Thicket Tenants Organize with Houston Tenants Union

Thicket Tenants Organize with Houston Tenants Union:

Houston Tenants Union has concluded its first organizing campaign at the Thicket Apartments in the Greenspoint area in Northwest Houston. Four months after delivering tenants’ demands signed by over 50 residents at The Thicket, the outcomes of this five-month campaign cannot be reduced to a simple win or loss. While some of us have experience organizing tenants towards collective action, taking on such an ambitious campaign of this scale was a first for everyone, and has made us a stronger union as we continue to organize with tenants for the common good. Our organizing efforts at The Thicket resulted in some hard-fought and meaningful concessions from the apartment managers, but also revealed limitations in our capacity to maintain focus on solidarity and direct action as pressures mount elsewhere. We became too deeply involved in the difficult and tedious legal process of fighting evictions, though we recognize that this has been a first step for other groups taking up tenant unionism, like Stomp Out Slumlords in Washington DC. These experiences have brought us into contact with the ridiculous toil and heartache of fighting housing violence and eviction in court, and has only strengthened our resolve and wherewithal towards building a citywide Tenants Union.

Through our experiences at The Thicket we have learned the following: The landlord/tenant laws in Texas virtually prohibit legal avenues for holding landlords accountable. Daily small abuses and outright violence go uncontested and thus undeterred. Courts are well-oiled machines manufacturing dispossession at great profit to the landlord. Finally, and most importantly, community and direct action will upset these structures. It is our intention here to describe our efforts organizing at The Thicket for those who might join us or who may want to organize on their own with their neighbors and with the support of tenant unionists across Houston. If you are compelled at all or have experienced these instances of abuse and neglect that are all-too common, please engage with HTU further. Greenspoint:

HTU sought to organize this campaign in Greenspoint for a few reasons. First, this area of North Houston has been characterized by repeated cycles of reverse-gentrification and white flight. A story Houston knows all too well, oil rich housing developments have run dry in Greenspoint following years of chronic disinvestment, particularly since Exxon Mobil closed its campus in 2015. Many apartment complexes built in Greenspoint in the 80’s and 90’s have fallen into unmitigated disrepair and have been repopulated by black and brown people that have been pushed out of their neighborhoods facing gentrification. Places like Greenspoint are often overlooked when people think of housing and tenant issues in Houston and instead consider the doom facing some of Houston’s gentrifying neighborhoods inside the 610 loop such as Third Ward, Eastside/Second Ward, Fifth Ward and the Near Northside. Thus, we sought to address exploitation and abuse in this area facing waves of ‘natural’ devaluation and deteriorating infrastructure, instead of other more visible fights taking place where the contours of Houston’s demographic and economic landscape come up against the ambitions of white investment.

Second, there is a concentration of tenants that face significant economic and housing insecurity that might be encouraged to organize. Only 16% of properties in Greenspoint are single-family homes, indicating the propensity of housing infrastructure built for tenancy in Greenspoint. Further, 85% of Greenspoint residents are tenants, many of whom live in multi-building apartment complexes where numerous families contend with one property manager or landlord and encounter similar living conditions resulting from the same neglect. We see the most advantage in building long-term organs of tenant power in such spaces where tenant committees and union locals can independently fight on their own terms and as a part of a broader tenant union apparatus across the city.

Third, since HTU’s formation, members native to Greenspoint have been especially enthusiastic about finding and taking on fights in their neighborhood, which led us to The Thicket in October of 2019. We believe that potential tenant unionists who want to organize in the areas where they live are at a strategic advantage for their familiarity with the terrain and their ability to build the strength of community necessary for successful tenant organizing. The determination of the HTU Greenspoint Local over the past months has been remarkable, and has drawn the focus and work of tenants across Houston towards collective action at The Thicket.

May Salvatierra, Thicket Apartments Manager

The Thicket:

On Friday, November 15th, 2019, tenants at The Thicket apartment complex in Greenspoint gathered with other tenant unionists from across Houston to deliver their list of demands to the leasing office. Over the previous weeks, residents who had become tenant organizers canvassed the apartments with members of the Houston Tenants Union to build a union of residents in rightful defense of their health and well being. Residents at The Thicket demanded that management immediately address health hazards in their homes caused by aggressive infestation, mold, and disrepair, which had been ignored for months. Over 50 residents signed the letter to affirm these common demands, and to support the specific demands of tenants that had suffered heinous neglect or outright violence from the apartment manager, May Salvatierra and her staff. While this was a joyful moment and the result of weeks of organizing with residents and community building, it was also the point at which we were diverted from the path we had intended, and instead began the painful tedium of fighting these retaliatory evictions in court.

We had first encountered tenants at the Thicket in October 2019 and found horrific conditions. One Sunday afternoon, a handful of HTU members canvassed the entire complex and found homes that were nearly inhospitable. HTU spoke with tenants who shared unforgettable descriptions of severe and destructive infestation, children exposed to hazards, and unmitigated disregard for tenants’ wellbeing. While we were pleased to speak with so many tenants that were vocal about what they were enduring, we often felt overwhelmed. Multiple women told graphic stories of harassment and assault by a maintenance man related to, and protected by, the management of the complex. A disabled tenant, who would eventually become a leader in the campaign was given a constant runaround when he repeatedly asked for basic ADA compliant access to his apartment. Most tenants we encountered had grievances of pests, broken appliances, no A/C or heat, and a number of issues that made their apartments unlivable. We told people about a first tenants meeting and continued canvassing, flyering, and documented some of the conditions we observed and that were described to us. We received some call-backs as well which brought us more stories which continued to confirm that the tenants who lived at The Thicket lived under similar conditions and shared grievances against property management. We pressed on and met with a smaller group of tenants than we anticipated considering all the feedback we got while canvassing. We facilitated a process through which three enthusiastic tenants quickly made an initial list of demands which would grow as we continued to solicit support and input. Tenants organizers at The Thicket along with HTU canvassed the complex again and gathered support for this initiative using this initial letter. Some fifty tenants signed and contributed to this letter and demanded that management promptly remove health risks posed by infestation, mold, and disrepair. Several tenants under especially heinous conditions wrote specific demands such as installing accommodations for handicapped residents as required by the ADA, and that they fire an employee that had been repeatedly accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment.

At this point, the campaign had grown to a scale beyond which we had ever organized, and our lack of experience with larger multi-tenant campaigns would cause us to stumble. We were also overwhelmed by the amount of grievances and found entire buildings willing to sign on to the demand letter. We would come to find later that a shortage of labor was holding us back and kept us from continuing to inoculate and meet and strategize with tenants at The Thicket. This effort required more than the half dozen organizers with HTU who had been out there and just a handful that was able to get out and meet with residents regularly. We were big-eyed and excited, but had bitten off more than we could chew. We were happy to hear reports of our flyers being taken to management and elated to be told that some things had already been fixed, such as lights that lit the pathways between buildings and parking lots as tenants would demand. We quickly moved forward to the demand delivery stage. We got in touch with LA Tenants Union to coordinate delivery of the demands to the owners of the Thicket, Narayan and Vishnu Jalan, to their Diamond broker business in Downtown LA, along with the demand delivery to the Thicket property management in Houston. At 4pm we assembled, demand letter in-hand, and spoke with each other while we waited for the school bus so one of the organizers’ children could stand with us. More than 20 of us marched on the management office while other residents saw us and took step alongside in curiosity or support of their neighbors. Happily, the group of us met the property manager to read the demands just as she was leaving her office to go home for the weekend. In the immediate presence of tenants who had made them, the demands were read aloud and handed to the property manager, who then threw demands to the ground. At that moment, comrades with the Los Angeles Tenants Union hand delivered the same demand letter to the owners of this complex.

We were optimistic and emboldened after hearing from tenants that management had already started repairs while we were still canvassing and initially believed that our campaign would be a success. Three days later we received an email from Salvatierra indicating that they had met several of the demands over the weekend, such as installation of security lights, cleaning of common and pool areas, and had started to address infestation and much needed repairs. We were also pleased to hear that management had met the specific demands of a key tenant organizer by making his apartment wheelchair accessible, as required by the ADA.

The feeling of victory was sweet, but short lived, as later that day, that same tenant organizer reported having received an eviction notice which had been filed one day before the demand letter was delivered. We also learned that an eviction had been filed against another tenant who specifically demanded immediate relocation to another unit from his current unit, which had been overtaken by mold following damage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 that had not been repaired two years later. These tenants and organizers with HTU believe that these evictions were acts of retaliation against the organizers who spoke out on behalf of the dozens of their neighbors that shared their complaints and signed the demand letter. An attorney and friend outside of HTU offered to defend our fellow tenants which now faced eviction and thousands of dollars in back-rent and attorney’s fees.

Into the Eviction Factory:

We continued to support tenants facing eviction at the Thicket, especially those who had organized with us and participated previously. We did learn a lot about the feedback loop between apartment managers and eviction courts in Northwest Houston. This is a well oiled machine which clearly accounted for one of the highest concentration of evictions after Harvey. These were likely all situations like at the Thicket, the tenant is evicted because it is easier than ethically relocating them or making repairs when the apartment is condemnable and inhospitable. The exact rate goes up and down, but landlords win 91-97% of evictions in Houston. Being able to keep evictions off the records of tenants as well as thousands of dollars in waived court fees, registry payments and paybacks, and a number of other resources, was a great thing to help with, but as tenant organizers we know justice cannot be found in the courts. However, this experience is also of great value to us, a legal orientation will be needed for tenant-organizers who face retaliation in the future. Still, we have only been confirmed in our decision upon founding that we are not a primary legal resource for tenants, we are tenants helping tenants. We do thank all of our members and supporters who donated to the legal costs of the Thicket tenants who faced eviction in the past few months. Reflections:

The demand delivery could have been planned better and we were expecting a slightly larger turn out from tenants. For some of this, it was the largest such action we had seen as organizers, or for some of us, even entirely the first one. A great deal of energy was there from us, but the degree of participation from tenants varied. We had a smaller group of tenants who we spent a good amount of time with, and as a result participated more, but some did not seem prepared for the direct confrontation with management. In addition to not having inoculated the tenants enough, we did not spend enough time strategizing around the demands, particularly the sheer amount and detail of them, and the general winnability of them. We also had not prepared ourselves for the fact that the two main tenant-organizers would be facing eviction, which the Thicket management had filed for in the week prior to the demand delivery. One of the tenants was planning to leave and another wanted to stay. This also was not taken into account when formulating demands and strategizing, different tenants had different stakes and wanted different things out of the campaign.

The response of the management to the demand delivery and escalation was mixed as well. They responded formally, made excuses, refuted some demands and agreed to others, even when at the confrontation, they had promised to meet some of them over the weekend. Later reports from tenants said these promises stopped being followed through, or never began in the first place. We continued to get reports from tenants about the problems, with some apartments that were shown to us having had the locked simply changed, when the apartment was inhabitable when we saw it. The tenant was forced to abandon everything they had and move in with friends, and likely will have an eviction on their record, because of a ceiling collapsing in their bathroom. This news discouraged us from continuing to escalate, and explained to us that we needed to rethink the scale of what we had taken on, and what it would take to win. We had to face the realization that this campaign could not be called any sort of victory as it looked more and more unlikely that the Thicket management would meet the demands. Although we would continue to support tenants and attempt to stay in touch before moving on, especially in some of the eviction legal defense that would come. We have grown and stuck together through a difficult and large campaign, on a scale which was a first for all of us, and we know that there are no total losses. We provided some meaningful material support for tenant-organizers, had a mixed but instructive practice in direct action, and have largely stuck together and strengthened our bonds as comrades through an extremely challenging campaign. We also cannot dispense with the fact that we forced significant concessions out of the Thicket in court and were able to block them from carrying out evictions. This is knowledge which will come in handy in Houston, as the Thicket is one of many eviction factories in Houston. We will never forget the look on the face of tenant-organizers from the Thicket who experienced this for the first time, the glow on them and all of us shined bright as we celebrated afterwards, at that point it was enshrined forever, the union is our way! The strength of Tenants Unions lies in the solidarity of our class in common conflict with the people who own our homes. Landlords dictate the limits of our relationship with these spaces where we eat, sleep, and raise our children, and do so at great profit through the threat of dispossession. When the landlord and managers of The Thicket threatened our comrades with eviction, we were diverted from the route of strength in community and firmness of action and were pushed towards the individualizing and oppressive process of defending our right to live in peace in the courtroom. Disentangling the labyrinthine and impossibly slanted set of laws that we encountered through this process frustrated us to no end. However, what we have learned through this campaign is incredibly valuable towards appreciating the absolute need for Tenants Unions, and towards equipping our fellows facing housing exploitation to take a range of measures in defense of the health and wellbeing of their families and communities at large. Towards this end, we here share some of the insights we have gained in order to encourage and equip the reader to undertake campaigns and to reflect and improve our own capacity. Programmatic steps forward: 1. A Tenant Union can take up Solidarity Network-type campaigns, but this has serious limitations as you scale up. Our previous experiences in solidarity networks do not necessarily translate into trying to organize a tenants union, these are fundamentally two different things. While a Tenant Union can take up Solidarity Network like tactics and campaigns with tenants, which may be more like our future campaign work, multi-tenant campaigns in one building that endeavor to stretch as far and wide as possible require more labor, more time, and a higher degree of intensity and regular involvement. The wash and repeat strategy that we love so much from Solidarity Networks does not always apply, even if this strategy is still useful to us and as a tenant union, the kind of work that Solidarity Networks do is still on the table. 2. We will find no justice in the courts and should avoid any illusion that this is probable. Although we found a lot of relief in our success this time around, we witnessed “the eviction factory” that sends a constant feedback loop, like a well-oiled machine, and are designed against us. We do need a legal orientation, as tenant-organizers often face retaliation in the form of eviction, even before they come to us. However eviction defense campaigns are labor intensive, sensitive, and not on a political terrain where we can win. It is way more difficult than organizing around existing grievances before this process has already begun. Going forward, we need to be conscious of what eviction defense entails, our decision that we are not primarily a legal resource, and that court is not somewhere where the class can fight back in a sustainable way. 3. We need more labor for large multi-tenant campaigns, especially if grievances and energy are time-sensitive. We needed more time to organize, but the clock was also ticking on the tenant-organizers. A handful of organizers cannot deeply build the bonds necessary to get a good feeling for what fifty unorganized tenants really want and need, and what the best strategy is around that. This is a labor intensive process for which organizing strategy designed for a handful of organizers on a campaign with one or a few tenants will not suffice. There is a great demand out there for us, it is completely possible to get entirely too deep, go way too long, and completely blow your capacity. Going forward, we want to take on campaigns that are a proportional size to our core organizers, and build up to this kind of larger fight. 4. More training, more protocol, more preparedness, more experience. This was a first for everyone, either first organizing experience overall, or our first campaign this size. We all lacked experience. We spent every moment asking each other “what is the next step?” and at multiple points, completely dropped the ball and overlooked things. There is room for error and learning in organizing, however we need to make every effort to mitigate the negative impact of these mistakes by avoiding them entirely. This means having as much in place as possible, without having to entirely revert to a perfect “one size fits all” strategy. We are greatly improving our training regimen and making better curriculum, we are adjusting our internal strategy, and doing everything we can to make the most of this campaign. We are all better organizers from this experience, so we want to consolidate this experience and pass it on.

In the meantime, the Thicket Apartments have earned an entry on our Wall of Shame. This is reserved for landlords and management which we ultimately have to advise against tenants from renting at on a permanent basis.

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