Here’s how a group of Rohnert Park seniors banded together to take on their corporate landlord

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.|

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.

In many cases, corporate landlords have been criticized for excessive fees, large rent increases, higher rates of evictions, and deferred maintenance and habitability issues.

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.

In these situations, renters are often unaware of existing tenant protections and unprepared or unable to navigate a complex legal system, especially up against landlords with corporate resources.

Reliant Property Management and Flynn did not respond to my multiple phone and email interview requests.

A network of support

Boosting 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 renters’ rights in the region.

The Sonoma County Tenants Union is the housing 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 renters in crisis via a hotline (707-387-1968).

The organization uses that hotline, too, as a means to help unhappy tenants form de facto unions in apartment buildings for a better shot at getting results by acting as a collective.

This is a strategy that has been gaining traction, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic destabilized the economy and further jeopardized shelter for already struggling renters. Tenants have been unionizing locally across the country and even nationally when faced with corporate landlords that exploit or exacerbate renters vulnerability through evictions, increased rent and fees, or poor living conditions.

After receiving a number of calls to the hotline about issues at Copeland Creek, the Sonoma County Tenants Union decided the complex might be a good candidate.

“That’s why we started the hotline, so that we could have a pulse on what's happening in the complexes across the county so that we can intervene, encourage and work with folks to organize,” said Chad Bolla, a tenant organizer with Sonoma County Tenants Union.

The organization helped the residents coordinate the early meetings, mediate tension between neighbors and guide them in setting up a structure for the association. They also rented the community center for the initial meeting and showed up to watch from outside in solidarity.

In the months after the first sit-down with Flynn, relations deteriorated.

On the day of their scheduled February meeting, Flynn sent an email to the tenant alliance canceling.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought and I am highly conflicted about what to do,” he wrote. “On 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 here may be that there are some people at Copeland Creek who will never be happy despite our efforts.

“And while they may disguise themselves as proponents of change in reality they are just advocates for chaos.”

Flynn continued that he’d agree to rescheduling if the association was open to certain changes, including that the property management would have final say on any proposed agenda items. In previous emails, he asked for broader participation from complex residents and for the Sonoma County Tenants Union to no longer attend.

The tenant group pushed back. There hasn’t been a meeting since.

In the meantime, security cameras were put in the mail and laundry rooms but not 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 acknowledged not all residents are on board with their efforts and getting more people to join is their biggest challenge — some label them “haters,” some are overwhelmed with health issues and others are unwilling to rock the boat for fear of retaliation, they said.

After door-knocking in the complex about a potluck for the tenant alliance and its efforts, one resident received a cease and desist letter from Reliant’s attorney saying other tenants had reported feeling “harassed.”

“Solicitation of residents and intimidation of applicants that interferes with their quiet enjoyment of the property...violates the terms of your lease agreement” the letter said. “Should you continue to do so, management may...seek all available damages and attorney’s fees.”

Even with these setbacks, the Tenant Alliance of Copeland Creek has pushed forward.

Snow was slow to engage at first, she said. Despite her past activism in the 1970s women’s movement, she felt the particular weight of her vulnerability now as a low-income senior, previously made homeless by the Tubbs Fire.

“This was my only chance to have a place to live...there's many things that I'm dealing with that I just kind of want to be left alone. But I think that that concept of being left alone can be quite destructive,” she told me.

“When you disappear, a problem does not, but you disappear from the solution. So, I just have to keep having faith that progress will occur.”

The association sent out an anonymous survey in the complex to gauge support. Of the 50 responses, 41 were positive, Pedone told me, reading from a few.

With the Sonoma County Tenants Union and North Bay Organizing Project, they’ve showed up at a city council meeting and held events for renters at Copeland Creek and surrounding areas with know-your-rights workshops. The Rohnert Park fire marshall spoke about fire season safety at one, and Mayor Jackie Elward attended to listen to resident concerns. At the complex, association members have spread information and resources regarding prohibited pandemic rent increases that have helped result in refunds, Pedone said.

Now, they are planning next steps to push Reliant to reengage.

“If you don't stick up for yourself, that's an invitation to be taken advantage of,” Pedone told me. “No organizing effort has ever been easy.”

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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