Fighting Slumlords, Evictions, and Substandard Housing: Omaha Tenants United builds a radical tenants movement
In this article, Kevin Carty looks at tenant organizing in Omaha.
Talia started organizing with Omaha Tenants United for the same reason that many other renters get involved with the group: substandard housing.
“I was living in a pretty crappy apartment at that time and was really realizing the kind of situation that renters are in in Omaha,” she said. “It had bed bugs and everything … but it was cheap, so I was beginning to think what even are our options with what we can afford.” She thought: “This is kind of the best we’ve got.”
All over Omaha, poor and working class renters faced the same problem. If an apartment or house was affordable, chances are it was poorly maintained or in bad condition. If it was in good condition, odds are it was too expensive. As a result, the Omaha Community Foundation reports, 76% of Omahans living in poverty live in substandard housing or spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
In 2018, a group of socialist renters formed Omaha Tenants United to address this very problem, to help tenants unify and fight back against the landlords who control the city’s housing stock. Since then, OTU has found its greatest success organizing renters to demand concessions from landlords on things like maintenance and long overdue repairs. These concrete, if limited, victories show the power of organizing to deliver clear gains to renters. Combined with other efforts like court support, town halls, and public rallies, OTU envisions that this kind of tenant organizing can form the basis for their ultimate goal: a city-wide tenants union.
For instance, in one of its first organizing successes, OTU lent its support to a tenant living in an apartment owned by the city’s most notorious slumlord – Dave Paladino. Paladino is one of the biggest landlords and developers in the city, but he is most well known among housing activists for starring in a reality TV show called The Super, which filmed Paladino and employees as they executed evictions, argued with tenants, and managed his vast housing empire. Paladino is “the worst,” says Talia. “We never go to an apartment building that Dave Paladino owns and not have anybody that has a complaint.”
The tenant was living in one of Paladino’s apartments in the winter of 2017-2018 when the heat stopped working. Instead of paying for the necessary maintenance, the property manager gave the tenant a space heater and, several months later, served him with a vague letter threatening eviction over supposed lease violations. OTU joined the tenant to help him get the letter thrown out, and he later moved to a new apartment on his own accord. But, after moving, Paladino’s company wrote to the tenant demanding that he pay charges totaling $1,595 for back rent, cleaning, repainting, and trash removal. The tenant knew the charges were bogus, and when he arrived at a meeting with the property manager to contest them, he came with OTU representatives and a group of twenty who gathered to show their support. Not only did the tenant convince the company to drop the charges, but he negotiated for and received $500 out of his $550 security deposit.
OTU has leveraged collective action to support tenants in other cases too. In the summer of 2019, Omaha Tenants United organized with a group of tenants living in an apartment complex in the suburb of Bellevue. After their appeals to the property management company and the City Inspector failed to force the building to make needed repairs, one tenant reached out to OTU for support. Together, OTU and the tenant distributed surveys throughout the complex and began to develop a list of grievances. After meeting with as many tenants as they could, the group delivered a collective demand letter to management signed by 80% of the building’s residents. In it, they pushed for repairs to individual units, mold inspections, a fix to the laundry room which had been flooding, and a $100 rent reduction until the pool in the complex was fixed. Within a week of delivering the letter, the property management company agreed to all demands except the rent reduction – because they filled the pool with water for the first time in two years.
This effort demonstrates an important point about tenant organizing – that it can succeed where city government has failed by delivering clear material gains to renters. Through their collective action, residents forced the landlord to fix what the City Inspector had ignored. What had been unachievable through an appeal to government officials became doable through organization.
As part of their larger goal of building a city-wide tenants union, OTU sees these campaigns as a way to connect with more tenants, and as a means for activists and renters to sharpen their organizing skills. Likewise, OTU has begun organizing tenant town halls to teach these skills, share templates and examples for things like demand letters, and build solidarity among the city’s residents. In the first of these, held on October 6, tenants told organizers that they wanted lower rent and better quality housing, as well as wind and solar energy to power their homes and more privacy from their landlords. “People just want to have more control of their housing, and that is the core of what we want to get at as a tenants’ movement,” says Talia.
But building such a movement is a serious challenge, especially in a red state like Nebraska. Though the city of Omaha tends to vote more liberal than the rest of the state, the city council and its Republican mayor are overwhelmingly pro-development and pro-landlord, says Talia. For example in April of 2019, the council passed and Mayor Jean Stothert signed an ordinance requiring landlords to register their properties and submit to regular inspections. But, the measure was significantly weakened before passage so that inspections were only required once every ten years, which OTU and other tenants see as grossly insufficient.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for tenant organizing, all while making it more difficult to communicate and connect with tenants in person. Peaking at a rate of 10% in March, widespread unemployment left many Omahans unable to afford rent, and unlike some jurisdictions which have implemented strong eviction moratoriums, “evictions never stopped or really went down” in Omaha, according to Talia.
Using the same tactics as they would to force repairs or contest fees, Omaha Tenants United have been “trying to get buildings organized where there were going to be evictions… because that’s really the best defense,” Talia says. And since the Center for Disease Control issued its eviction moratorium on September 4, “we’ve really ramped up our court support efforts… There’s only one courtroom where evictions happen in Omaha, and it happens four days a week. Right now, we usually have at least one person there every day that eviction courts are happening, handing out moratorium declaration forms and letting people know about the moratorium.”
These court efforts are valuable for individual tenants because, Talia points out: “if tenants don’t show up or haven’t filled out the moratorium [declaration] form, their evictions still go through.” Some judges will inform tenants about the policy and give them time to fill out the right forms, but “most judges won’t say a word,” allowing evictions to proceed despite the CDC rule. OTU has been able to help many tenants fill out their declaration forms and forestall evictions, but when the order expires on Dec. 31, 2020, those evictions will still go forward, unless more is done to help renters.
In anticipation of that expiration, OTU connects with as many tenants in court as they possibly can, so that they have contacts for and history with the renters who may face eviction once again on January 1. And in late November, members rallied in front of city hall to push the city and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts to adopt a stronger eviction moratorium. That rally came soon after a group of 38 nonprofit organizations wrote a letter to Ricketts urging him to block evictions by executive order. Nonetheless, Ricketts would not commit to an eviction ban and is expected to let the CDC moratorium expire without any state order to replace it.
High unemployment, continuing evictions, and the looming expiration of the CDC moratorium spell a difficult winter for the residents of Omaha, but OTU intends to build on its successes and keep working toward their central goal of a city-wide tenants union. By continuing to organize buildings where they can and connecting to individual tenants through the courts, OTU is slowly but surely growing the organization. As Talia puts it: “We are a union of tenants working together with tenants, funded by our members. … We’re always going to be for tenants, we’re always going to be made up of tenants.” Or in other words, as OTU writes in their blog: “Tenants who fight together win together.”