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Tenants share stories, act together

Terri Anderson is a tenant.  She also advocates for tenants because she believes that if renters share their concerns and work together they can make Spokane a better place to live.

Terri Anderson organizes with tenants to keep them housed in healthy, safe housing.

As an organizer for the Spokane office of the Tenants Union of Washington since 2013, she brings together skills in organizing and passion for social, economic and environmental justice.

“Our goal is to help tenants remain in housing,” she said.

Advocacy for her means educating tenants, landlords, the community and policy makers.  It means organizing tenants to share their concerns and overcome their fears to speak up on behalf of themselves to improve their living conditions and problems with landlords.

Terri said Spokane is in a rental-housing crisis with a 1.3 percent vacancy rate. The rate statewide is 3 percent, with 5 percent considered a healthy rental vacancy rate.

With few vacancies, someone who is evicted may have nowhere to move.

“That hits low-income tenants the hardest and creates a fine line between being a tenant and being homeless,” she said.  “Our goal is to keep tenants in their homes, to reduce homelessness which has an impact on the individuals involved and the community.”

“Insight into what low-income tenants experience is important.  They are like the canaries in mines,” said Terri, who talks with 60 tenants a week. “Tenants from marginalized communities are the most vulnerable.”

She organizes tenant associations in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 project based buildings to address common concerns. The Tenants Union of Washington State has a statewide tenants rights hotline.  Locally there are three walk-in tenant counseling clinics open three days a week.

“Many tenants are afraid and feel shame, so they feel better when they realize others share their experiences.  At monthly tenant meetings tenants share their stories and organize for housing justice at the local, state and national levels,” she said.

Terri, who received a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in political science and social sciences, seeks to empower tenants through education on tenants’ rights and through leadership development, so they gain knowledge and confidence to advocate for themselves with landlords and work for policies that will protect them. 

The Tenants Union of Washington State, which started in Washington in 1977, has eight staff in Western Washington. 

It started after Seattle proposed to eliminate single-room occupancy rental housing.  Tenants organized and formed the Tenants Union, which successfully fought the proposal.  Since then, the Tenants Union has helped pass just-cause eviction, rental relocation and healthy homes for tenants policies in Seattle.

Terri listed common issues:

• Spokane’s rental market has a large percentage of aging buildings, with many in deteriorating conditions and no housing inspection program to establish condition standards.  Other Washington cities, including Airway Heights, Bellingham, Pasco and Seattle, have rental inspection programs.  These cities require regularly scheduled inspections of all rental property and hold building owners responsible for upkeep and repair.

• Bedbugs are another common issue.  Landlords often ignore provisions in the Washington Landlord-Tenant Act that require they pay for eradication and establish a prevention program, and they add charges to the tenants’ rent.  When tenants cannot pay, they issue notices to pay or vacate, which also violates the act.

• Other common issues include 20-day notices, non-return of damage deposits, tenants not seeking repairs, reasonable accommodation for disabled tenants, and tenant-landlord disagreements on terms of rental agreements.

• In Spokane, 43 percent of renters are “rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.  Many pay 50 to 70 percent of their incomes for rent, so there is no cushion for rent increases. Only 12 of 100 very-low-income tenants eligible for housing subsidies receive assistance.

“Perhaps the biggest burden on tenants is that Spokane has no just-cause eviction protection.  The current law allows a landlord to give a 20-day notice to terminate without reason,” said Terri.  “If the tenant cannot move in 20 days, the landlord can evict the tenant, even if the tenant is current on rent and has not violated the rental agreement, Terri said. If a tenant has an eviction on his/her record, it affects his/her future housing.

So Terri is organizing tenants to urge the City of Spokane to adopt a just-cause eviction ordinance.  She recently served on a Stakeholder Group on Rental Issues, Resources and Gaps, with the Spokane Community Assembly, where she and other tenants recommended the ordinance. While this group did not make any recommendations, the information was forwarded to the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable and Quality Housing.  They recommended action to explore a just cause eviction ordinance. 

Terri said her multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-faith background helps her work with diverse tenants.  In one apartment complex, 14 languages are spoken because there are many refugees and immigrants.

She is a first generation American on her mother’s side and fourth-generation Washingtonian on her father’s side.  Her father met her mother in Japan when he was stationed in Korea in the Army.  They lived in Fort Lewis, Tri Cities, South Dakota, Missouri and Tehran, Iran, where her father was killed in a car accident.  Then they moved to Burlington near her father’s mother.

Her mother was Buddhist and Shinto but became United Methodist.  In Tehran for two years, they lived in a Muslim community, not the American enclave, but attended the American church, where Protestants, Catholics and Jews worshiped together.

Terri explored and came to respect different religions.

“People of all faiths teach people to be good, treat neighbors well, and love their neighbors as themselves,” she said.

Terri also brings a diverse background of advocacy.

As a paralegal with Spokane Legal Services, assisting Spokane and Kalispel Tribal Courts, she met Deb and Twa-le Abrahamson and became involved with the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land (SHAWL) Society, advocating cleanup from uranium mining on the Spokane Reservation.

For 11 years, she coordinated Indian Child Welfare with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Plummer. Then she was in multicultural student services at Spokane Community Colleges, an AmeriCorps community organizer with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane’s Police Accountability Committee, and labor organizer with the State Employees International Union (SEIU) in Tacoma and then Ohio.

Wanting to live in Spokane, she applied when the Tenants Union was opening a Spokane office.

Terri began working with it under a housing preservation grant from HUD. 

Working with her in Spokane is Amber Abrahamson, who is in her second year with AmeriCorps Vista.  They seek funds for her to be a second local organizer.

The Spokane office also serves Eastern Washington cities such as the Tri-Cities, Yakima and Selah, Colville.

For information, call 464-7620 or terria@tenantsunion.org.



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