Henry and Sharon Bell went to District Court on Friday to file for rent escrow due to conditions concerns in their home of nine years. The Bells had been withholding rent for the past two months until necessary repairs were made, and were taken to court by their landlord in early May for failure to pay rent.
On Friday, May 24th, Right to Housing Alliance organizers, resident members, and other supporters accompanied the Bells to their escrow hearing for the simple purpose of showing that tenants are no longer standing alone. Their demands were the creation of a rent escrow account, rent abatement, and damages. When the Bells’ case was called, all present stood and remained standing until ordered by the judge to be seated. That simple act was enough to reassure the Bells, and to show the other tenants in the courtroom that they, too, deserve safe, adequate housing with dignity.
The owner of the Bells’ home, Corey Martin, did not appear for the hearing, sending instead a representative of Duane-Calhoun Properties, whom the Bells had never heard of and who had never visited the home. During the hearing, the judge heard testimony from the City housing inspector on the more than 30 violations she found upon inspection of the Bells’ home. While having the option of granting the escrow on the spot, the judge opted to give the landlord even more time, 30 more days, to make all necessary repairs, dragging the Bells back to court again in June, and extending the possibility of further harassment from the owner. When pressed to hear Henry Bell’s testimony, which is permissible in escrow hearings, she refused, citing the fact that the owner was not present. Such generosity is rarely granted to tenants if they don’t show up to court.
The real success was the work the Bells did to reach out to other tenants at rent court, sharing their public letter, and reaching out to other residents to let them know that if we work together we can demand that our human rights are respected and valued. A Tenant Advocate of our legal partners at the Public Justice Center says he has never seen so many people in rent court to support a tenant in his 17 years there.
Ultimately, an escrow account was created for the amount of one month’s rent (as they had been withholding rent for two months, this essentially forgives them one month of rent), but the damages and rent abatement will have to wait until the next hearing in June. And we will be there.