Dec. 9—The Madison County Tenants Union (MCTU) has opened the county’s first union hall in Berea, where it will now have a consistent base for its operations and for neighbors to connect and share their experiences with housing around the county.
The desire for establishing a field office, according to MCTU Organizer Margaret Sites, is to have a “hub” where the organization can host events, conduct its outreach efforts, and provide a staffed office for neighbors to receive respite and fellowship. She also commented that this was a milestone she had been looking forward to since co-founding the tenants union in 2020.
The organization asserts that the housing situation in Madison County needs more action and attention, as Madison County has reached a new record for eviction filings, meaning more people who are left without shelter.
This year, according to data she collected from the Kentucky Court of Justice, Madison County has reached 600 filings, surpassing the previous recorded record of 580 in 2018.
To combat housing insecurity, MCTU reaches out to neighbors one-on-one to build community and inform them of their rights as tenants. They facilitate write-ins to inform community stakeholders and community members of important housing-related issues, have fun community events, and connect neighbors with information that can boost their well-being.
Volunteer Maggie Park noted that her time as a volunteer had sparked and witnessed important conversations in the community, and she cited that as the biggest benefit of the tenants union that she had seen so far.
She explained, “People kind of know that others are having problems, but nobody ever really asks about them. Nobody wants to have that unpleasant conversation. But some of the greatest kindness comes from the unpleasant conversations that we have. Just acknowledging that what is happening to them is happening to other people and that it isn’t a fluke — that kind of community and connection really enlivens people.”
According to Park, the organization takes these “neighborly conversations” to a new level of community protection, as members of the MCTU have a deep knowledge of community resources and an understanding of tenants’ rights that can serve their neighbors and protect them from discrimination and losing shelter.
She noted that she has seen it firsthand, explaining, “Seeing that gives us the energy to go help more people, and it kind of spreads like a ripple effect.”
So, why is she so passionate about tenants’ rights in the first place? The volunteer says that she wants to improve local housing conditions.
Park originally came to Madison County to attend Berea College approximately 15 years ago and has lived in a variety of living situations ever since.
She cited issues along the way, including failing heating and cooling systems, an electrical fire caused by a landlord’s negligence in fixing a cooling appliance, a lack of available affordable housing, and ongoing increased rent prices with no improvements or repairs.
In one instance, Park recalled moving into an apartment with her boyfriend. It was 2012, and the unit was priced at $450 per month. Time took its toll, and there were no improvements or repairs to the unit, even for an air conditioning unit that Park alleges was leaking Freon.
“It had been officially declared the oldest operational unit in the city of Berea by the fire marshal,” she recalled of the unit.
Park said that the landlord wouldn’t replace it until the couple moved, which they did once the landlord retired and sold the unit.
In those nine years, according to Park, the rent had increased by 68%.
Even now, in a new unit with a new landlord, Park stated that she and her husband were subjected to a “cost of living” increase when they renewed their lease, increasing her rent from $890 to $925. Their property is also managed by a property management company, which she says manages the property for an out-of-state owner.
Did You Know?
The original “rule” to regulate rent appeared in the National Housing Act of 1937, which created the public housing program for low-income families and established guidelines for maximum rents for them. The 30% amount we use today has not changed since 1981, even though it had increased in years since then, and is still noted as the standard for most public housing programs and is often used by landlords to determine rent eligibility.
A rent increase of that magnitude could be unachievable for many Madison Countians, as the Legal Services Corporation’s Civil Court Data Initiative reports that 44% of Madison County’s residents are rent-burdened, which means that they spend more than 30% of their household income on rent alone.
With the median annual income being reported by the Census Bureau as $27,000 in 2021, that would leave half of Madison County unable to spend even $9,000 per year on rent. That would be $750 per month.
To escape that cycle and gain some stability, the couple dreamed of buying a house. However, Park asserts that this has also proven to be an out-of-reach dream for the two full-time working professionals.
“Even when I have had a letter from the bank and I have promissory notes for all of the loans that we would take…Because we’re new homeowners and we don’t have cash on hand to put down, they have been purchased out from us, it’s happened three times with three different properties. Everybody I know who’s purchased in the last three years — the same thing has happened to them,” said Park.
However; through the ups and downs of renting, Park says she has found a deep community in the MCTU and recommends people come to the new space or reach out online to get involved and learn more about their neighbors.
She mused, “I feel like I’ve been missing out on something that we should have been having. and it’s not. You don’t have to be the best of friends, but having an interest in and acknowledging humanity and other people is what makes me feel like a real community member. It really feels like everything that we were taught that a town in America should be.”
The official MCTU Union Hall Office is located at 292 Glades Road, Suite 7 in Berea.