Sign at the entrance of Bellows Court apartments

West St. Paul Tenants Organize Renters’ Rights Workshop

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A renters’ rights workshop is coming to West St. Paul to empower renters and give them a voice. Renter Workshop: Tenant Rights 101 will be held on August 30 at 7 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church. The event is organized by the Bellows Court Tenant Committee and the workshop will be presented by HOME Line, a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization. 

Renters Come Together

“We understood that other tenants in buildings throughout the city were facing some of the same issues we were,” said James Johnson Jr. (who goes by JJ), the spokesperson for the Bellows Court Tenant Committee. That knowledge, combined with new apartments opening across the city, inspired the Bellows Court Tenant Committee to organize their first renters’ rights event with HOME Line. It’s planned as the first in a series of workshops that focus on renters’ issues in West St. Paul.

They hope the event will empower renters and help them stand up for themselves. They also hope to grow into a bigger organization or partner with other community organizations working together for renters’ rights.

“We want to have renters fully engaged in the community on all levels,” Johnson said.

Roots of Renters’ Rights

A serious fire at the Bellows Court apartment complex displaced three units in 2021, including the home of Johnson and his partner. While Johnson and his partner were moved to a new unit, Johnson said management removed the residents of the other two units without any assistance. Those residents were Latino and faced a language barrier.

That experience sparked the formation of the Bellows Court Tenant Committee in the spring of 2021. A total of 21 tenants from the 66 apartments are part of the organization. Johnson and two others, Rita Lacosta and Joanne Gatti, lead the group.

“We are a group of tenants that turned our hallway talk about our negative experiences and the deterioration of the sense of community into a formal group,” said Johnson. “We want to bring a sense of community back to the building.” 

The group hopes to act as a messenger for the tenants, inform residents of their rights, and be a voice for those afraid to report maintenance issues and other perceived wrong doings.

The Bellows Court Tenant Committee is focused on Bellows Court, but they also welcome tenants from other buildings. They’re currently working to hold the owners and management company accountable for violations.

Barriers Renters Face

Johnson said renters who are people of color, older adults, or those who don’t speak English as their first language face the most difficult challenges. There can also be a host of barriers, including feeling powerless, not knowing their rights, and an attitude of “it could be worse.”

While half of West St. Paul is made up of renters—and has been for some time—Johnson sees mixed support. While he says City Council, police, and city staff have been supportive, renters still face barriers.

“There are too many renters who feel threatened and afraid of losing their home if they speak out,” Johnson said.

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