The Richmond Tenants Defense Council is an organization in the Richmond area which brings together working-class tenants and community members to build power.  The following interview is a conversation between two founding members of RTDC about the organization’s history and its future.  It was originally printed in the first issue of RTDC’s tenant newsletter.

L: I came in contact with RTDC a few years ago. I was introduced to RTDC because [two organizers] came around, and asked what problems we were having in this city. For me, one of the biggest issues was bus transportation. And there were some other things, as far as schools and things of that nature. But the biggest thing was transportation, but also housing. And we were the first complex they really came to.

And after that, we started to start a tenant’s organization because there were some things in the apartment complex. The first things we encountered were the towing, some people having plumbing issues, things of that nature. So that’s where we started our campaigns.

The first big campaign was a letter writing campaign. They took a while to respond, but eventually they did respond, but they didn’t say nothing. So, we did another letter writing campaign. And the towing was horrible. My car got towed, other cars got towed. So, we brought attention to it, and began to have meetings on a regular basis and tenants were coming and bringing their ideas, and it really was a good thing.

And once we acted on the parking issue, we noticed it began to subside a little bit. But that’s because we found out there were other complexes where the fish were a little bigger– we are a very small complex. Other complexes have 300 people, so where would you rather go, someplace that has 300 cars, or one that only has a few? So, what occurred was that we saw that we weren’t the only ones having issues. One thing about Sherwood that may not be an advantage to other people is that we’re small.

So, the towing subsided, and we began to really and truly get on them. And I guess they got tired of us always being out there, like “why are you towing our cars?!” We were kind of combative. And like I said, that has gotten better.

And another issue was lights. We didn’t have lights in the hallways! And we let them know that lighting needed to get done [on the second floor, where it was basically pitch black all day]. After we did it [wrote the letter and did a call-in] they got the lighting fixed. They came and took care of it. That was one of our accomplishments, as well as the towing subsiding– but then we began to have bats!

Before when we had bats there weren’t many and we were able to just call [animal control] and they’d temporarily take care of it. But this time it looked like people were seeing bats in the hallway, even bats getting in apartments. It was really bad.

One of the things that we do with RTDC that is really effective is the call-in days. That really seems to agitate. It seems like they have to pay attention to it. It seems like they must say, “after this, we need to get over there and take a look at the problem.” After we called about the bats they sent people out here, made the sign about closing the door, things of that nature.

To be clear, the door didn’t close all the way previously, did it? I think after the call in was when they fixed the front door so it would fully close.

It completely shuts for the first time! And there’s the sign that it shouldn’t be left open. But it was always being left open because it didn’t fit in the frame! So that was one of the things that was successful– a door that closes. We had issues with the mailbox, so they replaced it, they moved it. And now it’s a lot better because it wouldn’t close, the mailman was having trouble with it, but he said it was a problem on KRS’ end, so they did fix that.

Overall, the things we have done here at Sherwood we have been pretty much successful. We’ve been able to write letters, do call-ins, and do really, really good work.

I would tell anyone if there’s a fear of not wanting to say anything or do anything because… we haven’t had any of those retaliation issues. We’ve had a tenant here on the first floor whose back door would not shut. But after we got organized and they had to fix it, they did. So, there are successes, but you’ve got to keep at it, and you’ve got to get together collectively as a group.

The advantage with us is that we’re small, so even if a few of us get together to start with that can be good because there’s only 20-some units here. But it is really and truly something to see where we started and where we are now.

There’s still a lot of progress to go, but do you feel like KRS has been forced to look at tenants here differently.

Yes. I feel that a lot of people have gotten things [repairs] done, whereas before they would just say “we’ll get to it” and never get to it. Now they get to it, they have to pay attention to it. When we have a plumbing issue now, they have to get to it and we don’t have to wait all week for it to happen. We just had a plumbing issue a couple weeks ago where the water was just running cold, but they sent someone out right away, and they sent out an email. So, they’re more responsive now.

But like I said we are a small complex and that helps. If something’s not getting done, one person calls, then another person calls, then another person calls… What I see with a bigger complex, they’ll just say, “whatever, maybe we’ll get it done.”

Since we’ve started it’s been really and truly successful. It’s been gradual. They’ve been small victories, but they’ve been big enough to know that this has really been a good thing. The victories have felt really good.

We’ve achieved some victories here at this small complex. Do you think that if we got even more people at even more complexes involved that we could achieve even more?

Yes. But if you’re in a big complex, the biggest way to start is to find out what are the issues that affect everyone, but in a big complex maybe 20 people don’t want to come and talk about the same issue but if you talk about your issue and get your’s done, that can be a small first win under your belt. You can get a snowball effect going. “Oh, you got that fixed?”, “Yes, we got it fixed and let me tell you how– we wrote letters, we called in, we did A, B, C, D and got their attention.” So, I think that’s something that’s really important.

I look at big complexes and see that they have such major issues. But the major issues may be a drawback because they’re worried about retaliation. But if you start small and get a victory then I think you’ll be able to say, “we’re able to take care of this, we are able to do this.”

People here tend to know each other and have each other’s backs, which is not always the case in the bigger complexes. What’s the importance of community and how does an organization like RTDC fit into that?

I think when you’re in a situation where they have a lot of people, the newsletter helps. If one person has a newsletter and can say, “hey, this is what happened to me”, that helps a whole lot. The meetings, the cookouts, that’s easier to do in the spring and summertime. One of the things that will be advantageous is to have a newsletter that is still going out [when it’s cold].

One of the other things was the cookout at Byrd Park [an early RTDC event that brought together tenants from a few different complexes]. We were realizing how many other complexes were having issues with them. That was a really nice way to break the ice and see how RTDC can fit into your complex. Not come in and take over the complex, but tell you things to do in regards to a water leak or something– take pictures, date everything, date when you call. The little things you can do that can help lead to a victory in the end. So, I think that’s really important.

Another thing is email. Not everyone does social media, but most people do email. That’s another way to have a campaign.

This whole thing really and truly has been good for the building. We have a pretty good group here and we all do pretty much look out for each other. Of course, there’s always a crazy neighbor to watch out for, but we don’t have that problem as much as some places.

Like I said, it’s a really good organization. Another thing– it’s going to take money. Dues are important. I know people are having a hard time, scrambling, but I think five dollars a month is not a lot.

Yeah, and if you look at the labor movement people pay dues. Not only does it give the organization the means to protect them, it tends to make people who pay dues feel like it’s their organization– because it is their organization. It’s not an external group: it’s us, together, and we all have a say.

Even to do a newsletter, you need some money. Copy paper isn’t free, and it adds up. One of the goals of RTDC is that if someone is retaliated against to assist them. But there’s a big difference between helping them with three hundred dollars and helping with three thousand.

I also think RDTC can be similar to what PTAs are. PTAs are community groups. They bring together people whose kids have graduated, or someone who just moved down the block. Lots of people don’t know about RTDC, but it can be a community thing that brings in all sorts of people.

I think the call-in days demonstrate the importance of broad community support. Whenever we have a call-in day lined up, I get my friends on board. I know others reach out to co-workers, cousins, anyone they think will be in solidarity.

That’s right. It’s so important that even people outside of the complex can get involved– it contributes to word-of-mouth. People can come into contact with RTDC who might not have otherwise. And the information in the newsletter will contribute to that too. Especially if people get tips on what to do if they have a situation.

Overall, it’s a really good organization.

One more thing: I remember we were once meeting in the lobby here at Sherwood and the tow truck showed up while we were having our meeting and began hooking up a tenant’s truck. Do you remember that?

Yes! And [another tenant] ran up to the guy’s door to let him know they were taking his car.

And the rest of us ran out and started observing and filming and he dropped the truck and drove off without it. Even the “quieter” tactics like the letters can demonstrate the power of collective action but to me nothing demonstrated it as dramatically as that. We all got together, got organized, started documenting predatory towing and we got a result right then and there.

Yeah, when they were towing the car, they just assumed “this isn’t worth it.” It’s a good thing, because then they knew that maybe they should stop going over there for [improper towing]. “Those people are watching their cars.” So, it showed how when people get together they get things done.

One person down the street or at the end of the hall can’t get anything done. But when you get people together and they realize, “oh, you’re having that problem too” that’s when you see results.

And that’s another thing– people are worried that if we get them to fix anything they’ll go up on the rent. But they’ll do that anyway.

Rents are soaring anyway, even without tenant organizations active in most buildings so you might as well get organized to fight back.

That’s right, and that’s one of the things RTDC gets right– we get organized. Since we’ve gotten organized the towing has subsided. They still come sometimes, but it’s not really bad now. We were able to get lights in the hall, and we got the bat situation taken care of. They’ve asked for us to call if we see any more, but there have not been any.

Overall, RTDC is a great organization, we have the potential to grow and get stronger, and I think this newsletter will help.

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