Defiant cheers split the warm, relaxed atmosphere at Free Cycles as dozens voiced support for boosting tenants’ rights.
Members of the Missoula Tenants Union and others gathered at the community bike shop on the evening of Oct. 7 to celebrate the organization’s first birthday with music, food, a bingo fundraiser and an informal rally.
The number of new faces at the event signified the union’s increasing membership and awareness over the past year, as well as its progress in an effort to guarantee tenants facing eviction the right to an attorney, said Jackson Sapp, union treasurer.
“Who isn’t touched by the rental crisis in Missoula, especially if you are a renter?” he asked.
Renters are the “backbone” of the city, Sapp said. Since 2019, Missoula’s share of homeowners and renters has flipped, with the share of renters up from about 48% to 53%, according to U.S. Census Bureau 2022 estimates.
Amid rising rents, low vacancies and other factors making it difficult to find or keep housing, a couple of smaller groups of Missoula tenants merged to form the union, said Ken Grinde, the group’s press officer.
About 200 people have signed up for the union at some point, with about 40 to 50 active members, Sapp said. Most members are renters, but a small number are homeowners, Grinde said. Landlords or property managers cannot be members.
The group holds monthly general meetings, as well as regular committee meetings, and all members have an equal vote. One of the union’s guiding principles is the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution, Grinde said.
“If you’ve experienced being a tenant in this county, you’re used to feeling powerless and that someone else is going to tell you what to do,” he said. “This is a drastic reframing. … We invite people to come experiment with having power. We can change something. Resist the urge to give up because we can make this different.”
Along with working to improve housing options in the Missoula area, the union also forms a “protective shell” around those in need, Sapp said.
Through member dues and other fundraisers, the union is able to help those with an immediate need, Sapp said. It also reimburses members’ rental application fees and fees for Native American residents, even for those who aren’t members, he said.
All expenses are voted on by members, but the union has a certain amount of independence in providing assistance by not requiring an application or “demeaning interview,” like some other organizations, Sapp said.
“We got your back,” he said. “It’s very grassroots.”
For member Juli Sanders, the supportive structure is what makes the union “amazing” to be part of.
“In addition to all the wonderful goals and the right-to-counsel campaign, the sense of community is the strongest I’ve found since moving to Missoula three years ago,” she said. “I’ve never felt more welcome.”
When Sanders was evicted this summer, other union members helped her move, she said. Members often assist with moving and cleaning so they’re more likely to get their security deposit back, according to the union’s website.
After Sanders’ former landlord bought the property in 2022, he gave her a one-year lease, she said. When the lease was up, he served her with eviction papers and claimed he was going to renovate the property, Sanders said. But she’s been told no work has been done.
“In a business directly impacting people’s lives, you can’t do that with profits in mind,” Sanders said. “Not one person I’ve talked to is not afraid of what might happen (to their housing).”
Sanders said she is thankful the union is advocating for the right to counsel and working to change the imbalance of attorney representation in eviction proceedings.
“We’re imagining this organization to benefit everyone as best we can,” she said. “It’s really cool creating the world we want to see, figuring out what to tackle and how to tackle it.”
RIGHT TO COUNSEL
After establishing, union members voted on the right to counsel as the group’s first major campaign, Grinde said. Although it’s a “heavier lift,” getting the city or Missoula County to adopt it would be “foundational,” he said.
Unlike in criminal cases, defendants in evictions and other civil cases are not guaranteed an attorney if they can’t afford one. This puts most tenants at a disadvantage, as eviction proceedings can be complex and most landlords have an attorney, Grinde said. On average, 4% of tenants are represented nationwide, compared to 83% of landlords, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Since 2017, three states – Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington – and 15 cities have adopted the right to counsel for tenants facing eviction.
The Missoula Tenants Union looked to these examples while organizing its right-to-counsel campaign, particularly Kansas City, which began its program in 2022 to help prevent evictions.
From September 2022 through August 2023, the Kansas City right-to-counsel program provided attorneys to 1,196 residents facing eviction, according to a city press release. Attorneys resolved 1,002 of those cases, 84%, through dismissal, judgments in favor of the tenant or settlements, the release states.
With help from nonprofits and city grants, tenants in two pockets of Missoula have established resident-owned co-ops in an effort to keep their housing affordable.
Grinde said the Missoula union has heard from attorneys in Missoula that the right to counsel would make proceedings smoother and more legitimate.
The right to counsel would not restrict landlords from evicting tenants, but it would help prevent “predatory landlords” from taking advantage of renters, Sapp said.
Evictions can potentially push someone into homelessness and affect their employment or child custody status, Grinde said. Tenants with an eviction on their record often struggle to find a new rental, he added. Preventing evictions through the right to counsel will save money in the long run by keeping people housed, Grinde said.
“Homelessness is expensive to a community, not just monetarily, but there’s an emotional cost,” he said. “Something new will cost money, but it’s costing us to not deal with it.”
The right-to-counsel campaign has gained momentum in part from union members asking City Council and mayor candidates about their stance, Grinde said. The two candidates for mayor, Andrea Davis and Mike Nugent, both said during at least one forum they would support it, and the union will be reminding the election winner of that in November, Grinde said.
Union members have met with city officials, who told the group the city couldn’t cover the full cost of a right-to-counsel program, Sapp said. In the meantime, the union is raising seed funding from private partners to bring to the city and/or the county to potentially match, Grinde said.
Along with advancing their main campaign, union members have protested some evictions and advocated for certain housing-related projects at public meetings, Grinde said. A group of members assist unhoused people, including helping some move out of Missoula’s Authorized Camping Site when it closed in November 2022, he said.
Grinde and Sapp want to see the union grow. While neighborhood organizers reach out to different parts of the city, Sapp said they could do better contacting those on the outskirts. The union is trying to reach younger and older tenants with both online and in-person outreach, Grinde said.
“Ideally people who are in a relatively safe position can use their excess energy to help those in crisis and not able to show up and do volunteer work,” he said.
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