Orange County group drums up support for renters’ bill of rights

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2013 

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    Find English and Spanish versions of the Declaration of Tenant Rights on the Justice United website at bit.ly/1arxgli.

— Knowledge is power for tenants dealing with substandard housing, bad landlords and rotten leases, social justice advocates say.

Tish Galu, co-chairwoman of Justice United’s Affordable Housing Action Team, said she has seen what Orange County residents put up with to stay in places they can afford.

One woman, older and disabled, used Section 8 low-income vouchers to pay for her apartment. Her daughter would stay over to help after the woman’s twice weekly hospital visits for dialysis.

The landlord asked the daughter, who had her own apartment elsewhere, to sign the lease, too. Shortly after she signed, the rent shot up, and the mother could no longer afford her apartment. She learned about the landlord’s plan to evict her after getting home from the hospital.

“The woman cried, because she knew she couldn’t stay in the home,” Galu said.

That’s when Justice United, a grassroots social justice organization, got involved. The landlord refused to meet with them, so they called in Tara Fikes, Orange County’s Housing, Human Rights and Community Development director. The landlord eventually agreed to repay the additional rent he had been collecting from the woman, Galu said.

That’s one reason for a new Declaration of Tenants’ Rights that spells out tenant and landlord responsibilities and tells renters where to go for help, she said. UNC Civil Legal Assistance researched state housing laws to draft the document, the capstone to Justice United’s fair housing campaign that started in 2011.

Justice United will ask the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to endorse the declaration Tuesday. The Chapel Hill Town Council, Orange County Board of Commissioners, Greater Chapel Hill Association of Realtors and the Orange County Human Relations Committee already support it.

The Realtors group holds its 500 members to a higher standard, member Desiree Goldman said.

“Each party in any real estate transaction, whether for purchase or rental, has certain legal rights,” she said. “In order for those rights to be protected, the parties understand what those rights are. All efforts to publicize or otherwise communicate rights will make tenant-landlord relationships fair and responsible.”

Galu said violations are not always dire or obvious; it could be just charging some tenants a pet fee but not others.

“We have dealt with over 100 tenants in the last six months, and we learn about new circumstances almost every day,” she said. “They think they have to live with the situation, which is scary.”

One group of low-income renters fought back with Justice United’s help when their landlord tried to charge them extra to maintain a shared septic system, she said. State law makes that the property owner’s responsibility, and the renters fought off the extra charges based on that information, she said.

Two more groups of about 40 people attended housing workshops, said Delores Bailey, executive director of the nonprofit housing group Empowerment Inc. and a Justice United Affordable Housing Action Team co-chairwoman.

“What sprung from those were people who wanted to ask questions, who needed assistance, probably a hundred counseling hours went into helping tenants figure out what their rights were and that they did have rights,” Bailey said.

Galu said they haven’t heard of any landlords retaliating against tenants who assert their rights. Those who don’t follow the law can face official and community-based ramifications, she said.

“Word will get out that you’re not a good place to live,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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