However, Margaret DeMatteo, housing policy attorney for Sonoma County Legal Aid, which works with the Sonoma County Tenant Union, sees the power of “strength in numbers.”
“The fear of speaking out when there are bad conditions and the fear of retaliation from the landlord…I’ve had to talk a lot of tenants out of it just to get them to assert their basic rights,” DeMatteo said, who worked as a tenant attorney for years, told me.
“When tenants talk to each other, they begin to realize that they are not alone, and the more they come together, the more strength they exhibit. It is a high-performance model, in particular to meet basic demands and the problems of shared habitability.
The Sonoma County Tenants’ Union wants to be a driving force behind the trend in North Bay, where tenants are feeling the intense pressure of limited housing at costs that far exceed wages.
Petaluma recently snagged 30th place in the top 100 cities with highest rents in July 2022, a year-over-year change of more than 16%. Nearly half of the cities on the list were from California.
According to a May report from the California Housing Partnership, tenants must earn 2.3 times the Petaluma minimum wage to pay the average monthly rent in Sonoma County, according to a May 2022 report from the California Housing Partnership.
While some landlords, particularly individuals, have been hit hard by the loss of rental income and the out of whack economy, a housing affordability crisis that preceded the pandemic has long left renters, especially those with low income, in a particularly vulnerable position where the stakes are a literal roof over their heads.
Tenants and landlords struggle to understand the patchwork of overlapping, expiring and renewing tenancy laws. Pushing landlords back to court is a daunting proposition, particularly at a disadvantage as a monolingual Spanish speaker, for example, or without legal representation.
Free legal aid services are often overwhelmed and some 10% of tenants are represented in eviction cases compared to 90% of landlords.
“Legal aid probably won’t save you. We are not here to save you. Only the fact that you come together can remedy the situation,” Bolla told me. “Big real estate is influencing decisions everywhere, so all we have are numbers.”
To encourage the process, the Sonoma County Tenants’ Union is training volunteers to run the hotline, act as tenant counselors and canvass properties. If they receive a hunch or multiple calls from the same location, staff will go door-to-door to assess the extent of the problems and the tenants’ appetite for self-organization.
From there, the organization will help tenants develop a structure, set up meetings, and guide them through negotiations with management.
Staff recently helped a group of low-income seniors from the Copeland Creek complex in Rohnert Park form an association, agree on a list of grievances and secure meetings with the president of their property management company. . Another association had an abusive manager fired on the spot and regained access to a closed community hall.
Even partial victories are concrete and meaningful. In a complex with limited parking spaces where residents have suffered high costs due to aggressive towing of vehicles, no official association has met.
But residents circulated a petition that garnered dozens of signatures. Suddenly they received a notice from management that 10 visitor places would be added. A hotline counselor had to translate the news, provided only in English, to the resident who had led the effort.
In general, progress is slow and uneven by the organizers’ own admission. It’s a labor-intensive business that can falter or run into resistance from tenants just trying to get by.
The Sonoma County Tenants’ Union is a small team that depends on volunteers. They can’t always follow leads, but the idea is to at least plant seeds. The group organizes quarterly public meetings and organizes events with organizing experts and workshops on knowing your rights.
“There are these sparks, and we act on them. We spend a lot of time, and if we’re not able to ignite that fire, there’s another spark that pops up here, and so we tend to that,” Bolla said. “But the goal is to stay connected to all these people, because the energy will increase again.”
In the meantime, this guiding principle of connection and community as a means of empowering tenants reverberates again and again in small ways.
Hill, the current Sonoma County Tenant Union member and tenant counselor, learned through the organization that his own rent had been raised illegally. He regrouped with his neighbors and approached the authorities after being pushed away by his landlord, and they were reimbursed.
Alvarez, who was introduced to the Sonoma County Tenant Union when Kingsbury knocked on his door, showed up with his family and even testified at the rally the next day to support the eviction order for cause just, that the city council adopted with certain limits.
Alone, he had not been able to get the message across to all his neighbors about the illegal attempt to increase rent he had suffered. So when Kingsbury showed up, he was eager to get involved.
“It was like, ‘I’m here,'” he told me.
“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts monitoring reports to work for the community. If you have a concern, advice or hunch, you can contact “In Your Corner” columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or [email protected] On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.