Slumlords Beware: An interview with Omaha Tenants United organizers

By Anna Swanson


Anna Swanson: What is the purpose of your organization?

Mark: I see this group as participating in long-term class consciousness raising and building political power outside of the traditional structures here. I talk about this all the time, but I see us as operating in the void that the Democratic Party leaves in politics.

Seth: I think that, like Mark mentioned, the big purpose of this group is to build class consciousness and highlight the contradictions within capitalism. I believe that the tenant-landlord relationship is one of the most fundamental, bare-faced robbery aspects of capitalism. We are paying someone to produce literally nothing of value. We are paying them to live in a space that they wouldn’t occupy if given the option. Exposing this abusive relationship and building class consciousness by showing people that they do have power is essential. Obviously, getting tenants’ immediate needs addressed is our first priority, but it goes deeper than that. We are building class power, developing class consciousness, and providing avenues for the working class to become engaged, involved, and empowered.

AS: How do you find folks who are struggling with their landlords?

Seth: We got the initial connection for our first major victory by meeting a person who was attending Feed the People (FTP) regularly. From there, the action kind of took on a life of its own. We made a Facebook page and posted a lengthy summary of how the first tenant organizing experience went down and how we were able to achieve that victory. It kind of just led to people messaging us on Facebook saying that they or a friend has been having issues with landlords, or will send us the name of a landlord they’ve struggled with previously. What we’ll do is map out where all of the properties that we can possibly link to a landlord are located, and then just start going and knocking on their tenant’s doors to ask about their experiences with their landlord.

Mark: One thing that stands out to me about how we find people is that I can tell a lot of this work is working when we can go out and things that we didn’t expect to happen move us forward in a new direction. We were just talking to a new tenant about the issues in their apartment, and when they took us outside they told us about the specific problems most of their neighbors were facing. [Organizing] is this exponential process that falls on top of you when you go out and start talking to people. A new door opens up every time we go out and do something.

Yeah, there’s really always something to do. Generally, if you find one tenant who has a whole bunch of problems, other people in their building or complex are probably having problems. The tenant will usually tell you, and that always helps because then if you help them out they might be willing to vouch for you and it gives the other people in the building more confidence in talking to and working with you.

AS: Tell me about these victories you’ve mentioned!

Seth: In our first official victory, we met this man at FTP who – since he had moved into his apartment six months prior – did not have any water pressure in his kitchen sink, had no hot water at all in the apartment, no smoke detectors, and his electrical outlets would spark when he tried to use them. He repeatedly requested that the landlord fix these problems over those six months, but the landlord did nothing. Meanwhile, this guy is literally doing dishes in cold water in his bathtub, the only faucet that has any sort of water pressure. Eventually we helped him write a demand letter, which cited all of the relevant statutes in the Nebraska Tenant Landlord Act.

Most of the escalation provided in the Nebraska Tenant Landlord Act involves going to court – which we obviously want to avoid completely – so we use the statutes to simply leverage slumlords to fix the problems. We wrote up this demand letter and went to the tenant’s house to talk to him about delivering it to the landlord. He wished us good luck, and it was clear that he thought we were just going to deliver it ourselves. However, we invited him to come with us. I’ll never forget how genuinely shocked he looked that we wanted him to join us in delivering the demand letter. He said, “Oh, hell yeah!” and got really excited.

This part is important to understand OTU – we’re not a charity, we don’t do this to feel better about ourselves. We want to involve tenants in the process and demonstrate to them directly that they have power over the situation. We took a group of twelve people over to this landlord’s house, but unfortunately he was not home.

A few hours later that night the tenant received a text from his landlord. It turned out that one of the landlord’s neighbors had been recording us the entire time and sent it to the landlord. The landlord started cussing out the tenant, asking him why he was bringing all these people over and wondering what was going on. The tenant sent him a picture of the demand letter, and he landlord had everything fixed the next day!

I think that even though we didn’t confront that landlord face to face, this was very indicative of how scared these slumlords are of community organizing.

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Mark: We also met the tenant of our second victory at FTP. My first interaction with him was when he received an “eviction notice,” but it wasn’t even like a formal eviction notice; it was just a letter from the landlord saying that he thought the tenant should leave. Some of the problems (including noise complaints and leaving trash in the hallway) that the tenant we were working with reported to his landlord were later used against him during this early eviction notice process. It seemed like the landlord was making up these letters and sending them to everyone in the building – thereby accusing everyone of the same not-quite-eviction-worthy actions.

A couple of days after receiving the letter, the tenant was hanging out at home when the handyman tried to force his way into the apartment. He didn’t knock at first, just started rattling the doorknob. Then he knocked and asked if anyone was home – to which the tenant responded “Yeah, I’m here!” The handyman replied, “Well, you know you have to move, right?” Again trying to force him out without truly saying “you are evicted” in an effort to make the tenant leave the building early. Once we wrote a demand letter, we made an appointment and a couple members of OTU went to the landlord’s offices with the tenant.

When Seth was talking about the first tenant struggle we won, he mentioned how the tenant got more interested and excited when we involved him in the process of confronting his landlord. I noticed the same thing with this second tenant. When we got to the office, he didn’t even wait around for me to start talking, he just went up and told them, “Hey, this is why I’m here and this is what I want to happen.” After he had made his demands and the landlord started fighting back, I started talking too. I said, “Leave him alone, he just wants to find a new place to move to because you’ve been a shitty landlord.”

After this little meeting, they left him alone for the short remainder of his lease. They didn’t send him any more unfounded eviction notices or try to harass him further, so we thought everything was good to go! When he was ready to move out, we went over and helped him clean the apartment and spot paint some the walls where paint was chipped.

Then he gets this letter – after he moved out – detailing over $1000 in damages and back rent, all of which were outright lies. We’re going to confront the landlord again later this week about this letter and are hoping to get all the fees waived so this tenant can get his deposit back. Each time something has happened, he’s been initially shaken by it, but after talking to us, we can see his confidence build. He knows he’s not alone in this fight.

[After this interview, OTU went with the tenant and around a dozen supporters to the landlord’s office, where they challenged the fees. After a tense negotiation, the landlord dropped all fees and agreed to return almost all of the tenant’s deposit. — Ed.]

AS: I think it’s really great that you guys don’t just disappear after the initial fight. Helping this tenant clean and move out of his old apartment into a new one shows significant care for the personal relationships you’ve developed in this organizing work.

Mark: Yeah, and as this grows and we get more activists working on these projects we’ll have the capacity to make more of those personal connections.

Seth: The masses are the real heroes. We really only provide a degree of technical knowledge. We’re just a bunch of nerds who have read the Nebraska Tenant Landlord Act enough times to make you want to blow your brains out. Because [the working class] has to commit so much of their lives to simply surviving, they might not have the time to sift through the legal jargon and get the information they need.

We’ve all been told for so long that we have to listen to these figures of authority, including these slumlords who control if you have a place to sleep at night. We’re passionate about seeing tenants get their fair share, seeing the tenant-landlord relationship destroyed, and watching capitalism – which is the structure that allows all this to happen – crumble.

AS: If there’s one piece of advice you could give tenants, what would it be?

Seth: Message Omaha Tenants United on Facebook! But really, everyone should acquaint themselves with the laws about tenants and landlords in Nebraska. The Nebraska Tenant Landlord Act really does provide protections and avenues to follow to ensure your needs are met. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to your neighbors! It’s likely that if you’re having a problem, at least 75% of your neighbors are having a problem too.

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