I'm John Henneberger and I'm speaking today with one of Texas leading workers on the area of tenant rights, working to protect tenants in this state, which is a big job to do given the backward nature shall we say of tenant protections in the state? It's a tough job to be an advocate and Shoshana Krieger is the best.
Shoshana, welcome to A Little Louder.
It's lovely to be here. Thanks for having me John.
You run a non-profit organization in BASTA that's on the forefront in this state on protecting tenant rights and helping tenants organize to exercise their legal rights under the law. Tell us about BASTA. What does BASTA stand for and what do you all do?
Yeah. so BASTA, building and strengthening tenant action or
we've been around for a little over five years and we work to organize tenants into tenants associations at multi-family properties, so that folks can organize around the issues that they're facing, and strategize to ensure that the solutions that they want got enacted. That can be anything from repairs on a property, to getting rid of a bullying manager, or at one mobile home park we worked with the residents to actually purchase, their community. So it's whatever the tenants who are on the ground want to be working towards, we will support them in doing so so long as they're doing it in a collective manner.
The members of BASTA have had a number of important wins, like taking over that mobile home park I think ultimately to protect the ability of the people to keep their homes there and securing some, improvements or, or dealing with, the wake of the, the natural disaster, the big freeze we had a year ago. And there were a lot of tenants affected by that. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things BASTA, activists have done?.
Yeah. So in the wake of winter storm URI last year, a lot of multifamily properties in Austin were without water for a week, two weeks, some even three weeks or a month. And so in the immediate aftermath BASTA, along with other nonprofit partners like Workers Defense Project, we orchestrated a volunteer effort to actually just bring water and food to those properties. And so that was the immediate disaster response. But then what happened as we were at the properties was that we started hearing lots of issues from tenants about the ongoing repair issues, which they had prior to the winter storm. And so it was no accident what were the properties, which didn't have water three weeks, a month out after the storm. Those were properties, which were in poor conditions before the storm itself. So we started working with some of the associations, some of the properties, tenants of properties, who we had been delivering water and food, for to organize and then fight for a longer term, and more structural changes.
So at one property. there were a lot of, mold issues. And so those tenants advocated with the code department, to get, citations issued and that was escalated to the building standards commission and we actually got the largest fines the BSC has ever given. At another property, which was actually without gas it's project-based Section 8 property, and we worked with those tenants to negotiate temporary relocation, which included both financial assistance for tenants a right to return and better communication in that process. Another property we're at, Rosemont at Oak Valley, which, is owned by a subsidiary of the county, there also were relocation issues of over six months after the storm itself. And we continue to work with that associations to ensure that there's justice for those families.
those are lifesaving actions on the part of BASTA in those properties. I think about all of the multifamily properties and all of the really substandard multifamily properties around the state,
Austin's lucky to have organized tenants doing this work, but there's certainly a big need in the rest of the state that's not being fulfilled because there's not the equivalent of BASTA in most cities in the state, right?
Yeah. And I would also say that even in Austin, we don't have sufficient resources to meet the needs and the requests that we get. We have a long waiting list at this point of folks who are interested in organizing, but we don't have the staff capacity to be able to assess every single person who contacts us and wants to organize. And because we're in the state of Texas, and as you said in the intro, a state, which is fairly hostile to tenants, it means that organizing is even harder. So it means having a staff organizer doing the work, it's going to take more work for that person than if that person was an organizer in LA, in New York, in a state where it wasn't as risky to be organizing to begin with and you have more just basic laws, which protect you and institutions which protect you, which means the organizer doesn't have to do as much groundwork, with folks to make sure that they have the confidence to be able, to, exert their rights.
And then also oftentimes, I think on the ground here, we may start at a property and then the tenant say, yo, I don't want to take that risk. And it's totally understandable. And so then it's our responsibility to be like, okay. If you don't want to that's okay. That makes sense for you as an individual to not want to risk your home.
And so I think that in other states with more protections, you might be able to push a little bit more, but we have to be realistic with the folks we're working with because it's not my home, it's not an organizer and my team's home. So it's easy for us to be like, yeah, rock the boat, but we have to be responsible as we're rocking the boat.
I guess the risk to organizers are they could get a hit with, harassment from management, like trespassing charges, calling the police on you when you're just on the property talking to people about their rights, but for tenants, it's pretty serious too, because they literally could, as you say, face eviction.
I think a lot of people don't understand what organizing means. And particularly in relationship to, to tenants. What is an organized group of tenants? What do they look like? What do they accomplish?
BASTA's definition of organized tenants and under our model, organized tenants are a group of tenants which comprises a super majority of tenants. So not just a few folks who come together and there were five people and it's a 300 unit property and they're like, we come up with our list and we represent anyone. Our definition of organized means you have to have the base and the base is the foundation. And in order to have a base at a multifamily property, that means you need to be talking to your neighbors. And so you need to have a solid base of people who say, Hey, I support what you're organizing around, which means you have to have clear issues defined and clear solutions proposed to be able to engage the base around it. And then you need to have a subset of people who are the steering committee or the planning team, whatever, an association wants to call it, who are the folks who are doing more of the strategizing, are in the weeds are figuring out what they're going to propose to the general body. But that proposing to the general body and that accountability to that larger base is crucial.
And so all of that takes a lot of groundwork and isn't something you call a meeting and then the next day there's change. Cause there's process, which needs to happen. And you have to start talking about what does consensus decision-making look like? What does accountability look like?
What does having power a little bit of power look like? Cause for steering committee members and planning team members, oftentimes this is one of the first times in which they're in a position where they have some power or influence, as opposed to at their jobs where, you know, maybe the lowest person on the totem pole.
Sometimes that also means you have to say, okay, now you have some power, you have a direct line to the manager. What does that look like? Like how are you going to use that and how are you going to stay true to your neighbors and be using that for the collective greater good. And that's where the rubber meets the road.
That to me is the best part of organizing is that the leadership development, which occurs in that space and creating a base of folks who are going to be able to lead a movement in a way which is not hierarchical, and which is, looking at the collective, more than the individual or the personal,
It's important work. The reason I particularly wanted to talk to you in this episode is there's been publicity in the last month or so about the Austin city council considering some expanded protections for tenants beyond what exists in current law. I know that the members of the city council often reach out to people who are members of BASTA and seek their advice and input on these types of things.
And I know that you monitor what's going on at the city council and are often asked about these laws. Can you tell us what's cooking at Austin city hall?
Yeah. so there are two exciting, potential, laws, which may be enacted, there were resolutions, which were, passed, unanimously. in February, directing city staff to create two ordinances. And both of these ordinances, would significantly change the rights of tenants in Austin. So the first one, which is related to what we were just talking about, which is all about organizing, would give tenants be right, to organize in Austin.
UT did a report, a couple of years ago, which, looked at different states and jurisdictions and what a right to organize could look like and proposed a model ordinance. And the model ordinance, which they had proposed would include the right of tenants to be able to knock on their neighbor's doors, to pass out flyers, to be able to invite an organizer from a nonprofit onto the property to be able to have meetings in common areas. And that organizers and tenants could engage in these activities without fear of the police being called, which is something which we definitely have seen. The other resolution which was passed was directing staff to, draft an ordinance, which would give tenants an opportunity to cure lease violations before a landlord could proceed with an eviction. Over 40 states already have these opportunities to cure. They're pretty standard. and what that is is in Texas right now, if a landlord. wants to evict you because let's say you didn't pay rent, then they would give you a notice to vacate. It says you have to get out.
And normally it's one to three days, and then you could go to your landlord and be like, I have the money I have the money in your landlord could say. Nope, not going to accept it. A lot of times landlords will accept it, but the landlord's under no obligation to accept it. What this ordinance would do would be add a step so that the tenants would receive a notice, which says, Hey, you have X amount of time to fix your lease violation.
It could be non-payment of rent. It could be other things. If you do not, then we will proceed to that next step. So basically just gives us an additional amount of time for a tenant to come up with the money. if it's a noise issue, right to like correct the noise issue, to fix the problem to avert the eviction filing to begin with and to keep people housed.
it's kind of an anti-gotcha to give people an opportunity to get, right and not just to lose their home, on the first time some problem occurs.
Yeah. And I think that your framing of an anti-gotcha is a really good framing because also oftentimes the tenants who a landlord may say, oh, I'm not going to accept your rent even though you're saying you have it now are the tenants who are sticking up for themselves to begin with. So it's not totally divorced from the organizing conversation or the tenants trying to exert their rights conversation. Because it's the tenant who's made repair complaints, who's called code who they may be like, nah, I would rather not take your rent and just have you out because you're a headache.
And so landlords choose who they decide to give leniency and who they don't. And this would say there's a standard kind of period, which tenants can fix the problem before we go to the serious and violent act of an eviction.
These two issues, the right to organize and the right to cure. And you say the right to cure is present in 40 other states, already, Texas being only one of 10 Where tenants don't have that legal right. So who's for this and who's against it. What do you see when you watch the city council talk about these issues?
Well, both of these resolutions passed, with, full council, support.
There were some amendments, especially for the cure one which gives staff more flexibility in terms of what the final ordinance could look like. there also, there's going to be a question of what are the exceptions to cure. So, imminent threat of harm, criminal activity, but then what kind of criminal activity? Does, you know, smoking a joint mean that you don't have an opportunity to correct, not smoking a joint and result in an eviction.
And then, the, Austin board of realtors got in an amendment which said that they should consider certain property damage. But what does that look like? And we're talking about cure, like can attendant fix the problem? Not can a landlord proceed if the tenant hasn't fixed the problem. So if we do property damage, right does that cover a kid has hit a, a soccer ball through a window and the window's broken. Does mom have the opportunity to fix the window before an eviction proceeds that that, that property damage could be there. Right? So the extent of what those exceptions are and both the apartment association and the Austin board of realtors, obviously are wanting landlords to be able to act with more, with more latitude.
It, it does seem like there is political will in the city on the council, to enact these. Also just for cure, it's important to note during the pandemic for most of the pandemic, there was a 60 day cure period for non-payment cases. This would say like, Hey, we did that before now we're going to make it permanent, but not at 60 days. The amount of days they're talking about would be between seven and 30. And it seems like there was when, folks were testifying for the resolutions. there was a fairly, wide support among community organizations, among the tenants, of folks saying, Hey, it's important to keep people housed.
And it's also important, that cops aren't called on tenants when they're just trying to stick up for themselves, to fight things which are illegal and immoral.
If people want to follow this or people have an opinion and want to get involved in the process, what's the opportunity to do that?
Yeah. So the timelines for them is the cure ordinance is supposed to come back to council at the end of March. They might ask for an extension. We're already almost mid-March, so that very well might happen. The organizing, one is supposed to come back in July. The office of civil rights is doing, a series of listening tours, in which tenants rights is one of the issues on the listening tours and they are, getting community feedback on these issues of organizing, right to organize and, whether someone should be able to cure a lease violation.
So those are over the next two months. So I would strongly encourage people to check out their website. I think BASTA either we shared yesterday or we're going to be sharing by the time this airs, it will be shared, on our social media, the information on those sessions.
Anything happening with BASTA that you want to highlight?
Oh, well, I guess, on eviction matters, we are seeing eviction numbers in Travis county approaching the numbers of pre pandemic levels. So we have our eviction solidarity network where folks can volunteer, to watch and track court proceedings, much like, Texas Housers is doing, in other parts of the state, really terrific work.
So folks are interested in volunteering to CourtWatch let us know. you can find information on our website. everything is still virtual, so it's relatively easy to do. We're also doing rapid response calls to tenants to make sure that they are connected, with the resources they need.
So that's one area of opportunity. And then just following our social media pages, you will see other opportunities to support Rosemont tenants and their continued battle to get rid of, folks who aren't overseeing county programs, adequately, or if there's a pro probably in the next couple of weeks, there'll be something on a displacement of 80 families in east Austin, which we're starting to just organize with. So following our social media, there'll be more kind of property, specific ways folks can get engaged.
I hope we can follow up with the Rosemont tenants. I think their fight has been an inspiring one and it's been, they've been particularly effective which is a situation where an apartment project that was owned by a governmental or quasi governmental entity let the place go to hell and, would refuse to make repairs and deal with serious mold problems and habitability issues and the like. It's certainly bad when any landlord doesn't treat tenants right, but it's especially bad when one that's associated with the government fails to fails to respect tenants rights.
Yeah, and we have, I mean, tenants are right now being, moved back into their apartments and of the four mold tests, which we conducted with professional licensed mold inspectors, all four came back positive with mold, but they are still forcing tenants to move back in. So actually today, city county, city council county commissioners court, should be appointing a new board members for four of the five seats, of the board, which oversees this project, because it needs wholesale reform. It's a travesty. That is a whole other day of a conversation.
If a tenant is listening, who's interested in organizing or interested in becoming more knowledgeable about their rights and how to maneuver the very unequal situation in this state, between landlords and tenants. can you join BASTA or can you, can you get more information?
So you could go to our website to sign up for, mailing lists or if you're interested in organizing there's a form, for, organizing interests.
Also, you can call us. We have a wait list right now, but we still encourage everyone to call. And we, where our resources allow, we're supporting folks. But I would definitely encourage people, to, reach out and get involved because it's really important that everyone who is a renter is speaking up because we're a majority renter city.
But our, the, the laws and the regulations and the way that so much resources are distributed in our city do not reflect that we are a majority renter city.
Shoshana, what's the website.
It's BASTAaustin.org, B A S T A A U S T I N dot org. And then our social media handles are all @BASTAaustin.
Got it. Well, thanks a lot Shoshana for taking the time to talk to us about what's going on. We'll all be following with great interest what the City of Austin does with regards to expanding, the rights of tenants to organize and providing them an opportunity to cure in this majority renter city.
Thanks so much, John.