Tuesday, October 1, 2013

MeanMesa's Community Organizing For Renters

First, A Quick Thought From MeanMesa

While the debacle in Washington is raging in all its comedic and brutal delight, MeanMesa's first impulse could easily have produced this post as another ranting diatribe about the questionable allegiances being publicly displayed by the craven tea bag Republicans as they prepare to inflict yet another economic devastation of global proportions.

Instead of falling to that level of already predictably banal, lesser quality of incendiary ambitions, MeanMesa parsed through the accumulated ideas in this old brain in search of something more positive and constructive -- something which might actually materially improve the conditions of life for the very dear and highly appreciated visitors to this little blog.

Right away a promising economic commonality of this wonderfully diverse gathering of global visitors literally leaped to this high desert blogger's cortical forefront.  All across the world, very many MeanMesa visitors are renters!

So, gather yourself into a comfortable chair, set a nice pot of herbal tea to steep in the kitchen and settle the house cat into position as a nice, cozy little foot warmer.  This post will tell the tale of successful community organizing here at the apartment complex, MeanMesa's Galactic Headquarters.

For those visitors presently having a difficult time with property owning landlords, take heart.  Perhaps you can construct your own strategy with ideas presented here.

There Had To Be "A Plan"

Naturally, by the time July rolled around -- placing New Mexico in its more or less normal 100 degree, cloudless days -- MeanMesa was totally ready to start swimming in our complexe's beautiful swimming pool. However, the pool remained closed, primarily on the orders of the management's rental agent.  The maintenance for the complex had dutifully cleaned and prepared the pool, but the gate remained locked.

Of course MeanMesa walked right over to the rental office to complain.

At this point, however, the rental agent pointed to our lease contracts -- contracts which happened to include a provision that the property managers had no obligation to maintain anything other than the dwelling units leased to residents.  This "not particularly pleasant" lady went on to officially inform me that there was "absolutely nothing that I can do about this."

MeanMesa responded "There IS something that I can do."

The battle lines were drawn.

Although the lease contracts did not force the property management to do anything about the pool, State Law did require the property owner to maintain the common area in the complex with respect to health and safety.  So, while we were probably not going to be able to swim in our pool, we would still be able to dutifully "assist" the property managers with a number of safety issues around the place which were suffering from neglect.

And, this was not merely a neglect of oversight.  This was neglect resulting from  intentional decisions to not spend any money at all on the property.

This 80 apartment complex is inhabited by lower middle class residents, many families, whose lives are "full enough" already without any additional complications.  Because most of them [including MeanMesa] live month to month, each time just able to pay rent and expenses, many of these residents were quite intimidated by the possibility of angering the landlord.

Further, because the condition of the complex had deteriorated to this state of disrepair gradually, many of the residents were not especially aware of "how bad things had gotten."  For this reason, the first step in MeanMesa's plan of action would be to call the attention of these folks to specific examples of the safety and health issues.

Firing Up the Base

Taking a lesson from the tea bag/Republican "Reactionary Handbook," it was clear that some sort of "educational campaign" must be undertaken with the goal of "getting everyone on board" for a confrontation with the landlord.  Remember, the points to be made in that educational effort were, necessarily, primarily about safety -- not the beautiful, locked up swimming pool.

To accomplish this MeanMesa bought a dollar's worth of index cards at the local Dollar General, sketched out a series of "messages," fired up the printer and began preparing "notes" which could be placed on the front doors of each apartment.  Once the residents became aware of the safety and health hazards around the complex, they could begin to complain to the landlord.

Everything went simply swimmingly at first.

Here are the cards which were distributed.

The wrecked fence had been laying all over the back alley for a month.  The rental agent had repeatedly said it would be replaced, but absolutely nothing was done.

Off went the first card -- with my name and personal signature on it -- to all of the neighbors. The fence was an eyesore, and the stubborn refusal to do anything about it was already an "issue" with the residents.

The cards were received well enough, but, while the residents were becoming "a bit restive" about the lack of maintenance, more would clearly be required.  The unpleasant rental agent made no comment at all, but the maintenance man gave MeanMesa a reassuringly sympathetic look.

A few days later it was time for the second card.

This time the message was about the total lack of tree maintenance around the complex.

Albuquerque is famous for extremely windy weather at various times through the seasons, and the trees on the property had already shown residents that falling branches could be a safety hazard.

My neighbors needed to be warned about allowing their children to play in areas where branches could fall on them.  Further, the trees around the complex were located where the same big branches could fall on cars parked around the apartments.

Unlike the many other accouterments of middle class living found in more prosperous areas, many of the neighbors did not have the kind of insurance which could pay for such damage.

Dead trees.



 The tree trimming message went over pretty well, too. Now, some of the neighbors were actually becoming conversational about the messages on the cards. From this point, whenever MeanMesa was going around passing out the messages, residents were interested and wanted to talk.  

The next card had its own interesting message.  One of the areas of neglected maintenance could be seen along the sidewalks surrounding the dead grass in the complexe's courtyards.  Raw sewage had covered these areas, and the maintenance crews had covered it with powdered lime.

The "white stuff"
After "preparing" the field a little, it was time to talk about the swimming pool.  While the closed pool  was an inconvenience for MeanMesa, the same closed pool amounted to dozens of the residents being "trapped" in their apartments with their children -- children who would have normally been knocking themselves out in the swimming pool.

The swimming pool -- locked.

The Empire "Strikes Back"

Now, things seemed to be moving along quite nicely, but the property owner was beginning to feel the heat of all the complaints which, by this time, seemed to be arriving from all around the complex.  MeanMesa had taken the opportunity to encourage residents to phone in their safety and health hazard complaints to the City of Albuquerque.

Predictably, the City had sent inspectors, written reports and approached the property manager -- asking for information on the plans to rectify these problems.  Also predictably, more or less, the complex management lurched into an even more aggressive position.

MeanMesa was issued a "7 Day Notice."

It was the equivalent of a "cease and desist" order even though the property owner and management company had no legal authority to do anything like this.  A fairly hostile interchange between the "parties" resolved nothing, so MeanMesa published the "7 Day Notice" on another card and got the word out right away.  The message on this card required both sides [see below].

The response from residents was pretty much what one would have expected.

For anyone not familiar with an eviction resulting from something like the "7 Day Notice" the process requires a "show cause" hearing in a court with jurisdiction -- a hearing presenting the property owner's case that the eviction is legal and consistent with State law.

MeanMesa informed the rental agent "You're going to HATE the way this turns out."
Expanding the Field

MeanMesa went right to the old LINUX, but this time there was not to be another card and message.  The complex had always enjoyed a net presence which served to attract new potential lease customers, and after the abusive treatment by the rental agent, there was simply no way to resist publishing a MeanMesa Short Current Essays post -- all about the apartment complex -- complete with photos of what the place really looked like.

Take a look at that post.

A Photographic Tour of Highland Park Apts. - 2013
A Short Departure For MeanMesa

Normally this little blog deals with politics, but for this post, we need to discuss  something a little different.

The blog is "headquartered" here in Highland Park Apartments in Albuquerque.  The residents of Highland Park have been having trouble with the apartment's property owner and management service.  At a certain point a year ago, essentially all maintenance for the complex was halted abruptly.  Now, a year later, we are facing a seriously deteriorated condition full of fundamental safety hazards, not to mention the continuing general decline in the standard of life in the complex.

Hazards which the property owners refuse to address.

A full account of the story of residents -- such as MeanMesa -- attempting to get even simple repairs can unfold in another post on this blog site.  However, one of the residents here was kind enough to take pictures of the property as it looks now, pictures which will be posted here.  All of these were taken in June, 2013.

They are presented here as a warning to potential apartment lessees who might be considering Highland Park as an apartment residence.  The caption of each photo will describe the scene.

The "lawn" in front of this apartment.

Another picture of the "lawn."
The "lawn" around apartments on the east side.
The "courtyard" for north apartments.

This is the courtyard where a huge limb fell a few months ago.  The limb was around 20 feet long and had a stalk around 6 - 7" in diameter.  The limb probably weighed around 400 to 600 pounds.

This courtyard is surrounded by apartments, many with children who routinely play in this courtyard.  We all expected that the property managers would finally trim the trees when this happened.  We were mistaken.  No tree maintenance has occurred since.

Many of the other trees on the property need maintenance, too.
This entire tree is essentially dead.
The dead branches on this tree will fall on cars parked in the lot.
Here lime has been applied to a raw sewage overflow.
Several areas in the complex between the side walk and the buildings have sanitary sewer vents which repeatedly over flow.  To control the odor, the property managers have covered the areas with lime.  In the past weeks there has been a sewer contractor around the premises but no visible work.

Lime covering up sewage overflow.
The Highland Park pool - closed.
The fence -- especially the gates -- on the pool need to be replaced to prevent children from entering without adult supervision.  Two years ago a little boy would have drowned in the pool if a near by resident had not rushed into action to save him.  The property manager refuses to correct the safety hazard, so the pool remains closed.  This photo was taken on a 100F day in the middle of June.

Fence wreckage strewn in the alley behind the complex.
The wrecked fence.
No footing, no re bar.  Notice the scratch.
A month ago a truck bumped into the fence in the alley along the north side of the complex.  The "scratch" on the concrete block in the picture above shows that this was not a violent impact.  Still, several sections of the fence rolled into the alley way.

This wreckage remains in the alley way today [June 23, 2013], more than a month later.  The accident revealed that the entire fence is unstable.  This fence weighs more than enough to injure a resident -- especially a child, yet the property manager will not spend the money to remove the wreckage, repair the fence or replace it.

Finally, take a look at a couple of photos from Highland Park's advertisement on the net.  This may be what you're expecting when you come to take a look at a new apartment, but this will not be what you find when you get here.

Don't get your hopes up. (image source ForRent.com)

So, What Happened?

A contractor came to rebuild the wrecked fence.  Although there was some talk about replacing the entire thing -- it is dangerously unstable -- even this much work eliminated the immediate safety concerns of exposed rusty nails, re bar and broken boards.

The courtyards -- with green grass!

One of the maintenance failures had been the dying grass -- the irrigation system was shut down, probably to save money.  When the lawn irrigation was restored, and a new grounds contractor hired, the complex once again turned green -- to every one's relief.

Albuquerque is a place where the price of water is high, but when 80 renters and families are living so close together [one large city block], the common areas of the property become much more important.

New fences and planters!

The old parking lot got new asphalt!
In practically no time the whole apartment complex began its restoration.  The rental agent was replaced by a new woman much more in tune with the atmosphere of the place. 

More importantly, the mood of the apartments began to return to its relatively happy, relatively satisfied state.  The bad maintenance conditions had clearly worn on every one's nerves.

The message here may be a bit confused, but if YOU are a renter and are having problems similar to these, consider taking this approach.

It's a "heavy lift" to organize the residents of 80 apartments into a fighting force prepared to picket, carry signs and so on, but once everyone becomes aware of reasonable complaints, you will probably be surprised at how sympathetic they become.

Yes, there actually IS "strength in numbers!"

Property owners may be inclined to treat renters as if they were serfs, and in New Mexico, outdated "patrona" rental laws aren't much help.  But, when even the most stubborn property owner is confronted with half of his lease partners grumbling about leaving as soon as legally possible, and when that property owner sees even the most modest form of community organizing against his business practices, great things can happen.

Good luck with organizing your own community.  Be realistic, be determined and be brave!  Don't underestimate your neighbors' strength, either.

Best wishes from MeanMesa.

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