it so late? At the peephole is my neighbor Yami and they have some exciting news. Yami had mobilized residents at the apartment complex they lived at last year. That tenants’ union had worked alongside the grassroots tenants rights’ organization called Los Vecinos de Buford. Yami called their friend in Los Vecinos and we started to devise a plan.
Morning came. Yami and I had some coffee while creating forms to go door to door with. The forms were to gather information such as a contact, if they were given a red letter, what they planned to do about it, and issues or repairs needed in their unit. We started with our building, and gained a few helpers along the way. It took us almost into the evening to even get through a third of the doors, as the complex consists of buildings A through K and each building has anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight units. Not to mention, people had a lot to share with us. Neighbors were so happy to hear that someone cared enough to ask, even letting us in to show us the disrepair their unit was in. Folks here were paying $1100+ a month for these units and most of them are riddled with mold, have no A/C, no heat, no running water, broken water heaters, broken appliances, exposed beams, clogged water pipes, torn flooring, flooded areas, leaks, windows that don’t open or no window at all, and/or worse issues. Some folks have been living here for 5, 10, even 15+ years, some because they didn’t have the documentation to sign a lease anywhere else. And because of gentrification, rent steadily increased from $650-1100 in just under 5 years!
After canvassing, we decided to call it a day and met up at my place to put together everything we just witnessed over some dinner. We looked into who owned the property and what other properties they owned. The company is called FifeCo Properties and Fife is the owner’s last name. Yami and I decided that night to call ourselves ContraFifeCo, set up an email account and start a hashtag with it for social media purposes. We organized all of the data we compiled that day and transferred it into a Sandstorm account under a trusted server. We continued to reach out to others for guidance, and brought more friends along with us who had experience around tenant organizing and unions. Some were from IWW, and others from a group called Housing Justice League.
As exhausted as we were, the next morning we continued to canvass, posting flyers on all the doors about this evening’s first tenant meeting in the center of the apartment complex. In the afternoon, a march we planned went through the streets of the entire complex with drums, noisemakers, and megaphones in hand to show solidarity and promote the meeting. Announcing in Spanish to the onlooking neighbors on their porches, two neighbors in the march shouted “Don’t be afraid, come out and defend yourselves!”, “Fight back!”, “Unidos en la lucha!”. For some of the neighbors, it looked as though they were shocked to see us marching down the streets. After all of the work and support, it still seemed as though we had very few people from the apartments physically on board. However, at the park for the meeting, there were probably about 20 people at 6pm, and then it seemed that every five minutes, another twenty people had trickled in. By about 6:30pm we counted more than 120 people there!
It was at this first meeting that we decided to start an official tenants’ union and call ourselves Residentes Unidos (Residents United). Those who went door to door explained how exhausting it was, so instead we collectively decided that there would be 2-4 ambassadors for each building, and those delegates would ensure that info about the next gathering would get out to everyone in their building. Furthermore, we agreed to a list of demands, for the fines to be expunged, and the repairs to be made swiftly. It was also at this meeting where we devised an action for the next day, or Monday morning, when the office would re-open. Folks wanted to involve the media, so a press release was made. We rested better that night, feeling inspired and empowered.
About 30 of us in the neighborhood were able to meet up as planned, and with us were several crews of reporters. We bore rent checks in hand, marched into the leasing office, and made note on camera that the landlord was refusing to take our rent. This gave us the legal upper hand to fight against the eviction while not actually paying rent. In Georgia, if a tenant withholds rent, that is grounds for immediate eviction. The property management at the leasing office was particularly hostile this morning, shouting at us to get out and mocking us. One of the leasing agents said that they would call the cops and another said that they would contact their lawyer if we didn’t stop filming them. And then the cops arrived.
We were 30 deep and most had children, and/or were undocumented. In a quick response of compassion, we made sure everyone knew that it was perfectly alright if anyone had to step back, go home, and that there would be no judgment. Everyone nodded in agreement as we could hear the cop car doors slam just around the bend. And as they inched closer, to our surprise, nobody flinched. All of the residents stood grounded, feet planted, and chins high. We linked together arm and arm, and smiled at each other. It was an honor to be here experiencing this moment where solidarity was with us and it didn’t really even matter to us what happened next. And then silence broke. Folks arm in arm started shouting at the cops that what is happening here is injustice, some explaining the outrageous fines, and another stating that property management had blamed the issuance of the fine on the city. Neighbors asked why the city had fined the apartment complex for having children’s toys, non-metal patio furniture, and bicycles on the porches. And then a cop actually responded that the city doesn’t have the authority to fine residents on private property for their porch items. Residentes Unidos were lit with validation and rage!
The cops then entered the leasing office, where property management was to explain their side of the story. Two minutes had not even passed before the manager opened the door and said, with a shaky voice and wide eyes, that the fines would be dropped. Someone shouted back, “What about the late fees for this month’s rent?” The manager replied that there would be no late fees, which by the way was $100 for each day that it was late. Folks started cheering about the dropped fines and feeling alleviated about not facing an eviction after all!
We converged at the park to celebrate our first victory!
As the weeks passed, we continued to gather, chat on the thread, and gain comrades. We helped one another set up email accounts to give the apartment complex horrible reviews online and post the pictures of all of the many issues, one of which was a photo of the condemned sign that states no one is to be residing in this building.
Residentes Unidos were emboldened now to demand that repairs be met promptly. Tenants’ rights organizers spoke about steps that the residents could take to ensure that the repairs are made, and that the property management be held accountable. By giving the leasing office notice that the repairs will be met within a “reasonable time”, which can be just twenty-four hours, the residents were able to file complaints to the local city code enforcement agency when they did not meet this reasonable time. The city would then fine the landlord for each day that the repair was late which could be upwards of $200 a day. That evening we convened at Yami’s place to create forms for this ‘notice of due diligent repairs’ (which were in Spanish, and did not have to be legally translated in English for the landlord). This was purposefully done as a jab, just as how the lease agreement was only provided in English.
These complaints had to be supported by physical evidence, like photos and/or videos of the damages. It was also awfully specific about what constitutes a repair that can be supported by the city vs a repair that required assistance by the county or state. For instance, if one had cockroaches, they had to contact the health and safety department. If one had a sewage problem, this complaint had to be directed at the county. Furthermore, the tenant had to be available for a walk-through home visit. More often, there was very little prior notice given for the visit, and if there was any notice, no specific time slot would be given; folks were literally expected to just be available or start all over with this process. Not only that, but when they did show up, they looked like the fucking feds, they were literally dressed as and had the demeanor of police, I mean, they are called Code Enforcement after all.
This was terrifying to many tenants. It was such an arduous process that rarely was followed through to the final step of reaching the landlords to actually make the repairs. Although, the few times this did actually occur, it was pretty satisfying seeing them scramble to make the repairs. And it kept them on their toes and busy enough for us to keep hitting them where it hurt and devise the next steps. The point was to never allow the landlords a moment of time to think rationally whatsoever, we want them making mistakes and fumbling at all times.
We met about 2-3 times a week from this point on and together we made everything happen. Folks posed questions on the thread and in the meetings when they needed help, and everyone was gladly willing to offer guidance. There was such a beautiful culture of solidarity in what became a compassionate community. When property management put up security cameras around the dumpsters to police the amount of trash each person threw out, the lines were mysteriously cut…twice. And when one of the most enthusiastic and outspoken people in the tenants’ union faced an eviction in retaliation, folks came to court to support when they contested the eviction. In this case, they won by proving that the timeline of exerting their rights with the tenants’ union against Fifeco’s violations was the catalyst for this retaliatory eviction. They settled for a good sum of cash, free rent until their lease ended, and then they happily moved.
The tenants’ union still exists and is even stronger now than it was last year. They’ve joined forces with the tenants of the other Fifeco properties and have helped them in making similar demands.
As soon as you move into an apartment complex, if there isn’t a tenants’ union, start one. Most likely, you or your neighbor will need one. And we would have had a quicker response and a greater advantage if all of the organizing aspects were already formed and not forming in the time of crisis, which was extremely stressful and left most of us without sleep. We got lucky in many ways that folks had been fired up individually for a long time and that so many of us were collectively affected. Secondly, don’t waste too much time looking for legal advice. There is so much you can do without it; direct action is really really effective. And lastly, always let people collectivize themselves. I provided helpful tools but I ultimately stepped back often. I hardly even spoke at the meetings, I just listened and supported. I had not even lived there a full year yet, and many others had been there four to nine years. They need to be the loudest voices, the ones that decide on the intensity of the resistance.
“Unidos en la lucha!”
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