It was hardly an unusual story in 1993 in Montgomery, Alabama. A tenant had spent months trying to get her landlord to fix a persistent leak in her roof, and one day the ceiling finally gave way. It collapsed in her child’s bedroom. The woman and her child did the only thing they could – they moved out.
The tenant’s story got worse. Not only was the family left without a home, but the landlord sued the woman for the remainder of the rent she owed. In Alabama, a lease is sacrosanct, even when the landlord puts the tenant’s life at risk.
The woman’s case led Alabama Arise, an advocacy group with membership composed largely of churches and other faith-based groups, to make a tenant protection law one of its priorities. Alabama is one of only two states, the other being Arkansas, without basic protections for renters. The proposed law would give people the right to break their lease in situations where landlords have been negligent, or to make repairs themselves and deduct the cost from their rent.
Alabama Arise has introduced legislation six times since 1993, and each time lawmakers beholden to real estate interests have refused to let the proposal out of their committee, according to Ron Gilbert, a policy analyst for the group. Since 13 of the 15 members of the legislative committee that has thwarted Alabama Arise’s efforts have received contributions from the Realtors’ political action committee, few of them are likely to be swayed by the advocates’ arguments. Many of these legislators are landlords themselves. “If you deal with any kind of issue in this state, it’s much friendlier to business interests than to consumers. That’s life in Alabama,” says Gilbert.
The organization’s first step in 1993 was to work with public interest lawyers to craft legislation comparable to what was on the books in neighboring states. But when the Realtors’ association, which represents landlords, reacted with skepticism, the advocates backed off. “We had a hard time getting the real estate agents to tell us what they didn’t like about it. They just stonewalled us,” says Kimble Forrister, who has directed Alabama Arise since 1991.
Alabama Arise took on the issue again in 1998. This time, the state homebuilders’ association, which represents the owners of large apartment buildings, agreed to a compromise version of Alabama Arise’s proposal. At first, the Realtors’ association said it would accept whatever the homebuilders suggested. But just as the bill came before the House Commerce Committee, the Realtors balked. Partly as a result, the legislation died.
In 2000, Alabama Arise’s members took a more prominent role in negotiations with Realtors and before the legislative committee. The real estate agents had at least 15 people at each negotiating session, and Alabama Arise had four or five, says Forrister. Each side brought in seven people to testify before the legislative committee.
“We tried to get diversity in terms of who we got to testify,” says Forrister. “So we had the chair of the state Habitat for Humanity board, we had tenants, we had the sweet young woman who appealed to all the legislators, and then we had the daughter of the poor old man who was mistreated by his landlord. The Realtors had owners and one lawyer whose client, a little old lady, had been mistreated by her tenants.
“We were also getting a lot of our members to make calls to the legislators on that committee. But we found that the Realtors were able to generate a lot more calls than we were. They sent out an e-mail that played fast and loose with the facts about what was in the bill.” It was the real estate agents’ own bill, which lacked basic tenant protections, that was voted out.
Alabama Arise continues to advise real estate agents and landlords that they, too, are better off with some sort of law on the books. “My theory is, you’re more likely to have this polarization between landlords and tenants where there’s no middle ground. You’ve got no law that sets out the tenants’ responsibilities,” says Forrister.
The tenant legislation is one of the six priorities that Alabama Arise’s membership identified for the next three years during its annual meeting in November. But with much of their energy focused on the other priorities, including tax reform; funding for health and child care; spending the gas tax on public transit; a death penalty moratorium; and predatory lending reform, members haven’t been able to put as much pressure on legislators to support the tenant law as they might like.
A bigger challenge is that, while Alabama Arise was founded to advocate on behalf of low-income people, most of its members are churches that don’t feel the impact of tenants’ weakness as much as tenants themselves do. Real estate interests have found it easier to organize their members against the tenant protection law, because landlords fear what would happen if tenants gained some measure of power. “They do not want to give tenants the right to take them to court,”said Forrister.
“I think our base is probably 20 percent poor people and 80 percent are well-meaning allies,” he says. “We’ve made the pitch to them that we know they’re concerned about people who have low incomes, and it’s great that they’re collecting canned goods. But people in Alabama are suffering because of unfair public policies, and they can do something about that.
“The good news is, we have a broad base to appeal to,” he says. “The bad news is, they don’t have much at stake. They say, ‘I need to get to that on Monday,’ and then they never make the call, while the real estate agents will make the call immediately because their livelihood is threatened.”
In some cases, members do in fact identify directly with tenants’ plight. Many college students involved with Alabama Arise face lousy living conditions and find it impossible to get their landlords to be responsive. In cities such as Birmingham, homeowners have expressed alarm that slumlords, who are often their neighbors, fail to maintain their properties.
Alabama Arise has been successful in getting support for its legislation from major media around the state. The Montgomery Advertiser and The Birmingham News ran front-page stories that documented the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, and endorsed the tenant protection law.
“We made public the kind of issues that tenants here suffer because they don’t have legal rights,” says Rev. Lawton Higgs Sr., whose Birmingham congregation, the Church of the Reconciler, is a member of Alabama Arise and is composed in part of homeless people. Higgs helped The Birmingham News find a homeless family to interview, which led to an article that described how the family had experienced huge water bills and couldn’t get the landlord to repair the property.
“There have probably been 8 to 12 members of our congregation who have been active in speaking out and attending meetings,” says Higgs. “They participate in Alabama Arise’s annual meetings and share their stories.” He says some of these members might not be homeless had the tenant protection law been in place.
Success can be measured in different ways, argues Gilbert, and he considers it a success that even if Alabama Arise has not yet been able to pass the law, it’s still among their priorities.