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North Carolina Tenants Union seeks to level playing field in state’s tight housing market

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by Greg Childress, NC Newsline
April 3, 2024

Two years ago, Crystal Towers residents in Winston-Salem successfully fought to prevent the sale of their public housing building, which is home to more than 200 low-income, elderly tenants.

In Raleigh, Grosvenor Gardens Apartments’ tenants turned back a 65% rent increase to keep their homes affordable.

Three years ago, Craven Terrace residents in New Bern fought to win long overdue repairs that tenants complained rendered apartments nearly uninhabitable due to mold and insect infestations and unsafe appliances.

Affordable housing advocates say such victories are too few for North Carolina tenants, who they contend, are often up against unjust laws that leave them at the mercy of landlords.

The organizers of the new North Carolina Tenants Union (NCTU), which officially launched Tuesday, want to level the playing field. NCTU was created to help tenants fight displacements, win critical housing repairs, stop rapid rent increases, strengthen tenants’ rights and push local officials and state lawmakers to adopt housing rental policies and laws that are fair to tenants. Nick MacLeod.

“The reality is that it’s really hard to be a tenant in North Carolina,” said Nick MacLeod, NCTU’s executive director. “There’s just very, very little in the way of legal protections [for tenants].”

The tenant-driven, statewide movement is currently made up of six local tenant unions and networks in Asheville, Charlotte, New Bern, New Hanover, Raleigh-Durham, and Winston-Salem.

MacLeod said the housing crisis won’t be solved without tenants at the center of the fight to bring about changes that ensure fairness in the landlord-tenant relationship.

“What we’re doing is forming a statewide union so that were going to have a vehicle to wield statewide power necessary to change fundamentally what we think are unjust landlord tenant laws so that tenants have a lot more protection so they can live in safe housing and affordable housing and are not getting constantly displaced,” MacLeod said.

Housing advocates in Winston-Salem like the group Housing Justice Now have asked city officials for funding to establish a program to guarantee tenants legal counsel during eviction proceedings. Housing Justice Now is one of the six local organization to join the new statewide union. The others are: Creating and Sustaining Equity in New Bern; Action NC in Charlotte; Triangle Tenants Union in Raleigh-Durham; Western NC Tenants Network in Asheville and New Hanover Tenants Union in Wilmington.

It’s estimated that 90% of landlords in eviction cases nationally have legal representation while only 10% of tenants do, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin. Without legal representation, tenants are more likely to lose eviction cases, tenants’ rights advocates say.

“We organize because our freedom depends on it,” said Edith Chisholm, a public housing tenant from Winston-Salem. “You have a right to organize, and no one can take that away from you.”

At least 15 cities and three states have enacted a right to counsel provision for renters in eviction cases. In North Carolina, organizations in Charlotte and Greensboro are currently pushing for right-to-counsel ordinances similar to the one proposed for Winston-Salem.

MacLeod said helping tenants in more cities push for a right to counsel for renters, strengthening minimum housing codes and helping renters band together to renegotiate leases will be among NCTU’s priorities.

“Right now, every time a lease is up, it’s really a one-sided negotiation [in favor of the landlord],” MacLeod said. “We’re working so tenants can work together and have a lot more power in the negotiation,” MacLeod said.

Dinah Foskey, a New Bern tenant instrumental in the union’s creation, said the “statewide tenant union will empower people to not be afraid to speak up about unfair living conditions, and demand the wrongs be made right.”

Over 1.4 million households, a third of all North Carolinians, rent their homes. One in four tenants are spending more than half of their income in rent. Poor tenants and tenants of color are more likely to experience severe cost burden with 75% of extremely low income tenants, 38% of Black tenants, and 32% of Latino tenants paying half their income in rent. In 2022, 149,000 eviction cases were filed.

NCTU believes North Carolina’s housing system prioritizes landlords’ profits, while protecting private assets over ensuring affordable and safe housing for everyone.

“Action NC is excited to join with tenant organizers across the state to continue and expand our work organizing for tenant power and to expand tenants rights,” said Jessica Moreno, a community organizer for the nonprofit. “We are stronger with a statewide tenant union.”

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