Editor’s note: Former Tenant Counselor Chea Berra heard countless stories every day about people struggling to find and maintain affordable housing. This is her story, in her words, of turning frustration and outrage into effective advocacy that changed Seattle law.
I’m a Tenant Counselor here at Solid Ground’s Tenant Services. A large part of my work is returning calls to our Tenant Hotline. We get calls from all over the state, and although we don’t have income restrictions on who we help, most of the callers are low income and oftentimes homeless individuals and families.
We’ve handled sometimes as many as 20 – 30 calls a day. We hear about the very real difficulty people have finding and maintaining housing all over the state. Rent increases and the subsequent lack of affordable housing are definitely the biggest issues we see. It’s nonstop and goes beyond low-income folks and also includes moderate-income tenants.
We also constantly hear about ex-landlords filing claims against tenants for bogus damages or so that the landlord can repaint or recarpet – basically remodel – which is against the law. But in the meantime, they send it to collection agencies and bang, there is another barrier to getting housing. Credit issues, just like evictions, are not only barriers to housing but also cause homelessness.
So we have to tell callers:
“Yes, they can raise the rent. Yes, there is no limit to how much or how often they can raise it. No, they don’t have to accept the St. Vincent de Paul pledge to pay what is owed to the landlord. Yes, they can evict you.
“Yes, the landlord can send the damage claim to collections. Yes, it will damage your credit. Yes, prospective landlords can use that to deny you a tenancy.
“No, they don’t have to accept your Section 8 voucher EVEN though they are going to get the same amount of rent. And yes, you will likely be homeless.”
God – it is outrageous.
We give them the legislative hotline and hope that in the midst of all they are going through, they take time or have energy to call their representatives.
I think everyone who works in our field can’t help but feel outraged, frustrated and hopeless sometimes. I’m a parent, I have an elderly mother, I have siblings. It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories, to know that people are at the mercy of unrestrained landlords, that they are living in sometimes filthy and dangerous places – because they know how hard it is to find different housing, that people are being exploited out of their money, kids are being traumatized.
I can go on and on and probably get emotional, but I’m here to talk about the advocacy work that I’m able to do to get through the emotion. Without it, I think – I know – that I could not keep mentally healthy. I have to be able to do something to make more of difference.
Advocacy for greater protections and more tools for tenants is an outlet and way to productively channel our frustration and outrage at what we hear and know.
And when we are able to actually accomplish a change in a law or help to create new laws that will break down some of the barriers our clients face – I can’t even express how excited it gets me.
When we found out that the bill passed that allowed judges to make sure unjustly filed evictions couldn’t be included in tenant screening reports, I decorated the slide in my PowerPoint that covered that issue with fireworks and people partying all over the slide.
It isn’t a perfect law; the eviction still stays as a public court record, and it won’t make a difference to everyone, but it’ll make a difference to some. And that’s great, because we have more to offer people, more hope to give them.
This year I was asked to provide public testimony for amendments that were being considered by the City of Seattle to its Source of Income Discrimination Bill. The city was looking at expanding the city’s discrimination ban from just against Section 8 vouchers to other sources of income.
It was one of the first times I did this kind of thing. But, by bringing the stories I heard over and over again of people not being able to access funds pledged from community organizations to help pay rent, I was able to bring to the table the new issue of landlords discriminating against the use of pledges for short-term rental assistance, and I saw it become an amendment added to the new proposed law.
I was asked to the city’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts Committee meeting to further discuss the issue and other possible issues. That took me to my coworkers and other organizations to get more personal stories, and I heard more and more stories of blatant discrimination against people who had to seek rental assistance.
I used those stories in the meeting. Now, I’m usually kind of intimidated by political beings and lobbyists, but I really didn’t have any problem pushing back at the meeting I attended.
I knew I had the moral high ground. I knew common decency and our humanity required that we act. God, it really is so easy when you know you’re right – isn’t it?
As the process continued, I became more impassioned, as I recounted outrageous and heartbreaking story after story. The killer for me was retelling the story of the family for which Solid Ground was providing rental assistance through the Homelessness Prevention Program. The landlord withdrew his offer of a unit as soon as he heard that she was getting that short-term rental assistance. This put a disabled woman, her disabled elderly mother, and her disabled son on the street.
At the subsequent hearings and opportunities to testify, my voice felt louder, my words became more pronounced, even in my own head, because I was sharing the story of someone who couldn’t speak – they were on the streets, trying to find ways to survive.
I basically went from timidly reading off my paper at my first public testimony and freaking out about seeing myself on that big screen that they have smack in front of you, to challenging the councilmembers to let these things continue happening. I felt empowered, propelled.
The bill passed, and now landlords in Seattle are no longer legally allowed to discriminate against tenants because they pay their rent using assistance programs like housing vouchers or disability payments. The law also bans special deals for tenants based on where they work and requires landlords to rent to the first applicant who qualifies – an effort to offset implicit or explicit bias.
When I went to the bill signing, it was particularly emotional for me. I purposely set out to photobomb the mayor’s signing (I was right smack behind him), because I felt like such a part of the accomplishment – not me personally – but because of my representing our clients, by telling their stories. It’s their voices, their stories, that I bring to the table to turn the tide – to start making a difference in more and more lives.
It’s like that part of the Grapes of Wrath, you know, where Tom Joad says, “You’ll see my face whenever a cop beats a guy or a child goes hungry”? It feels that way. It really is an honor to be able to do the work I do.