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Non-profit Tenants Union facing shutdown

 Real Change (USA) 08 June 2019

(Originally published: 07/2009) In its 32 years of helping renters deal with landlord problems, the Tenants Union of Washington State has teetered on the brink before. But this time the Seattle nonprofit’s fall could be a sure thing. Since January, the group has been scrambling to figure out how to survive past June 30, when King County will stop funding the Tenants Union renter hotline due to cutbacks. (1002 words) - By Cydney Gillis

In its 32 years of helping renters deal with landlord problems, the Tenants Union of Washington State has teetered on the brink before. But this time the Seattle nonprofit's fall could be a sure thing.

Since January, the group has been scrambling to figure out how to survive past June 30, when King County will stop funding the Tenants Union renter hotline due to cutbacks. To make up the loss and get through the year, the group set a goal in March of raising $49,000 by the end of the month.

In an ailing economy, however, donations are down, says Tenants Union board member Lisa Herbold, and the organization is already tens of thousands in debt. After raising only $5,000, Herbold says, the group's board passed a four-point resolution last week that extended its fundraising deadline to July 16 and reduced the goal to $25,000.

Another $20,000 would come as a donation from Seattle's Low Income Housing Institute, but LIHI can only make the gift, Herbold says, if the Tenants Union maintains service by continuing to operate its tenant hotline - something that must now be done with volunteers. On June 30, the organization will downsize from three staff members to one position of 30 hours a week.

If the group fails to raise the $25,000, the board could vote at its July 16 meeting to dissolve the nonprofit, which is known for educating renters about their rights, lobbying for laws such as Seattle's Just Cause Eviction Ordinance and organizing tenants to negotiate with landlords and housing agencies. In some cases, the Tenants Union has helped tenants buy and operate properties, as it did in 2002 with the residents of the Benson East duplexes in Kent.

In addition to raising the money, the recent resolution the board passed sets out three other survival criteria the Tenants Union must meet in July. They include getting out of an office lease on Rainier Avenue South and getting one or more of the staff members to agree to stay on and run the organization - or dismantle it by August if the situation doesn't improve.

"We were in a lifeboat and the lifeboat is over," says Herbold says of the extra six months the county gave the Tenants Union and other organizations before it cut their funding. As of June 30, "we have no money."

Every day that passes, she says, adds to the organization's debt. The unspecified total includes a tax bill for an incorrect filing that the Tenants Union made one year - and it's possible there could be others, Herbold says.

In April, after forming two committees to explore whether the Tenants Union could be rescued or merged with another organization, the board had planned to hire an executive director with expertise in turning around organizations, Herbold says. The idea was to have the person work solely on rebuilding and raising funds for the organization after the departure of Executive Director Karen Leslie-Lloyd, who was ousted last year after only eight months on the job.

But the candidate the board had hoped to hire decided not to take the job. On May 2, at a meeting the Union held to ask supporters what to do, acting director Michele Thomas urged the group to consider a merger - reportedly with Seattle's Washington Community Action Network, a group active on healthcare and immigration reform. Herbold says it's too early, however, to comment on the potential of any merger plan.

The loss of the Tenants Union, which helps about 1,800 people a year, would be devastating, Thomas and others say.

"It's hard to wrap my head around what's happening," Thomas says. "The movement the Tenants Union has built is unique and it's critical and I really hope that there's an opportunity to save the movement and see this work continue because the tenants across Washington state are constantly at risk of living in bad conditions" - with landlords generally holding all the power.

The Tenants Union has helped balance that, she says, by getting tenants together to work collectively on problems. At Benson East, Thomas says, the Tenants Union organized 32 families and helped them obtain a large gift from an individual donor so they could buy and operate their duplexes as a co-op, preventing the owner from selling the units out from under them.

Last year, the Seattle Housing Authority settled a lawsuit over the hearing process it used to cut off low-income and disabled tenants' federal rental vouchers - a victory based on interviews and documents gathered by the Tenants Union's Section 8 organizing project. In recent legislative sessions, the group has also worked to stop landlords from discriminating against welfare or disability recipients based on their source of income and, this year, won more time for tenants to move from a foreclosed property - 60 days versus the former 20.

"I don't think there's any other grassroots organization that's speaking up for the rights of rental tenants and low-income tenants especially," says Eric Dunn, the Northwest Justice Project attorney who negotiated with the housing authority to fix its hearing process. When legislation affecting tenants is on the table, he adds, "the Tenants Union is one of the only effective voices in the room. Otherwise, it's just lobbyists from the different landlord groups and corporate entities."

Groups such as the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance lobby for low-income tenants, and Seattle's Solid Ground provides tenant counseling, but it's not the same, Herbold says. Solid Ground focuses on eviction prevention, not the nuts-and-bolts of landlord-tenant law.

From the City Council to the Department of Planning, she says, "We are the name that tenants get referred to."

Emily Paddison, a former Tenants Union organizer who recently left to become a tenant counselor at Solid Ground, says Solid Ground is already making plans to deal with the increase in calls it expects if the Tenants Union folds. "The Tenants Union has been a critical voice for renters for 30 years now," she says. "That and the legislative work - it's just a huge blow."

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