TAMPA — Ashley Simpson didn’t expect paradise when she moved into Ascott Place Apartments, but she did expect her life to get a little better.
During the winter, as Simpson’s lease at another North Tampa complex came to an end, she toured one of Ascott’s 241 units. It looked clean, and though she didn’t love the area, her last neighborhood was worse.
In March, Simpson, 38, and her children, 17 and 13, moved into an apartment one floor up from the unit they’d toured. On the first day, Simpson turned on the water in the kitchen and grimaced.
“It smelled like poop,” she said.
After a series of phone calls and inspections — with the property managers, the city, county code enforcement, and the state — Simspon said she learned the smell was coming from corrosion in the building’s pipes.
She began talking to her neighbors and found several had similar problems, including two men who had just moved in downstairs. One of them, Garrett Camfferman, suggested collective action. With help from members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which Camfferman is part of, they canvassed their neighbors and held meetings.
They heard a few stories about big problems, like a roof caving in, and a lot of stories about smaller ones: wastewater backing up into bathtubs, flooded dishwashers, overflowing dumpsters, unfulfilled maintenance requests.
At the end of July, the group publicly released a list of demands, including renovations and monthly meetings between management and representatives of the group, the Ascott Place Apartments Tenants Association.
Residents of more than half the building’s units signed the letter. It cited the then-impending end to the federal eviction moratorium and the skyrocketing price of rent in Tampa Bay. It also attributed the organizing effort to the Tampa Tenants Union, a new project with Camfferman at the helm.
The Tampa Tenants Union was inspired by the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, which launched last year and recently notched a high-profile victory by pressuring mayoral candidate and landlord Robert Blackmon to halt evictions against three tenants.
Both projects, run by volunteers, are part of a wave of tenant organizing across the country. It’s not new for renters to band together to fight for change, whether in a single building or on a larger scale: Federal housing laws exist, in part, because of organizing in the 1930s. Tenants unions and similar organizations across the country have grown in number, size and visibility in the past year and a half, though, as the pandemic illuminated economic inequality and ruptured housing stability for many.
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“People are being driven to the breaking point, not only mentally but economically,” Camfferman, 21, said. “There’s a stranglehold, and they feel it.”
‘A pretty profound shift’
Last summer, as he marched in anti-racism protests through St. Petersburg, William Kilgore found himself talking and hearing often about gentrification. Those conversations came naturally during the protests, with the past and present of the city’s development closely tied to the disruption and destruction of historically Black neighborhoods.
But they also resonated for Kilgore, who is white. A north Pinellas County native with a high school education, he’s worked in the restaurant industry most of his life. He moved to St. Petersburg a decade ago, when he could find one-bedroom apartments for $400. Now, he said, those same units go for more than double that price.
He lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, and during the protests, he came to see organizing around housing as a necessity for the city’s working-class population. So he made social media profiles under the name St. Petersburg Tenants Union, created a website with a form to report “bad landlords” and began scraping county court records every day for eviction filings.
Kilgore has counted more than 5,100 eviction cases in Pinellas County since April 2020. The numbers were highest last winter. They declined somewhat after the federal government expanded its emergency rental assistance program in March, sending more than $21 billion to states and local governments to help people cover rent on top of an initial $25 billion approved last December. But Kilgore still tallies hundreds of cases each month, and in the first half of 2021, rents in Tampa Bay increased more than in any other metro area in the country.
When the nationwide moratorium on evictions ended on July 31, Florida had given out just 2 percent of the $870 million it received in rent aid. Both St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had distributed about a quarter of their funding.
“People don’t even know that there’s this money available,” Kilgore said. “(Governments have) just done a bad job of getting this information out there all over the country.”
As the St. Petersburg union began, tenant organizing around the country was getting more attention than it had in years. The membership of the Los Angeles Tenants Union doubled in a month and a half at the beginning of the pandemic. Calls for rent strikes trended on Twitter. In October, the New York Times Magazine featured the story of a tenants union in Minneapolis that bought out its landlord and placed buildings under collective ownership.
It’s unclear how many tenants unions exist in the United States; a non-comprehensive list from Abolition Democracy Lab counts at least 85. They can range from single-building associations to city- or state-wide efforts. Some focus on getting pest control or making sure the landlord keeps the washing machines running, others on halting evictions or rent hikes, or on lobbying for city ordinances or state laws.
Tenant organizing has historically come in waves, with unions and associations created in response to crises, said Amanda Huron, an associate professor at the University of the District of Columbia. At the turn of the 1920s, renters banded together after the Spanish flu pandemic exposed the connections between housing and public health. In the 1970s, they did so in response to a wave of gentrification in major cities.
The latest period of organizing has elements of both those precedents, Huron said. Its roots can be traced to Occupy Wall Street, the Great Recession and the growing awareness of an American housing crisis. Then the pandemic led people to think differently about structures they’d taken for granted.
The billions of dollars in federal rental aid is “a pretty profound shift, I think, in terms of how we think about housing and how to pay for housing and the morality of it all,” she said. “That creates some openings for thinking and challenging deeply, more long term, how we think about housing, and the idea that there’s a right for housing just as there is a right to a K-12 education.”
‘Pure tenant power’
The St. Petersburg Tenants Union spent much of its first year on small-scale efforts. Its leaders fielded complaints about climbing rents and aggressive rodents. They wrote letters to landlords who wouldn’t respond to tenants. They posted fliers in neighborhoods with high eviction rates and let people borrow laptops to apply for rental aid.
Kilgore and Karla Correa, another of the union’s core volunteers, said they are pushing for the city to adopt a pair of ordinance changes. One would require landlords to give longer notice when not renewing month-to-month tenancies; another would prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their sources of income. Both will be heard in September’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting.
Amy Foster, the city council member bringing the ordinance changes to the table, said she talks with the tenants union occasionally, and though they haven’t coordinated efforts, she appreciates their presence.
“Florida has … the most generous landlord-tenant law in favor of landlords,” said Foster, who spearheaded the city’s tenant bill of rights in 2019. “So I definitely support anything that can be done to amplify the voices of tenants and their needs.”
The union’s familiarity with city hall meant that one name jumped out to Kilgore during a regular check of eviction filings earlier this year: Robert Blackmon. The city council member and mayoral candidate, running on a platform that included affordable housing, had filed to evict three tenants from Paradise Apartments, a 10-unit building he bought earlier this year.
Kilgore and Correa started knocking on doors at the apartments.
Public pressure soon won the day: Media outlets picked up the story, and the St. Petersburg NAACP wrote a letter to Blackmon, who last month dropped the evictions.
The tenants union is now working with a lawyer to draw up long-term leases, which they’ll present to Blackmon, for the building’s tenants, Correa said. Though focused on a single, small building, the union saw the organization at Paradise as an indication of possibility.
“This is what happens when we organize and we all get together, and we fight together and make demands,” Kilgore said. “We can actually effect change. That’s pure tenant power.”
The group is working now on an organizing effort at Osprey Pointe Apartment Homes, a complex in the Greater Pinellas Point area with more than 500 units. It is by far the union’s largest undertaking. They hope to establish a tenants association that would work autonomously under the umbrella of the union — which will take a lot of buy-in from residents, many of whom may be unfamiliar with or wary of the idea.
“We don’t go up to doors saying, ‘Hi, we’re the local communists, we’re here to start a union,’” Correa said. “It’s more like, ‘Hi, we hear there are a lot of issues going on in your neighborhood,’ and people are so quick to say come inside, take a look.”
A response — and a threat?
About a month before the public release of the Ascott Place demand letter, Camfferman taped an early version of it to the property management office’s door, “like Martin Luther — the ‘95 Theses.’”
On Aug. 5, the apartments sent tenants a written response. Signed by “The Team at Ascott Place,” it said management was working to hire more maintenance workers and to train them to fix plumbing problems. It had looked at replacing the complex’s pipes, it said, but found that such a project “could necessitate having to vacate the property and relocating current residents.”
The letter said individuals can stop by the front office if they have concerns rather than acknowledging the request for regular meetings with the union.
Ascott Place recognizes that “the residents have an absolute right to form a union at the property,” it wrote, but it ended the letter by accusing organizers of scaring residents “who feel threatened if they don’t join the tenants union,” and saying that “repeated harassment” could result in eviction.
Camfferman read it as a thinly veiled threat, he said. Organizers have canvassed multiple times, he said, but they’ve never knocked twice on the door of anyone who said they weren’t interested, and he believed that management fabricated the complaints. Ascott Place did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.
The effort has now expanded beyond Ascott Place’s 241 units. Camfferman said he’s helping organize a tenants association at another Tampa complex owned by the same company, Maxx Properties, which owns 33 properties in six states. And as word spread about the association, he started to hear from tenants at properties under different ownership, too. They wanted to do the same thing.
As August began, the eviction moratorium ended. A new one went into place days later, but it doesn’t feel like stable ground to Kilgore, who said he fears “courts could strike it down at any time.” Rental aid is still coming at a trickle.
Foster worries about the slow distribution, which she said she believes can preempt tension between tenants and landlords.
“Certainly there are lots of landlords right now that are impacted by the nonpayment of rent, and they’re not all big corporations — some of them are mom-and-pops,” she said. “There’s no reason for them not to be paid, because the money is available and we have to do a better job of getting that money out.”
In Ashley Simpson’s apartment, a hole remains in the wall where maintenance replaced some piping to combat the smell. Other problems have stuck around, including flickering lights that make her worry about faulty wiring. In late July, she got COVID-19, missed work and had to overdraft her bank account to cover rent.
She’ll have to decide at the end of the month whether to renew her lease, and she said she’s worried the apartments will press her to pay more: Units like hers now begin at nearly $1,500 a month for new renters, way outside her budget.
“Even if I could,” she said, “I would not pay it for here.”