Victory in a tenant organizing campaign is usually defined by improving conditions for the tenants involved – an egregious repair problem is fixed, landlord interactions improve, or the building changes hands to a better owner. For the tenants of the Lake in the Woods apartment complex in Louisville, KY, however, victory has been a little harder to define. Since they took their story public in 2001, the tenants have achieved both more and less than they set out to – sparking a strategy shift in the regional tenant support organization.
In spring 2001, Amanda Kreps-Long, director of the Louisville Tenant Association (LTA), and the rest of her staff were getting frustrated. Tenants from Lake in the Woods were calling the tenant counseling numbers in huge numbers to report maintenance problems: backed-up toilets, non-functioning refrigerators, faucets that wouldn’t turn off, holes in the wall and on and on. Such problems are par for the course for a tenant counselor. What was unusual – and frustrating – in this case was that although the tenants followed all of LTA’s advice about filing complaints and going through appropriate legal channels, nothing was changing.
The owner, Garey Higdon of River City Properties, was unresponsive, and the investigation of housing code violations was the responsibility of the seriously understaffed Jefferson County Health Department, which had no authority to actually levy fines. Reporting problems to the agency had little effect. “Clearly, if you’ve got West Nile Virus, housing department violations are going to the bottom of the pile,” says Kreps-Long. In addition, the department’s antiquated computer system had no way of tracking repeat offenders, so the massive number of complaints from Lake in the Woods wasn’t being treated as part of a larger problem.
Nonetheless, in February 2001, Higdon was brought to court on the mounting violations. He avoided fines by merely promising to keep the particular apartments in question up to code. There were no follow-up inspections, and while some violations were corrected, others cropped up and the overall pattern of neglect remained the same.
By summer 2001, “we started to tell them to organize their neighbors and go to the press,” says Kreps-Long. And they did. With the help of LTA and Legal Aid, the tenants got together, took pictures, showed up at an August hearing of the county’s fiscal court and began working with reporters. The Louisville Courier-Journal had already launched an investigation into code violations and River City, and Lake in the Woods became a prominent feature of the story.
The tenants and housing advocates had another ally along with the media. County Commissioner Dolores Delahanty, whose district included Lake in the Woods, was struck by the horrible conditions that tenants described at the August hearing. She organized a series of health department sweeps late that month, which uncovered hundreds of violations. Other problems that had languished for months were fixed at the last minute before inspectors arrived, according to the Courier-Journal. Nonetheless, the health department’s limited resources still kept the county from being able to conduct thorough follow-ups or bring the complex entirely up to code.
The Courier-Journal’s October 2001 three-day exposé, “Renting Trouble,” was a public relations nightmare not only for River City Properties, but also for the county. Reporter R.G. Dunlop had discovered that River City owned less than 4 percent of rental units in the county, but accounted for 27 percent of complaints. The newspaper had hired a retired housing inspector to do an independent assessment of several River City buildings. The inspector found hundreds of violations, including serious health and safety hazards. Some violations that Higdon had been brought to court for had not been fixed. The third day of the series showcased the failings of the county’s attempts at code enforcement.
Changing the Code
It was becoming all too clear that Jefferson County’s code enforcement was not up to the task of handling Lake in the Woods, and Commissioner Delahanty suggested revising the code. With the strong support of housing advocates and tenants (and various county agencies), she launched an effort to overhaul the property maintenance code, bringing it more in line with the city of Louisville’s stronger version and drawing on international model codes. In the new version, housing inspections are carried out by the Department of Inspections, Permits, and Licenses, rather than the Health Department. Fines have been raised, and, most importantly, inspectors are empowered to levy fines on the spot, without going through the court system. Court damages can be either civil or criminal, rather than just criminal, making prosecutions more feasible.
Revision was a slow process, says Kreps-Long, but not a particularly contentious one. The publicity had made everyone – except, it seems, River City – feel there was a need for change. The Apartment Association, a trade organization of landlords, was initially concerned that the new code would mean their members could face fines for minor things like weeds, but they were supportive once those fears were allayed. Tenants came out to a few more hearings in support of the new code, which passed in November 2002. Enforcement will be the key to the new ordinance, but it carries promise.
The timing of the revision was eleventh hour. In early January 2003, Louisville and Jefferson County merged, and all county ordinances superseded city ones. Voters approved the merger – which vaulted Louisville’s ranking to the country’s 16th largest city – in November 2000, on the argument that it would strengthen the city’s economic prospects and allow it to plan in a more coordinated way. However, there were concerns about the city’s loss of autonomy and political representation. If the new county housing code hadn’t passed, those critics would have had an early example to point to, as the city’s inspection practices would have been weakened. The city might have begun to face problems like the county faced with Lake in the Woods.
Too Little, Too Late
But residents of Lake in the Woods aren’t feeling particularly celebratory. In February 2002, while the new code was under discussion, River City sold the complex to another owner, identified as Lake in the Woods LLC, and LTA began receiving calls from tenants again that spring. Amazingly, says Kreps-Long, the new owner, Avram Cimerring, was even worse. Admittedly, there were a lot of inherited long-term problems and deferred maintenance with the building, but Kreps-Long says Cimerring’s behavior constituted extreme neglect. The new owner wasn’t paying the mortgage or the water bills. Repairs – in the rare instances they happened – were of the absurdly superficial variety: newspaper and some plaster over a large hole in the wall, for example. “I was flabbergasted,” she recalls.
Another round of inspections occurred in April, and a court case was heard last summer. Meanwhile, conditions were driving tenants out of the building. Other tenants stopped paying rent in protest. The number of people leaving made it hard to keep organizing, says Kreps-Long. No formal association had emerged that could carry the torch.
By the time the new code had passed, the building had gone into receivership. Many who had stopped paying rent have been evicted, and only a handful of tenants remains. The complex needs $3 million in repairs, and the mortgage debt is larger than the value of the property. The receiver is making a good faith effort to improve conditions, but he doesn’t have the money to do much of what needs to be done. There’s some talk of a nonprofit taking over the property, says Kreps-Long, but the cost is staggering.
It’s no small achievement that a big-picture win emerged from the struggles of individual Lake in the Woods tenants to make their apartments habitable. But Kreps-Long is not willing to accept that things had to get so bad before such change was possible. The experience has moved the LTA to place more resources into proactive organizing, and to speculate that an earlier start might have made a difference. “The tenants did the hard work, and we really learned the benefits of organizing,” she says. Next time around, perhaps Jefferson County tenants will win both the war and the battle.