The fight over affordable housing has been a long one already for Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia – United Renters for Justice – a tenant advocacy group working mostly in South Minneapolis. They’ve been working on the issue since 2014, but as debate around the city’s housing crisis grows hotter in City Hall, the organization sees an opportunity to elevate their crusade for better living conditions and landlord accountability. They want tenants to take their rightful seat at the table in discussions surrounding city development.
United Renters’ work started four years ago in the Lyndale neighborhood, an effort to discuss housing issues among a small crowd of Latino renters, who detailed their lonely struggle with landlords and management companies. “There was a deep, deep isolation that existed,” said United Renters co-director Roberto de la Riva.
Over the years, regular tenant meetings have been fundamental to United Renters’ organizing effort. That’s because they give tenants the chance to see they’re not alone in their complaints over unmended appliances, pest infestations, rising rents and evictions. Instead of isolated incidents, tenants started to see patterns — that people in other neighborhoods renting apartments from different landlords or companies were seeing the same things.
In 2015, a group of 20 tenants organized by United Renters sued their landlord for violating a federal housing discrimination law. It became the first of many actions. Since then, the organization has stopped evictions, prevented rent increases, and returned an estimated $200,000 to tenants through lawsuits and settlements, de la Riva said.
As a grant-funded nonprofit headquartered on Chicago Avenue, the group is governed by a board made up of renters who shape the overall vision and direction of their work. United Renters wants to see everyone in “safe, affordable, dignified housing,” which they view as a human right, said Carlos Palma, a board member.
A small staff of six continues to focus on building communities of renters who work together to address needed repairs and negotiate with landlords. They’ve led a well-publicized fight against a notorious landlord, Stephen Frenz, who lost his rental licenses last year. This summer, after a court-appointed administrator finished repairs needed to pass city inspections, Frenz, who tried unsuccessfully to sell five properties in the Corcoran neighborhood, ordered tenants at the five properties to move out, according to United Renters.
On Thursday, several activist groups working on affordable housing in Minneapolis partnered with United Renters to host another Corcoran block party designed to rally neighbors around an effort to keep their homes. As organizers set up grills and kids unpacked tubs of paint supplies, coloring books, and stickers in front of two Apartment Shop buildings on 22nd Avenue South, de la Riva made his rounds, greeting tenants and their children before catching up with a woman scheduled to speak later about her support for forming a tenant cooperative.
Tackling systemic issues
As they’ve grown and organized, United Renters has also pivoted to tackle the systemic issues they see in the way Minneapolis approaches affordable housing and city development. One of those issues is the lack of inspectors, de la Riva said. In Minneapolis, “Tier 1” buildings are considered well-maintained and managed are only inspected every eight years, but they contain some of the biggest problems. Meanwhile, neighborhood associations cater primarily to homeowners, neglecting tenants who make up a significant portion of residents.
In the beginning, “there were some invisible layers that we had to uncover,” de la Riva said. Now, affordable housing is getting more attention, and it was a major part of city political campaigns last year. “There’s not a council member whose not talking about the issue.”
Earlier this month, Minneapolis Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison met with renters to outline their plan for a renter’s bill of rights. At the meeting, Ellison acknowledged activists have led the way on tenant issues and said it’s time for the city “ to step up.”
Forming tenant cooperatives is another example of the larger changes United Renters wants to make. They’re also pushing for rent control because “they keep raising rent but not wages,” Palma said. “Housing shouldn’t be a commodity.”
De la Riva said every building where they’re working with tenants is “potentially up for sale.” Tenants don’t want the future of their homes left to the speculative market, even if they were to be designated as affordable housing units. Despite stereotypes that renters are transient, tenants working with United Renters have ties to their communities and want to stay. If they could buy the buildings, they dream about adding solar panels and gardens, providing childcare, and meeting other needs.
“Home is so connected to so many different issues. It’s where we feel safe,” Palma said. If people who are already struggling in their finances, health, or relationships also have to figure out how to deal with an unresponsive or abusive landlord, “they can’t get ahead – can’t succeed.”