If you spent any time around Occupy Charlotte's home base this past weekend, you probably saw a group of men, women and children marching with an “Action NC” banner. Those familiar with local Spanish-language newspaper Qué Pasa Mi Gente may have recognized them as residents of West Charlotte's Stonewall Jackson homes, whose predicament the paper has covered extensively.
Earlier this month, some 21 families living in Stonewall Jackson Homes received letters telling them that upcoming repairs would be forcing them out of their homes and that they had until October 31 to vacate the premises. Stonewall's owners neither offered residents alternative lodging options nor assured them that they would be able to return to their homes.
Frustrated, some Stonewall tenants called Action NC. Héctor Vaca, the grassroots activist organization's Charlotte director, has worked closely with the tenants to reach an agreement with the complex that will accommodate those being told to leave, and to ensure the residences are up to code. We spoke to Vaca for an update on the case.
Vaca: They contend the company can easily fix some of the many vacant apartments on the property first and then move them to those. Since all apartments at Stonewall Jackson are in need of repairs, tenants want to know how the company decided who stays and who doesn't. Since those being told to leave are immigrants, many feel there is some discrimination.
Added to this is the fact that some of the families being told to leave have leases that have not expired.
During the summer SJH stopped giving tenants six- or 12-month leases. Instead, tenants were offered month-to-month leases, supposedly in order to give tenants more liberty and flexibility to leave when they want ... In reality, a month-to-month lease provides tenants less rights. A month-to-month lease also allows a landlord the ability to evict tenants with less notice. Tenants feel this was done in order to evict everyone more easily.
Do the tenants have legal options?
Without a legitimate reason and the court process, a landlord cannot evict a tenant with a non-expired lease. In this sense, the landlord is breaking the law. According to conversations we have had with HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), tenants should not leave on the 31st. It is not an eviction if the landlord does not follow the proper process that includes going to eviction court. Tenants have the right to go and speak before a judge before an eviction is valid.
Their apartments are in dire need of serious repairs. There is black mold on the walls in several apartments. Other maintenance-related concerns include windows that fall down when opened [when windows don't fit the frame it is a security issue); huge gaps in the frames around doors [allowing air to get in, which raises utility bills]; smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors that don't work; leaks from sinks and tubs, doors that don't close completely or don't lock; and appliances that don't work.
Are the problems that Stonewall Jackson residents are facing common to Charlotte's home renters?
We have seen many issues associated with the home-rental industry. In many cases tenants do not know their rights and landlords take advantage of this. Unfortunately, landlord-tenant laws in N.C. favor landlords more. This can be attributed to the fact that landlords are currently better organized and have their own associations to lobby in their favor. This is why Action NC is working on creating a tenants' rights association, in order to give tenants a voice and affect legislation with the purpose of gaining more protections for tenants.
In Charlotte, we have already formed such a committee and have had several victories. The purpose and mission of the tenants' rights association is to educate and develop leadership from the ranks of renters and help them work toward better legislation that will support the interests of renters as well as provide more protections against bad policies.
Who decided to make this issue a part of Occupy Charlotte?
Every day in our state people are losing their homes, either to foreclosures or to evictions. Many tenants are living in bad conditions where their apartments are in disrepair or their landlords are less than honest or overbearing. The tenants of SJH saw the connection between their plight and that of others in their community. Seeing this connection, residents of Stonewall Jackson felt that they should support the [Occupy] movement. But, on a more personal level, the tenants saw this as an opportunity to seek more support from the general community. Residents of SJH attended two [Occupy Charlotte] general assembly meetings and participated in the rally this past Saturday.
Juan Palacios [one of the residents of SJH] was given the opportunity to speak out about the situation and tied it to the general [Occupy] movement. Juan also asked that the crowd support the tenants in their Reoccupy Our Homes rally. This was received with roaring applause.
The Reoccupy Our Homes rally is scheduled for noon on Monday, Oct. 31, at 5751 Airport Dr.