To complement our frequent reporting on these subjects, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism partnered with the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis and Memphis Public Interest Law Center to host our first renter-focused event, “Navigating Memphis’ Broken Rental System,” on Jan. 17. We gathered four of Memphis’ preeminent housing experts and about 35 Memphians from across the city at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library for discussion.
The attendees shared their challenges, questions and fears, and the experts provided practical help via a panel discussion.
You can view the panel, which lasted about 25 minutes, in its entirety above.
And here, we’ve pulled out five key pieces of advice:
If you or someone you know is falling behind on rent, the experts encourage communicating with the property manager or landlord early and often. When property managers know the rent might be a bit late that month, they may not escalate the issue as quickly. And, in cases where they’re already threatening eviction, they are often willing to work out a payment plan if asked.
“Try to work with your landlord,” said Mary Hamlett, vice president of family programs at Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. “One of the toughest things right now is to find yourself between housing.”
Even if negotiations don’t lead to a peaceful resolution, they can help buy time, Johnson said. And renters can use this time to figure out where they’re going next.
Ask for help
Along with negotiating, tenants should seek help from friends and local nonprofits as soon as they start falling behind on rent, said Cindy Ettingoff, CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services.
“Start the second you see trouble coming,” she said.
Hamlett, who has seen far too many families fall into homelessness, also drove this point home.
“Seek assistance from community organizations, churches, families, friends (and even) enemies, if you have to,” Hamlett said.
Pay your rent
Multiple times throughout the night, Johnson repeated the same advice: Don’t withhold rent.
Many Memphians withhold rent when their landlords aren’t fixing maintenance issues, and it almost always backfires, she said.
“Always pay your rent because you will get evicted,” she said. “In Tennessee, if you don’t pay your rent, they will not listen to any bad thing that your landlord did.”
If the maintenance issue is an emergency — such as a busted pipe or broken heater in the winter — she said renters should pay for the fix themselves if they can and then seek reimbursement later. Taking reimbursement into one’s own hands by withholding rent hands landlords an easy path to eviction.
Ettingoff begged tenants in the room to listen to this advice, saying landlords “will come down on you” for missed rent and are legally allowed to do so.
Talk to your neighbors
If an apartment tenant is facing a maintenance issue, there’s a great chance their neighbors are as well. So, they should probably try solving it together.
Alex Uhlmann, an organizer with the Memphis Tenants Union, said this is one of his most common pieces of advice for renters because it gives them more power when facing their landlord or submitting complaints to code enforcement.
Uhlmann encouraged tenants to both call code enforcement and document their maintenance issue — whether it be mold, a mice infestation or a broken heating system — whenever the landlord isn’t making needed repairs.
The panelists also recommend talking to neighbors and friends as a great way to find quality places to rent in Memphis. If no friends have rented at a particular apartment complex before, Ettingoff recommended driving there and talking to whoever is around. Hamlett suggested that tenants look on social media, to see what people are saying about that complex, landlord or property manager.
The panelists unanimously encouraged renters to work toward a less broken system.
Big policy changes often start with neighbors simply talking to each other, Uhlmann said. From there, powerful organizations can be built that can change the face of renting in Memphis and America.
Ettingoff asked the renters in the room to call their city council member, county commissioner and state representative to voice both their housing concerns and their support for a landlord registry. Johnson told them to attend council and commission meetings, educate themselves about housing policy and get their neighbors involved as well.
“Make a commitment starting tonight to stay involved and pull somebody else in,” she said. “That’s the only way it’s going to change is getting organized because power likes power.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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