Renters “fed up with high rent and hazardous conditions” held a public hearing Saturday on the lawn of the Bedford County Historic Courthouse.
According to a recent press release, the goal was to “expose the worsening housing crisis and present urgently-needed solutions.”
Local government officials, housing advocates, and community leaders were invited and the Bedford County Listening Project presented a report, “Defending our Homes: Addressing the Housing Human Rights Crisis in Rural Middle Tennessee,” built from 170 in-depth interviews with local renters.
“We just wanted to go around and connect with our neighbors again and see how everything is going, so that we could get more up-to-date data and then present the report once again,” said JoAnne Vasil, who has lived in Shelbyville since 2008 and is on the leadership team Shelbyville Tenants Organizing for Protection (or, S.T.O.P.).
Vasil explained that implementing these regulations is important because towns like Shelbyville do not have the protections of bigger cities, like Murfreesboro or Nashville, who are under Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA), which can only be implemented in counties with a population of 75,000.
From February to August, BCLP reported the group has spoken with over 1,000 renter households in Shelbyville through door-to-door visits and meetings. During these visits, the BCLP team conducted in-depth interviews about the escalating rental housing crisis, and found that 46% of renters surveyed spend more than half of their income for housing, and 10% pay nearly all of their income on rent, according to the press release.
The hearing also included the findings of the report, renters’ testimonies, and responses from city and county officials.
Those who spoke at the event said Shelbyville is “in the midst of a renting crisis,” citing skyrocketing rents –which rose 31% last year– and a lack of repairs to persistent unsafe housing conditions.
A testimony from a single mother at Park Trail in Ward 4 of Shelbyville said her rent went from $600 to $863 (41%) in one year. She said she spends more than half of her income on rent.
Another single mother, who is also spending more than 50% of her income on rent, said in her testimony, “We have to choose to feed our kids and pay our day car bills to be able to go to work, or do we pay our rent? That’s a hard decision and many times we had to go without food or scrounge together something to be able to pay bills…”
The report also tells stories of Shelbyville landlords buying properties as “quick investments” and then neglecting their properties, leading to hazardous living conditions that residents are loath to report because of the constant threat of retaliatory eviction.
One young couple with a 5-week old baby, living in a complex bought by out-of-town landlords using public financing during the pandemic, shared, “Last week the water was coming out of the taps coal black, and my grandpa said that we should call the city and ask them to test it, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to risk the landlord getting mad at us for calling the city or testing the water.”
In the report, renters describe discrimination as “commonplace,” and reveal a widespread perception that landlords make their own rules while city and court officials look the other way.
Another couple renting at the recently-purchased Magnolia Village apartments said, “We were told we couldn’t have a lease because of a felony conviction on our record, but they let us move in anyway without a lease; now we’ve been paying $1240 a month for over a year with no lease to protect us, no fridge for a year, and no heat in the apartment all winter.” The couple and their young child were evicted less than a month later.
“Right now we are in the early stages of determining what we can and cannot do. We want to be mediators…mediate between the landlords and the renters and just make sure everybody has safe and affordable housing,” said city manager Scott Collins.
This is why during Saturday’s public hearing, BCLP announced a priority list of recommendations and a “Renters Bill of Rights” for the local government to act upon, which included:
- Guarantee support for renters in housing court
- Extend the Shelbyville Renter Committee Charter and establish an Office of the Tenant Advocate
- Encourage the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to adopt renter protections
- Establish a landlord registry
- Enact the “Renters’ Bill of Right,” which include protections over landlord retaliation
“Asking the city for a federal rule? Bear with me,” said Tristan Call, a lead organizer with BCLP. “Here in Shelbyville five complexes have been bought by out-of-town complexes and some of them billionaire corporations in Brooklyn, in Los Angeles…with government federal money…Bedford Manor, Admiral Place, Oak Knoll, Park Trail, and The Ridge. That’s 400 units.”
BCLP hopes to present this proposal at an upcoming city council meeting in September.
“The first time we did the report nobody from the city got on, so to have members of the city council come, the mayor, the city manager, is a big deal,” said Vasil.
Councilman Henry Feldhaus, who spoke at the event, said, “I’ll apologize for anyone in the very beginning, years ago, who brought up some of these, we felt like we were ambushed at a council meeting. A bunch of people came up with tenant complaints and we had never heard of these things…In that timeline, we dismissed it, saying we don’t have the legal authority to do this kind of thing. But you’re persistence…has changed my mind completely about what’s going on completely with the landlords…We’ve a much better handle on it now, so it’s no longer being dismissed with disrespect.”
Shelbyville City Mayor Randy Carroll spoke at the event, describing how when he and his wife were a young married couple, they lived off of his salary as a Navy sailor, which payed $2,000 around 1970. “I know where you’re coming from…We want to show that in the city we care. We care,” he said.
For more information on Bedford County Listening Project, visit their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/bedfordcountylisteningproject/.
They have been representing renters in the county since 2018 and are associated with the nonprofits SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and Southern Crossroads.