As people are laid off and businesses shut down, paying rent has become a pipe dream for many people. Tenants unions are springing up in response.
Nick Bergen, an activist focusing on on tenants from Hunter Bloomington Properties, which owns nine housing complexes , said he’s helping organize a tenants union in response to the pandemic because he has friends who live there. He said it’s been unsettling how quiet the property managers have been about what to do during the pandemic, and how they haven’t given residents procedures if they can’t pay rent.
“We're just trying to get people connected, so they can support each other through this crisis and work through this time,” Bergen said.
Bergen said one of his big concerns comes from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive order about evictions and foreclosures, which states no evictions can take place until the state of emergency has ended. Bergen said that just means all the evictions will still occur, but at a later date, and people will be left with a load of debt. He said a tenants union can negotiate protections for actions like this, but not all organizing has been met with encouragement.
Glitz Litzenberg, rent strike organizer and civil rights activist, said Hunter Bloomington Properties has been hostile toward him while canvassing for a rent strike. During a Facebook live video March 24, he is shown going around Millenium Apartments, a complex owned by Hunter Bloomington Properties and located on South Rolling Ridge Way, talking to tenants about a rent strike. The video then shows him being approached by someone who identifies himself as an employee.
Litzenberg and the employee got into a heated argument, which culminated in the employee calling the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Officers with the sheriff’s office then told Litzenberg he was trespassing, and if he was found on the property again, he could face jail time, according to the video.
Neither the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office or Hunter Bloomington Properties responded to multiple requests for comment.
Litzenberg said he hopes to be back out canvassing soon because he saw how eager people were to talk with him and that he felt tenants were already seeing problems from the property management.
“I’ve been canvassing for 10 years," Litzenberg said. "It’s very uncommon not to get any pushback on an issue. There was no hesitancy toward this cause.”
Civil rights activists have been stepping in to help during this time as well, Michael Simmons, Bloomington Solidarity Network organizer, said. The network focuses on how tenants can protect themselves from predatory landlords, who do things such as falsely evict tenants and steal security deposits, Simmons said.
“COVID-19 has really just intensified that work,” Simmons said.
Simmons said the pandemic has driven people who are afraid of their landlord to speak up. One option is a rent strike, but there are no legal protections for tenants who withhold their rent in Indiana, even if the landlord is violating the lease agreement. If enough people participate, rent strikes can give tenants leveraging power to force landlords to negotiate with them or improve the property.
“You have a situation where people basically don't have the choice of just paying off their landlord and moving on, despite however their landlord might be treating them,” Simmons said.
Tenants unions focus on getting all residents on the same page and then giving them the power to present their demands to the landlord, Simmons said. He said ensuring maintenance is done and preventing rent hikes are common tenant demands.
“All we’re trying to do is connect people so they can work through this together,” Bergen said.