Here’s how a group of Rohnert Park seniors banded together to take on their corporate landlord
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series looking at efforts to help low-income tenants unionize against corporate landlords. Read the second part here.
On Sept. 3 of last year, roughly 30 tenants from the Copeland Creek Apartments, a low-income senior complex in Rohnert Park, gathered at a nearby community center to meet with an executive from the company managing their property.
It was a big win for the newly formed Tenant Alliance of Copeland Creek, a group of residents created to air and resolve their grievances. The face-to-face with management validated months of effort spent organizing, arguing, compromising and coordinating.
It all began with a notice sent out by management requiring residents to remove any lattice attached to their fences.
The seemingly small change meant a lot to some tenants who’d gone to the trouble and expense of installing it as a means of added privacy and security to their 5-foot fences that they’d relied on for years.
Casual venting among residents turned to organized meetings and eventually outlining a list of complaints about living conditions at Copeland Creek to formally send management. While the lattice was a catalyst, it turned out to be far from tenants’ only concern.
“I started collecting more stories, more information that I incorporated into this letter that originally was two pages, and ended up being about six,” said Lynn Pedone, 68, a member of the association’s steering committee whom I met with on the grassy lawn outside the complex in July.
“It started with the lattice, and it branched out into a lot of other issues that residents had, mostly problems stemming from the actions and inaction of the property manager.”
Copeland Creek Apartments is made up of 171 studio and one-bedroom affordable units for 55-and-older residents. It’s one of 33 communities in the West, including in Petaluma and Napa, managed by Fairfield-based Reliant Property Management. That entity was established to exclusively oversee residences owned by Reliant Group, a major real estate development company with over $3.7 billion in acquisitions and a large affordable housing portfolio.
Voicing concerns felt like a daunting proposition for some tenants, who feared jeopardizing their housing with little safety net to catch them and few alternatives available in a county grappling with an affordable housing crisis.
After Elizabeth Snow, 77, lost her apartment in the Tubbs Fire, she had great difficulty finding a new place that would take her Section 8 rental subsidy voucher. She stayed with friends until she finally found Copeland Creek.
“I was grateful for a roof over my head,” she told me, “so it was not so much a choice as I had before.”
“Very often at the end of our life, this is all we have left,” said Snow, who is another member of the steering committee. “Many people have suffered a lot of losses. We’ve got a lot of folks that are just very marginalized.”
“A lot of these people won’t speak up for themselves either,” Albert Papp, 67, a resident of 12 years, chimed in.
Demands for accountability
The letter sent to management, ultimately signed by more than 30 residents, covered unanswered requests for security cameras, restrictions on tenants’ use of their units and shared amenities, and confrontational or threatening exchanges with the on-site property manager.
They asked for a conference with the president of Reliant Property Management, Christopher Flynn. Just over two weeks later, he met them in the Rohnert Park Community Center and listened as about a dozen people gave testimony.
The Tenant Alliance of Copeland Creek ended the meeting with a few concrete asks: security cameras in the parking lot given repeated vandalism and damage to residents’ cars, the right to keep any lattice until new higher fencing was installed and regular check-in meetings with Flynn.
He agreed, according to the association’s steering committee members and emails reviewed by The Press Democrat.
It was a hopeful moment, especially because it can be an uphill climb for tenants to be taken seriously and get problems addressed when a property is just one of many owned and operated by large corporations.
Reliant itself came under fire for displacing residents at some of its Bay Area properties in 2019. And Reliant Property Management in May settled with the Department of Justice to resolve allegations that the company had been illegally charging housing choice voucher program (Section 8) participants higher rents than unassisted tenants at a housing development in Delaware since 2015.