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Multiracial Tenant Union At The Forefront Of A Growing Movement

Above Photo: Jasmine Harris speaks at a march to the headquarters of the New Directions Housing Corporation to deliver their demands for a fair lease. Anatheium Photography/Emmett Valentin.

Despite the South’s challenging political geography, Black and white tenants are transforming Louisville and setting the pace for the wider movement.

Louisville, Kentucky – Private police officers guide a line of late-model SUVs through the January morning’s cold rain into a lane of Louisville’s Grinstead Avenue, specially cleared to ease their path to the entrance of Collegiate School. Brake lights shine through the gloom as children in plaid uniforms climb out and head inside. Collegiate, founded by a plantation-owning Kentucky family and led by a board president who is the heir to the Brown-Forman liquor dynasty, has an annual tuition of $26,000 per year.

Just to the west of a new, modern Collegiate playground is the Yorktown Apartments, separated from school grounds by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Outside one of the Yorktown buildings, where the monthly rent averages $845, two dozen people stand in the rain. Jasmine Harris, her winter coat partially open to show a crimson red Louisville Tenants Union T-shirt, steps to a microphone facing a couple of television cameras.

“Everyone deserves a home that is safe, but too many of us are choosing between medicines and food and paying the rent,” she said. “And that ain’t right!”

“That ain’t right!” repeat the people assembled behind Harris. Most of them are wearing the same shirts.

“Landlords think they can treat us however,” Harris continued. “They keep us living in terrible conditions, and evict us if we speak up!”

“That ain’t right!”

“Our landlords are nameless, faceless corporations like Collegiate School, and they want to demolish our homes to build parking lots!”

That, it turns out, is why these people are gathered this morning. A few years ago, Collegiate purchased Yorktown, which has 35 low-cost apartments in a community with a need for 31,000 more affordable housing units. But Collegiate has other priorities: It is seeking government permission to tear down the Yorktown Apartments to clear the way for a 56-car parking lot.

This time, the reply chant to Harris includes a guy with a bullhorn, and is a lot more specific.

“We need housing in this spot. Not a rich kid parking lot!”

Harris introduces several of the Yorktown residents, who speak facing a ground level apartment with a 2 foot-by-3 foot hole in its front door and broken windows surrounding it. The residents show the media mold, rodent tracks, water and fire damage, and describe futile efforts to get maintenance responses from Collegiate. “Since we got the notice in October that they want to tear the buildings down, they just quit taking care of the place,” Yorktown resident Patrick McCarthy said.

Harris returns to the microphone, changing the theme from grievance to power. This press conference was scheduled to be a prelude to a show of resistance later that day at a local architectural review commission meeting set to review Collegiate’s demolition application. But Collegiate pulled its request the day before, the second time it has done so when word of a protest was leaked.

Harris lists the demands of Collegiate — help tenants with moving costs and the likely increased rents for nearby living, and stop demolition plans until all are safely relocated. These demands will be met, Harris insists. (Collegiate responded to a request for comment for this article by saying it has pushed back the tenant relocation date and is offering to help residents with their moves, including some costs. On March 8, at a meeting attended by Yorktown residents and other Louisville Tenant Union members, a local architectural review committee voted 3-2 to deny Collegiate’s request to demolish the Yorktown buildings.)

“We are poor, we are working class, we are old, young, Black, brown, white and everything in between. We are organizing across lines others use to divide us,” Harris said. “We know the people who run Collegiate are the descendants of wealthy plantation owners and they are used to pushing people like us out of the way.”

‘Tenants will no longer be silent’

The March 2020 killing of medical worker Breonna Taylor in her apartment by Louisville police led to months of demonstrations, along with renewed charges that the area’s police violence and the raid on Taylor’s apartment were fueled in part by government-funded gentrification and displacement in Louisville’s historically Black neighborhoods. The response to Taylor’s killing also brought together a group of advocates who found that they shared deep and personal interests in the rights of tenants.

Harris and her children had been struggling to get their landlord to respond to unsafe conditions. Shemaeka Shaw had been assaulted by law enforcement during an eviction. Josh Poe from rural Kentucky and Jessica Bellamy from Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood had endured their own housing insecurity and were already organizing Black and white tenants. They and several others had been pushing for housing rights on their own or in smaller groups. In early 2022, they came together to form the Louisville Tenants Union, or LTU.

The original plan was to do a policy-focused effort, likely around a tenants’ bill of rights with a right to counsel in eviction proceedings. But as they talked through these ideas, several of the LTU members reported problems they faced with the CT Group, a Maryland-based private corporation that had a contract with the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, or LMHA, to manage two of the city’s largest public housing sites. LTU members and others were dealing with flooding, mold, rodents and broken lights in parking areas, with little to no response to their outreach to management.

“We organize through struggle,” Josh Poe said. “Our vision as part of the national tenants movement is a homes guarantee, but when we get a group of tenants together we have to deal with their immediate issues. That is how we build a powerful base — which ties into the larger goals.” So the tenants’ bill of rights plans were put on hold, and the fight to improve public housing conditions began.

So LTU shared tenant complaints on social media, used public records requests to document the pattern of neglect, and staged a “walk in” to present demands at a March 2022 LMHA board meeting. At a demonstration and press conference outside the CT Group’s local offices, Shemaeka Shaw said, “As an impacted resident, my mission is to create housing for every tenant in Louisville that is safe, decent and permanently affordable. We believe that housing is a human right, not a commodity.”

Shaw describing herself as an impacted tenant was an understatement. After growing up in Louisville, and never having been evicted or arrested before 2016, she endured a nightmarish sequence of events. First, she alleges that she was sexually assaulted by her landlord, who had a Section 8 housing contract with LMHA. When Shaw reported the assault, the landlord retaliated by filing a court action for eviction, despite Shaw being current on her rent.

A mediation agreement with the landlord gave Shaw and her two-year-old son 30 days to move. But, just 10 days later, the landlord and two deputy sheriffs showed up at the home to put her out. When Shaw tried to explain the agreement, one of the deputy sheriffs knocked her to the ground, carried her out of her home in her nightgown and without underwear — and charged her with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.

A jury eventually exonerated Shaw on all charges, and the sheriff deputy was later convicted of perjury and tampering with evidence on multiple cases. But Shaw had already spent time in jail and then the hospital for the injuries she sustained, and lost most of her possessions in the process. She and her son were homeless for eight months. “We were pillar to post, just living with what family would take us in,” she said.

Shaw’s next rental home failed four inspections for exposed wiring before catching fire in April 2018. Again, she lost all of her belongings. Remarkably, her renting troubles were still not over. Shaw and her son, along with a teenage niece, moved into yet another Section 8-subsidized home. Her landlord, who owned hundreds of properties, had been branded Louisville’s worst landlord by a local television station investigation a few years earlier. When Shaw filed complaints about serious mold and mildew problems, the windows being nailed shut and some of the electricity was not functioning, her landlord responded with an eviction filing.

In mid-May 2019, Shaw was forcibly removed from the home and the locks changed. When she and some family and friends tried to pack up some of her items the landlord and deputies had thrown into the yard, Shaw was again arrested, this time charged with felony burglary. Shaw spent six days in jail and is still fighting the criminal charges, which are set for trial in April. Shaw and other LTU members point out that these were acts of state-sponsored violence visited on Shaw when she challenged real estate capital, a response they say is part and parcel of the structural violence routinely visited on Blacks in U.S. communities.

Shaw and her son now live on Louisville’s west side. She is convinced that tenants coming together is the best way to prevent what happened to her from being inflicted on others. “I’ve learned to redirect my trauma into fire,” she said. “I would have had different outcomes if I had the tenant union behind me. The powers that be told me I was crazy, but that’s harder to say when I am standing next to 100 other people who have gone through the same thing.”

So Shaw and other LTU members kept up the pressure on CT Group and LMHA. When they made a presentation to the Louisville Metro Council about the crisis, they gained the attention of Metro Councilor Jecorey Arthur. Arthur ended up joining LTU members at an August press conference to announce he was filing a resolution calling for LMHA to terminate its contract with the CT Group.

“The LTU is showing tenants they have power,” Arthur said. “I’ve seen tenants who were hopeless about change get motivated by the union. Even if they haven’t joined it yet, they are seeing a group of people who live where they live and go through what they go through get wins.”

On Oct. 19, the Metro Council unanimously passed Arthur’s resolution. Less than a week later, CT Group announced it was walking away from its contract with LMHA. The city’s top newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, made it clear that the decision was due to “consistent pressure from members of the Louisville Tenants Union.”

Arthur agrees. “The LTU made an example out of the CT Group,” he said. “The example was that tenants will no longer be silent about housing injustice. They believed in a better future, organized for it and won.”

Demanding a ‘Fair Lease’

Jasmine Harris’ path to a microphone in front of Yorktown Apartments traveled through her own housing struggles. She and her children have endured homelessness, including a period of several nights where the only spot they could find was the lobby of a family shelter where every bed was already full. Harris, then eight months pregnant, and her infant daughter huddled up in a chair, with Harris’ coat for a blanket. Finally, she persuaded a relative to let them sleep on her couch, and eventually got an apartment owned by an organization called New Directions.

The apartment was better than being homeless. But, from day one, when her daughter crawled on the carpet and came up with her leggings stained black from the dirt, Harris experienced problems with the home. She and other residents called for maintenance help with mold, discolored tap water, and roach, mice and bed bug infestations. They say the responses were slow at best, and Harris received the same reaction when she notified management about her ceiling caving in and clothes being ruined by water damage. “At one point, the manager told me, ‘Ms. Harris, if you don’t like it here, you can just turn in your keys.’”

Harris had a better idea. She already had experience as a community activist in campaigns against police brutality and for healthy food options in the neighborhood. “I knew that the more people who speak up, the better,” she said. “I knew there was power in numbers.” She began reading about the history of tenant organizing, and then pulled her neighbors together to form the New Directions Tenant Union.

They began by putting together a list of demands, mostly focusing on maintenance response. Harris had learned that the landlord-tenant transaction is at its core a contractual relationship, so they decided to start changing the terms of that contract. “The landlords have tons of lawyers who write up the leases in a way that gives them all the power and nothing to the residents,” Harris said. So they began organizing over the demand that the landlord sign a new, “Fair Lease.” The lease, variations of which have been included in demands in other national tenant campaigns, limits rent increases to no more than 2 percent each year, requires fast and full response to maintenance requests, and provides tenants with automatic renewal to prevent against eviction by lease non-renewal.

The union gathered together other tenants and community supporters and held a rally, marching to the complex office to present the Fair Lease, waving signs like “No more bugs/No more mold/Bring our buildings up to code.” A New Directions spokesperson reached for this article denied Harris’ claims that it did not respond to tenants’ complaints, and pointed out that its properties pass regular federal housing inspections.

The Fair Lease has not yet been accepted, but the New Directions union has had other victories. It fought off the landlord’s plans to allow police unrestricted access to enter the residents’ apartments, and it helped one union member resist three separate attempts to evict her. “I have never had anyone to support me like this,” she told a local television station as the union members occupied the complex office until her new lease was signed. “If things aren’t right, speak up,” she said to the TV cameras. “There are people out here who have your back.”

The brutal legacy of plantation culture

Jessica Bellamy grew up on Lampton Street in Smoketown, a neighborhood southeast of downtown Louisville where thousands of formerly enslaved Black people moved from rural areas after the Civil War. Her mother owns Shirley Mae’s Café, a soul food restaurant on the corner of Clay and Lampton streets, where Bellamy has worked off and on since she was 12 years old. The restaurant founded by Shirley Mae Beard, Bellamy’s grandmother, is well known for hosting the Salute to Black Jockeys festival during Kentucky Derby week, which has attracted the likes of B.B. King, Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg. “I grew up seeing what is possible when people come together in community,” Bellamy said.

But when the notorious HUD HOPE VI program triggered the 2012 demolition of more than 300 units of public housing in Smoketown, gentrification forces emerged from the rubble. “Developers started swarming the community,” Bellamy said. Trained in design at the University of Louisville and bolstered by years of working at the school’s Neurodevelopmental Science Lab, Bellamy started researching her neighborhood and organizing residents under the umbrella of a social enterprise she created called Grassroots Information Design Studio, or GRIDS.

“In Louisville, they like our Black smiling faces. They will paint pictures of us on murals but take no steps to prevent our displacement.”

The experience provided Bellamy with a surprising realization: Community members were often at odds with churches, schools and other non-profits that were tearing homes down and flipping others to the highest bidder. “It turned out that the main gentrifiers are non-profit developers funded by the city,” she said. Bellamy points to multi-million dollar projects in historically Black neighborhoods where city dollars were going to developers aiming to create market-rate housing, despite that housing being unaffordable for current residents. She points to Census figures showing that one historically Black neighborhood in Louisville, Russell, lost almost 2,500 Black residents from 2010 to 2020, with a corresponding influx of white, likely wealthier, residents.

Bellamy and Josh Poe co-founded the Root Cause Research Center, where they created story maps like “Public Lands to Private Hands” chronicling the way Black families were being displaced, and an ambitious report, “Redlining Louisville: Racial Capitalism and Real Estate.” Their work tracks the connection between private discrimination and the public policy that sustained and even encouraged it, from the pre-Civil War era to today.

“Louisville, Kentucky is one of many cities throughout the South that still celebrates the brutal legacy of plantation culture,” Bellamy and Poe write on the Roots Cause Research Center site. “From an economy dominated by the plantation dynasties of bourbon, horse racing and tobacco, to the centering of bourbon whiskey as a culturally significant economic development engine and tourist attraction.”

“In Louisville, they like our Black smiling faces,” Bellamy said. “They will paint pictures of us on murals but take no steps to prevent our displacement.”

So community members have teamed up with Councilman Arthur to propose a Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance, which would require review of any proposed development projects in the designated neighborhoods. Any projects with a potential to cause displacement, including projects that would create housing unaffordable to most of the community residents, would be blocked from any local government assistance, in particular land grants or financing. The ordinance would also create a process for Black residents to file claims for land and properties already taken from them by the government, along with home repair, down payment and business investment assistance for those who establish claims for prior displacement.

“Neighborhoods like Smoketown need protection from exploitation and a way out of this extractive economy,” Bellamy said. “The city needs to stop giving away our land, money and staff time to support development projects that will directly or indirectly displace us.”

‘Shared self-interest’ from Appalachia to Louisville

Poe was born in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky when his mother was just 15 years old. Raised mostly by his grandparents, Poe lived in a home without an indoor bathroom and started working in the tobacco fields at the age of seven. But none of that prevented his family and community from providing him a model of advocacy and solidarity. Tobacco farming, Poe points out, was essentially a socialist enterprise with price supports and quotas that benefited smaller farmers. “That did not come from any big farmer’s benevolence, it came about because farmers organized. And that shaped my understanding of political power,” he said.

Poe eventually made his way to Seattle, where he organized housing and labor campaigns. Upon his return to Kentucky, he met Bellamy, and they bonded over how their seemingly dissimilar backgrounds were not so different after all. “I learned the geography of Smoketown and Appalachia have a lot of material commonalities,” Poe said. “It just showed how much shared self-interest poor white people have with Black people.”

Although many of LTU’s current campaigns center around historically Black communities, it has several white members and has helped organize mostly white trailer park residents on Louisville’s south side and elsewhere in Kentucky. LTU member Steph Smith grew up poor in Appalachian eastern Kentucky, where her family was often forced to move from dilapidated trailers when lot rental fees spiked or mold or other conditions got too bad. They often slept in other family members’ living rooms or in an old church.

“I come from ‘Trump country,’ and I know some people hear my accent and wonder if I am racist,” she said. “But it became clear to me that poor white people in Appalachia being taught to hate Black people was a way to make it easier for the capitalist ruling class to exploit all of us generation after generation.”

The LTU meetings feature testimonials, where Black and white tenants have the opportunity to see their own experiences reflected in other people’s stories, including people they have been taught to see as their enemy. LTU members says their experience gives lie to any narrative that Blacks and whites can’t be organized together in a tenant movement. “That is why the LTU and tenant organizing in general is so dangerous, “Smith said. “I’ve never been a part of something that gives me so much optimism and keeps racking up tangible, material wins.”

Even Bellamy and Poe, who created the wealth of material under the Root Cause Research Center banner, say this LTU multiracial organizing is the real key to reform. “There is not a report that Josh and I have written that brought material change,” Bellamy said. “It is going to take people standing up as their own political class to get these wins.”

‘We are the ones to keep us safe’

When the LTU stands together in that advocacy, they do so on the shoulders of several generations of tenant activists. The 20th-century tenant rights movement in New York City was arguably the most consistent and insistent such movement in the U.S., using tactics from rent strikes to lobbying to win multiple individual struggles with landlords on issues of rent increases and poor conditions, as well as the enactment of broader rent regulation and tenant control of housing. After the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Poor People’s Campaign both featured demands for housing rights, the St. Louis Rent Strike of 1969 helped create changes in federal housing law that reduced public housing rents. Then, successful rent strikes and other actions across the country in the 1970s led to the forming of the National Tenants’ Union.

Now, a current wave of campaigns, including those led by LTU’s partners at KC Tenants in Kansas City, are winning rent control measures, affordable housing fund commitments, and tenants’ bill of rights. They have a model to follow beyond our borders: Activism by tenant and labor unions have helped cause housing rights to be far more developed internationally than in the U.S., with nations like France, Germany and South Africa all enforcing a human right to affordable housing.

LTU is affiliated with the People’s Action Home Guarantee campaign, which mobilizes tenants across the country under the “Rent is Too Damn High” banner to demand a tenants’ bill of rights. LTU members including Shemaeka Shaw traveled to the White House with People’s Action to demand that President Biden issue an executive order on rent control and other tenant relief measures. Biden responded with a “Blueprint for a Renter’s Bill of Rights” that was short on tangible guarantees but a statement of federal commitment to protecting tenants that organizers believe can serve as a foundation for continued pressure.

Tara Raghuveer, the leader of the national Homes Guarantee campaign and of KC Tenants, says that LTU is at the core of the national movement, proving that tenants can have success even in the challenging political geography of a southern city. “The Louisville Tenant Union represents a new edge to the tenant movement, with deepening roots throughout the South and the Midwest,” she said. “They are building durable infrastructure that is already transforming political terrain in Louisville and will continue to set the pace for tenants across the country.”

So the LTU has kept one eye on its broader goals, even as it was winning the CT Group campaign and other interim victories for local tenants. In addition to their national work, they push for statewide laws instituting rent control, good-cause requirements for evictions and a block on landlords with pending code violations being allowed to evict tenants. They aim to transform the community’s landlord-tenant dynamic so they can start dictating the terms of the relationship, especially through the Fair Lease terms.

Almost every LTU leader has experienced homelessness and retaliation for speaking up for tenant rights, so they have too many battle scars to harbor any illusion that the process will be an easy one. In a conversation among LTU leaders, Shaw swept her hand toward the entire group: “We are all traumatized,” she said. The others nod in agreement. But their response is to tangibly embrace the power of a union. “We are the ones to keep us safe,” she added.

Back at the Yorktown Apartments, Harris describes to the crowd how LTU members were part of the Home Guarantee campaign that traveled to Washington D.C. multiple times to pressure the Biden administration to take action on rents, which led to the president’s promise to institute new federal protections for tenants. “If we can take on the White House, we are not afraid to take on wealthy Louisville elites,” Harris said into the microphone. “We are here to promise that if Collegiate does not meet the tenants’ demands, the next time we will be back with hundreds of our neighbors from across the city. That’s right: We are here now, and we will keep coming back until we win!”

Fran Quigley is a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where he directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic. He and his students advocate for the human right to housing by representing tenants in eviction court and promoting policy change.

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