The tenants at Portland’s Allen Fremont Plaza painted a visceral picture of neglect. Bug infestations, broken elevators, nonresidents “camping” in the common spaces throughout the building, and a working bathroom shortage that left elderly tenants defecating in the hallways are among the indignities described in lawsuits the tenants filed in June. The 65-unit building is owned by Reach Community Development, one of the largest community development corporations operating in Oregon and Southern Washington. The nonprofit organization is a longtime affordable housing developer and housing manager in the area, and has over 2,700 housing units in its portfolio.
As reported in a story by the Willamette Week, the residents who filed the lawsuits alleged that living conditions at the Allen Fremont Plaza deteriorated after ownership of the building was transferred to Reach seven years ago.
This is the opposite of what should happen when a nonprofit owns and manages housing. After all, most nonprofit housing providers operate—and acquire their funding—based on the promise of providing safe and reliable housing for people who’ve been priced out of their local market. In today’s rental housing landscape, where tenants regularly suffer rent hikes of over 40 percent and deal with structural neglect that’s sometimes intentional—as a means of getting the tenants to clear out so that the landlord can renovate and re-list their units at a higher price—nonprofits are the presumed good guys: mission-driven and unmotivated by industrial greed.
The nonprofit sector does play a critical role in offering alternatives to market-rate housing. By the early 1990s, nonprofits were developing 20,000 to 30,000 new units of housing stock annually. And tenants who live in nonprofit-owned rental housing are generally spared from no-fault evictions and seismic rent hikes. But the lawsuits waged by the tenants at Allen Fremont Plaza point to a sometimes more complicated reality on the ground. When a nonprofit landlord strays from its mission, allowing tenants’ quality of life to corrode, tenants and their advocates can find themselves in scenarios that are fairly similar to organizing against for-profit landlords: with some twists.
Mission vs. Management
Zafiro Patino, a tenant organizer working with Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), has seen the ways in which nonprofits can offer stability and hope for tenants. One of the organization’s more recent victories involved persuading a landlord to sell their market-rate property to a nonprofit, rather than evicting tenants or displacing them by increasing the rent to the point where tenants would choose to “self-evict” and leave.
But the success of a housing transfer like this one is partially contingent on sustained trust and respect between the tenants and their nonprofit landlord. If a nonprofit fails to operate housing with empathy and consideration for the residents, that trust is broken.
Sometimes the management company that’s been hired to run a building is not familiar with the mission of the nonprofit that owns the building.
Sometimes the problem is a matter of a third party. “Sometimes the management company that’s been hired to run a building is not familiar with the mission of the nonprofit that owns the building,” Patino says. “The management might not have an understanding of who the tenants are, or what their needs are. Sometimes the tenants don’t have an easy way to report poor conditions in the apartments. There can be a lot of bureaucracy that makes it harder for these tenants to get important things repaired quickly.” Patino has heard an increasing number of these complaints from Boston tenants who live in nonprofit housing.
“The goodwill that the nonprofit might have acquired can be frittered away if their tenants don’t feel respected: to the point where the nonprofit can end up looking like any other landlord. We don’t want that,” says Steve Meacham, Patino’s colleague and an organizing coordinator with CLVU. “One of the problems with nonprofits hiring management companies or lawyers that aren’t aligned with their social mission is that the arena of tenant participation gets put aside, for the goal of running an operation without any upsets.”
Negotiations between tenant organizers and underperforming nonprofits can sometimes yield good outcomes, but also pose a tricky challenge for the organizers. It’s one thing to negotiate with a market landlord, coming into the discourse from an adversarial place. But how do you tackle subpar housing management when the party at fault is a strategic ally?
Avoiding open conflict by appealing to the nonprofit’s status can be an effective first step for organizers to take. As Meacham and Patino see it, talking with nonprofits about the importance of enshrining tenant participation in the operation of housing can have two benefits. Not only can this lead to better outcomes in mediation between tenants and nonprofit landlords, it could also help prevent such conflicts from breaking out downstream. Conversations about tenant participation and the inevitability of bumps in the road in a healthy tenant-landlord relationship can be initiated long before a nonprofit begins operating newly built or acquired rental housing.
City Life/Vida Urbana tenant advocates have been discussing the topic, for example, with Center Street Partners, a trio of nonprofit developers that are currently redeveloping the Mildred C. Hailey public housing units in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. That redevelopment encompasses both new units for existing residents who make around 30 percent of area median income and additional units at varying levels of affordability. Meacham says that range of incomes will hopefully “make for a much more robust and inclusive tenant association compared to other developments owned by private for-profit entities, where the additional housing being built is high end.”
The Centre Street Partners includes two local community development corporations that CLVU trusts, as they have a long-standing commitment to affordable housing in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury and CLVU knows their track record. Meacham reports that as of now, “I think that there are a lot of paper agreements between the tenant association [at Mildred C. Hailey], the Centre Street Partners, and the Boston Housing Authority. Greater Boston Legal Services pays special attention to getting enforceable agreements about tenant participation.”
Whether it happens preemptively or as a response to managerial issues, the conversations that Meacham, Patino, and fellow organizers have had with nonprofit landlords are arguably the best-case scenario. It’s an early stage means of preventing nonprofit landlords from allowing property to fall into extreme disrepair or establishing an internal culture in which tenants are disrespected and treated poorly.
But sometimes the roots of a nonprofit’s mistreatment of tenants run deeper than misunderstanding tenants’ needs or hiring the wrong property managers.
Organizing Access Challenges
Throughout the pandemic, Nicolás Vargas has been in the trenches of eviction prevention. An organizer with Brooklyn Eviction Defense—a union of tenant associations—Vargas has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of which landlords own which properties in the city and he has many stories of dealing with nonprofit landlords that appear to him to have absorbed the paternalism and mistrust upon which much of the United States’ social support is built.
One of the things Brooklyn Eviction Defense does is go door-to-door to give tenants who are about to be evicted information about what they should do next. The team uses housing court data and Google Maps to identify neighborhoods with a concentration of high-priority tenants, “for example, places where a marshal was going to arrive in five days” to carry out an eviction, Vargas says. One day, Vargas found himself visiting three buildings owned by nonprofits (he doesn’t now remember which ones). At one, “you had to buzz in at a gate in front of the building, and then again at a door to the reception area,” Vargas says. “So I checked in with the security guard at the front desk, introducing myself as a tenant advocate and explaining that I was there to give a tenant information about an eviction case. The guard made a call and told me I couldn’t go to the tenant’s door,” because it wasn’t visiting hours and he didn’t have an appointment. Taken aback—the tenants have visiting hours?—Vargas’s only choice was to leave the information at the front desk. It made it impossible for him to have a conversation with the tenant and answer questions they might have. “It blew my mind,” Vargas says. “I mean, what if there was an emergency? What if I just wanted to see a friend because something had happened?” (Note: Some housing developments, especially supportive housing, include visitor controls as part of a trauma-informed approach for residents who have experienced homelessness, or issues like domestic violence and stalking.)
When a living situation gets grim for tenants in nonprofit housing, and there are these indications of disrespect for the rights of tenants present as well, a major “mission drift” has happened. The culpability can’t be tied to a third party like a management company. At this stage, advocating for tenants in nonprofit housing may take a more combative form.
In 1996, a tenant association called Union de Vecinos was born when the Los Angeles Housing Authority announced plans to evict 36 public housing tenants in Boyle Heights so that the units could be destroyed, rebuilt, and privatized. The tenants were able to win some relocation rights and since then, Union de Vecinos has become part of the citywide LA Tenants Union (founded in 2015). Elizabeth Blaney, a co-founder of Union de Vecinos, has spent the last few decades advocating for tenants who’ve secured concessions from their landlords behind closed doors and out in the open. As Blaney sees it, when negotiations with a nonprofit landlord hit a wall, tenant organizers often have considerable leverage in making those negotiations public.
What you’re doing is exposing the contradictions between the mission of a nonprofit landlord—what they’re saying to the general public—and what they’re actually doing.
“It can become a bit of a shame campaign,” Blaney says. “What you’re doing is exposing the contradictions between the mission of a nonprofit landlord—what they’re saying to the general public—and what they’re actually doing.” For example, in 2015, Blaney worked with a group of tenants of a building purchased by the nonprofit East LA Community Corporation. ELACC planned to tear down the building and build a larger number of units, and, Blaney says, offered existing residents a “right of return” agreement. Unfortunately, the agreement had so many qualifications and exceptions that half of the existing residents wouldn’t actually qualify. Though this was fairly standard operating procedure in the field, the irony of ELACC as a community-based nonprofit essentially proposing to displace longtime residents gave Union de Vecinos the leverage to push back. It took escalating to public actions and protests, but it did eventually bring the organization to the table. And, says Blaney, once there ELACC agreed to an unprecedentedly strong right to return agreement that enabled all the residents to come back.
While complex layers of rules that nonprofit tenants often face can make it difficult for tenant organizers to effectively work with them, sometimes there are also rules that apply to the subsidies that nonprofits themselves receive that can be leveraged by tenant organizers to force a landlord to play ball. Union de Vecinos has used this tactic against for-profit operators of subsidized housing, but it’s not limited to them. Blaney notes that the details of the regulations involved should always be checked for any affordable housing development. In the case of one senior citizen housing complex managed by Genesee Management, the landlord was trying to raise rents by 30 to 53 percent in 2021, during the pandemic, without getting the approval from the city that the property’s subsidies required before rent increases. Knowing those requirements and bringing the violation to the city’s attention, combined with public demonstrations, was key to preventing the rent hikes.
More often than not, the power dynamic between a nonprofit landlord and tenants will never become antagonistic enough to necessitate the public shaming. But despite the significant benefits that many nonprofit landlords do provide to tenants, they are still landlords. In the U.S. housing landscape, even some of the relative “good guys” are capable of the same negligence and mistreatment that often prompts tenants and their advocates to organize against for-profit landlords. And sometimes it’s this very organizing that keeps those nonprofit landlords connected to their missions and deserving of the goodwill that’s generally bestowed upon them by the public.