How tenants at a southeast Atlanta complex are organizing for fair housing

By Adam Renuart

 

Photo: The Trestletree Tenants Association at a 2020 rally. Photo courtesy of Miracle Fletcher.

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Miracle Fletcher and Velissa Sims live at Trestletree Village Apartments, but they say they’ve found it hard to call the complex home.

 

Sims, a 32-year-old mother and childhood educator who speaks with a quiet intensity, has lived at the Ormewood Park complex for 12 years. But for six of those years, she says she’s struggled to get her landlord to remove mold growing in her closets—in addition to recent unresolved maintenance requests to fix her stove and dishwasher. 

 

Fletcher is an upbeat and outspoken 38-year-old “Grady Baby,” a mother, and a cancer survivor. She says she was forced to switch apartments after sewage water flowed out of her tub and flooded her apartment. “We’re not talking about cosmetic things,” says Fletcher. “We’re talking about things that can’t be ignored.” In an answer to a recent civil suit Fletcher filed in Fulton County Superior Court, Trestletree and the Monroe Group denied that Fletcher’s concerns were ignored and denied that they failed to do repairs.

 

In the summer of 2020, Sims, Fletcher, and other residents sent a letter to Monroe Group to discuss delayed maintenance repairs and what they felt were unwarranted fines for lease violations but say the managers refused to meet with them. According to court filings, Trestletree and Monroe Group representation deny refusing to meet with Fletcher and the Association. Trestletree and the Monroe Group, which manages Trestletree, did not respond to Canopy Atlanta’s multiple requests for comment about the residents’ allegations. 

 

These and other issues weren’t isolated; they became a constant topic of conversation between residents when they saw each other in passing, say Fletcher and Sims. Miriam Gutman, an attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation for low-income clients, says the organization became involved with more than 20 tenants from the complex with issues related to evictions or alleged leasing violations. The prevailing attitude among residents, says Sims, was: We’re all going through the same stuff—what can we do about it?

 

The answer for Sims, Fletcher, and other residents was to organize—a complex and challenging feat that, through a partnership with Atlanta’s Housing Justice League, has led to an acknowledgement of legitimacy by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—which confers certain rights to the tenants association and creates direct communication to HUD’s local contracting partner.

 

Because many residents at Trestletree are part of the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, they can advocate for themselves through tenant associations. It’s a valuable tool for Section 8 voucher holders, who often lack housing options due to the high demand for vouchers and the lack of landlords in the city who are willing to take them. “If someone loses, or is pushed out of subsidized housing, they have very few options,” says Georgia State University Urban Studies Professor Dan Immergluck. “Landlords have extreme power compared to tenants.” 

 

Housing Justice League, an organization that advocates for safe and affordable housing, is responding to this power imbalance by helping tenants organize at complexes like Trestletree. HJL members canvassed the complex in 2018, during which they planted the seeds for the tenants association. Since then, Sims says HJL has backed tenants as they worked with management, helping explain federal guidelines outlined by HUD in addition to providing emotional support and printing flyers for Tenant Association events. 

Miracle Fletcher and Velissa Sims prepare for their first tenant rally in 2020. Photo courtesy of Miracle Fletcher.

HJL has worked with tenants in at least seven Atlanta properties to form associations, according to its website. The organization uses both policy advocacy and grassroots organizing to fight gentrification, displacement, and eviction. But McLaughlin feels policy work can be limited and often fails to address immediate needs, which is why she feels equipping Section 8 tenants with the tools to advocate for themselves is so important. “Our goal is to help people build power in their properties,” she says.

 

That power interested Sims, who had previously written letters concerned about management to Monroe Group’s corporate offices. Monroe Group replied to at least one letter, writing that “the surrounding community demands that our property take swift action with problematic residents” and that, if Sims was unwilling to abide by their guidelines, she was free to seek other housing. Fletcher saw a chance to improve not only her own situation but also that of future tenants. She shares her version of a battle cry inspired by the work: “Our foundation is unity. Our strength is knowledge. Our voice applies pressure. United, we have limitless power.”

 

But those ideals took a while to bear fruit: Troubles with coordinating residents and reaching federal offices drained momentum from the tenants association. “It seemed like things were not going to get better,” Sims says. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, during which landlords still have evicted tenants for lease violations and other issues despite the eviction moratorium, that the group was reenergized.

 

Today, the Trestletree Tenants Association meets biweekly, reaching out to HUD officials to schedule meetings or preparing and reviewing what they say is documented evidence of management inaction.

 

Sims says it’s difficult to speak for all complex residents when less than a dozen residents of the 188-unit complex are part of the association. She wishes the group had larger numbers—“It can feel like . . . Are we going to get what we need and want out of this?” she says—though Fletcher notes there is consistent interest from other residents who don’t attend meetings.

 

According to the lawsuit against Trestletree and Monroe Group, some residents say that additional obstacles came from management, who attempted to form a Trestletree Residents Council—to “learn what’s going on in your community,” according to a flyer—as an alternative to the resident-created Tenants Association. Representatives for Trestletree and the Monroe Group later denied the allegations that management attempted to form an alternate group, according to court filings.

 

Despite the hurdles, the Trestletree Tenants Association has scored wins, both big and small. The biggest is formal recognition from HUD, plus establishing direct communication between tenants and HUD’s National Housing Compliance, the contractor for HUD who works with Monroe Group.

 

As they fight for acceptance, the Association has found community with each other. Sims remembers a small party celebrating their official first year of existence, where even non-Association residents stopped by to offer words of encouragement. The feeling of kinship extends to the other tenants associations HJL has put them in contact with, “connecting us with people fighting the fight,” as Fletcher puts it. 

 

That sort of united front is what Immergluck feels is necessary to make greater changes in housing policy, noting the highly organized infrastructure of landlord groups across the state. “I think it’s fair to say Atlanta is the largest metropolitan area [in the nation] without a metro-wide tenants group,” he says. “We need an organization that has tens of thousands of tenants, that has power in the state capitol.”

 

For Sims, the potential is there for a movement. When she visits other tenants associations’ meetings, she hears stories that mirror her own. “This is not just Trestletree having issues not solved at the apartment complex, not just Atlanta—it’s across Georgia,” she says. She already has a list of things she would change if she were in charge of HUD, including requiring greater financial transparency for management companies, community surveys, and more visits to properties. 

 

But for now, Fletcher and Sims are happy with the energy their organization has brought to their specific situation. “I’m proud of us, as young, African American women, as mothers,” Fletcher says. “A lot of us were scared to speak and do interviews at first, but we’re coming out of our shells—advocating and speaking up for ourselves. And we’re doing this for our kids, to have a safe, suitable environment for them.”

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