In these situations, tenants are often unaware of existing tenant protections and unprepared or unable to navigate a complex legal system, especially when it comes to landlords with business assets.
Reliant Property Management and Flynn were unresponsive to my multiple phone and email interview requests.
A network of support
To increase their chances against those odds, the Tenant Alliance of Copeland Creek had a lot of help in the Sonoma County Tenants Union, which works to strengthen tenant rights in the region.
The Sonoma County Tenants Union is the advocacy arm of the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of local grassroots organizations. It pushes for housing justice through policy reform campaigns and provides support and legal referrals to tenants in crisis through a hotline (707-387-1968).
The organization also uses that hotline as a means to help hapless tenants form de facto unions in apartment buildings to have a better chance of getting results by acting collectively.
This is a strategy that is gaining momentum, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic destabilized the economy and further jeopardized shelter for already struggling tenants. Tenants have joined locally across the country and even nationally when faced with corporate landlords who exploit or exacerbate tenant vulnerability through evictions, higher rent and fees, or poor living conditions.
After several phone calls to the hotline about problems at Copeland Creek, the Sonoma County Tenants Union decided the complex could be a good candidate.
“That’s why we started the hotline so we can get a sense of what’s happening in the complexes across the county so we can intervene, encourage and work with people to get organized,” said Chad Bolla, a tenant organizer at Sonoma County Tenants Union.
The organization helped residents coordinate early meetings, mediated tensions between neighbors and guided them in setting up a structure for the association. They also rented the community center for the first meeting and came from outside to look in solidarity.
In the months after the first conversation with Flynn, relations deteriorated.
On the day of their scheduled meeting in February, Flynn emailed the tenant alliance to cancel.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I don’t know what to do,” he wrote. “On the one hand, I believe deeply in the work we do and the importance of providing quality affordable housing for seniors in Sonoma County. On the other hand, in life you have to accept certain truths, and the truth may be that there are people at Copeland Creek who will never be happy despite our best efforts.
“And while in reality they may disguise themselves as proponents of change, they are simply proponents of chaos.”
Flynn went on to say he would agree to a new schedule if the association was open to certain changes, including letting property management have the final say on proposed agenda items. In previous emails, he asked for wider participation from complex residents and for the Sonoma County Tenants Union to no longer attend.
The tenant group pushed back. There has been no meeting since then.
In the meantime, security cameras were placed in the mail and laundry rooms, but not in the parking lot, according to residents I spoke to. The status of other requests remains unclear.
The members of the steering committee I spoke to recognized that not all residents were on board with their efforts and that their biggest challenge is to get more people on board – some labeling them as ‘haters’, some being overwhelmed by health problems and others being unwilling to boot for fear of reprisals, they said.
After knocking on the door at the complex about a potluck for the Tenant Alliance and its efforts, a resident received a letter of termination from Reliant’s attorney stating that other tenants had reported feeling “inconvenient.”
“Encouraging residents and harassing applicants who interfere with their peaceful enjoyment of the property… in violation of the terms of your lease,” the letter read. “If you proceed with this, management may … demand all available damages and attorneys’ fees.”
Even with these setbacks, the Copeland Creek tenant alliance has made progress.
Snow was slow to engage at first, she said. Despite her previous activism in the women’s movement of the 1970s, she now felt the special weight of her vulnerability as a low-income senior, previously made homeless by the Tubbs Fire.
“This was my only chance to have a place to live… there are a lot of things that I deal with and just want to be left alone. But I think that concept of being left alone can be quite destructive,” she told me.
“When you disappear, a problem does not disappear, but you disappear from the solution. So I just have to keep trusting that progress will come.”
The association sent an anonymous survey in the complex to gauge support. Of the 50 responses, 41 were positive, Pedone told me, reading a few out loud.
With the Sonoma County Tenants Union and North Bay Organizing Project, they have appeared at a city council meeting and held events for tenants in Copeland Creek and the surrounding areas with know-your-rights workshops. The Rohnert Park fire chief spoke about fire season safety at one o’clock, and Mayor Jackie Elward was on hand to listen to residents’ concerns. Inside the complex, association members have distributed information and resources about banned pandemic rent increases that have resulted in refunds, Pedone said.
Now they are planning next steps to get Reliant to rejoin.
“If you don’t stand up for yourself, that’s an invitation to take advantage,” Pedone told me. “No organizational effort has ever been easy.”
“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have any concerns, tips, or suspicions, you can reach “In Your Corner” columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or [email protected] On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.