Renters' plight stirs both passion and action
By Mary Stamp
Because Terri Anderson knows the personal plights of renters, she is passionate to advocate on their behalf to change laws and hearts.
As director of the Tenants Union of Washington office in Spokane, she knows the moratorium on eviction established during the COVID pandemic is the only thing preventing mass evictions.
Talking with tenants every day, she hears their stories and truths.
"Our society values property rights over human rights in housing," said Terri, who has seen too many people become homeless. "It would make anyone passionate because the world of tenants is rife with injustices. My frustration leads to my passion.
"That drives me to fight injustice, and the greatest injustice is in housing. Systemic racism and policies such as redlining along with housing discrimination has caused a racial gap in home ownership and wealth that causes Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) households to disproportionately rent," she said. "Our society tends to shame and judge tenants. Instead of judging people for renting, we should work to assure decent, affordable housing. I've been a proud renter through my years," she said.
"Imbalance of power between tenants and landlords cause tenants to stay quiet and not speak up about poor housing conditions," she said. "Because tenants are afraid of being evicted for no cause, many accept living in substandard housing conditions when landlords do not provide decent, safe housing."
A recent report by the Spokane County Bar Association Eviction Defense Program stated that they expect 2,500 evictions a month when the moratorium lifts, compared to 80 to 100 evictions a month before the COVID-19 pandemic and the state moratorium on evictions.
Bills before the legislature address a myriad of housing issues and give her hope.
Those bills, along with federal assistance of $1,400 per person and additional rental assistance in current COVID-19 relief before Congress, will help somewhat. she said.
"How will it help the economy when tenants are thousands of dollars behind on rent? Larger stimulus checks mostly go into landlords' pockets," Terri said. "The $600 checks mostly went to fill cupboards."
Half of Spokane residents—110,000 people—rent, she said, and half of them are "rent burdened," paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. About 25,000 pay more than 50 percent of their incomes, she said.
"With one major illness, they could lose everything," Terri said.
The City Housing Action Plan indicates that 62 percent of renters are vulnerable to being displaced compared to only 38 percent of homeowners because of evictions, 20-day no cause notices, high rents and landlords converting property from rental housing, she said.
According to the City of Spokane Housing Plan, 80 percent of all black households and more than 60 percent of indigenous and other POC households are renters, while only 30 percent of white households rent and 70 percent are homeowners.
Terri explained that "housing and racial inequity go hand in hand. Lack of access to jobs and education causes housing inequities."
She also reminded that recent Spokane Regional Health District research showed an 18-year gap in life expectancy between areas where people own single-family homes and neighborhoods where most rent.
New rentals are now being built south of 57th Ave. and on N. Nevada in areas without parks, sidewalks or access to jobs, Terri said.
COVID has exposed such weaknesses in society, she said. For example, renters are at the top of the list of those in essential jobs facing more exposure to COVID and unable to work at home.
She expects that the expected post-COVID economic recovery will uplift homeowners, but not renters.
"My work has mostly been in communities of color," she said.
Terri was born in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of an American in the U.S. Army and a Japanese woman who met during occupation after World War II. Her mother had gone to college, spoke English and worked for the Army.
After coming to the U.S., they lived on bases in Tacoma and Richland, Wash., and in Missouri and South Dakota before going to Tehran, Iran.
While living in Winner, S.D., her family lived just outside the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, where her father started a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) center with Native veterans who were excluded by the whites-only VFW chapter in town.
She and her two sisters were often mistaken for Native American as a family of color in that rural community.
Terri was in fifth grade when her father was killed in a car accident while serving in Iran. Her mother, who had become a U.S. citizen, chose to raise their children in her husband's home town, Burlington, Wash., to be near their grandmother.
With aid from the GI Bill, Terri studied at Washington State University in Pullman, graduating in 1980 in political science.
In the 1980s, she was a paralegal with Spokane Legal Services.
"I was hired as a tribal court advocate because the manager at the employment office thought I was Native American," Terri said. "I was glad, because it opened a world of friends and relationships."
She later worked for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and shared an office with Deb Abrahamson. Terri and Deb often traveled together to the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, where Deb worked in drug rehabilitation and Terri was the Indian Child Welfare coordinator.
Learning of Deb's efforts to address radiation and other toxic pollution from years of uranium mining on the Spokane Reservation, Terri joined her efforts and became a board member of SHAWL (Sovereignty Health Air Water Land) Society.
She shared Deb's concern, because of her Japanese heritage and because of the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both Terri and Deb, who died in January, were from radiated communities.
Terri then worked 11 years as coordinator of multicultural student services at Spokane Community College, where she was advisor for the Native American Student Organization and Black Student Union, providing recruitment and retention services for students of color.
After working for years providing services, Terri wanted to be an organizer.
So in 2010, she joined AmeriCorps and worked as an organizer for a year with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. She helped them promote the Police Accountability Ordinance.
Then she was a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union, which "deployed" her to work in Yakima, Seattle and other communities.
Preferring to live in one place, she applied in 2013 when the Washington State Tenants Union announced a job in Spokane to work under a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant.
Her role was to preserve HUD Section 8 project-based able housing, which was at risk of being converted to market-rate housing, because as mortgages expire, units can be converted to market-rate housing.
"My job was to identify buildings that were at risk of losing HUD status and to organize tenants to keep rent affordable," Terri said."In 2014, rent went up as vacancy rates dropped, so homelessness increased."
In 2016, when the Tenants Union made Spokane a permanent office, Terri hired Amber Abrahamson through AmeriCorps for a three-year placement as a tenant counselor and educator.
Amber now works full time with Terri, who seeks another AmeriCorps placement for housing preservation and tenant organizing.
"Tax credit housing is now the major form of affordable housing," Terri said. "In the HUD Section 8 project-based program, renters paid just 30 percent of their income."
Terri, whose mother was Shinto, Buddhist and Methodist, said her family attended United Methodist churches in South Dakota and in Allen, Wash.
"In Japanese spiritual tradition, we are not limited to one faith but can be Buddhist, Shinto and Methodist," she said, noting that church was important in her high school years, grounding her in a welcoming community after her father died and when her mother had cancer.
"Knowing we were a poor family, the church paid me to run the day care," she said.
As she felt adopted and welcomed in that church and community, she has felt adopted and welcomed as part of the Native American community.
The strength from faith and spirituality helps her face the everyday opposition she meets in work on behalf of tenants.
"The landlord-tenant clash is a clash of systems, the capitalist view of housing and the view of housing as a human right," Terri said. "Any policy that hurts renters hurts people of color more, but I also find cross racial collaboration on tenant issues.
"Spokane's nonprofit, faith-based and BIPOC communities agree that to have a sustainable city, it's important to collaborate. In housing more than other areas, there is cross-racial collaboration, because schools struggle when families are evicted and students move to other schools," she said.
"If we use our voices, we can change policies to have a healthy city," Terri said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2021