Tenants at two East Akron housing complexes form unions to fight poor living conditions

By Abbey Marshall, TDS Staff Reporter

Photos by H.L. Comeriato

In the six years Angela Garcia and her six children have been living at Wilbeth Arlington Homes — a former low-income public housing complex in East Akron — they’ve endured mold, rodent infestations and an unresponsive management unwilling to fix major health and safety concerns.

The unsanitary and unsafe conditions have been especially difficult for her nine-year-old son with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects mobility and muscle tone. Garcia’s apartment was not wheelchair accessible, with narrow doorways and halls.

Because her son cannot walk, he must crawl through the unit with his face pressed against the tile littered with mice droppings and mold that building maintenance will not address.

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Garcia ultimately applied for reasonable accommodations for her son, and management moved her to a different unit that was even smaller — and in worse condition — than her previous apartment. The paint was still wet on the walls, moldy vents were simply painted over, but worst of all, it still was not wheelchair accessible.

Her son’s existing wheelchair ramp was destroyed by construction workers.

“No one should have to live this way,” Garcia said. “I refuse to live in these conditions any longer.”

Angela Garcia, the vice president of Wilbeth Arlington Homes union, addresses a crowd of tenants on Oct. 4. (Photo by H.L. Comeriato)

Garcia is one of several tenants organizing unions between Wilbeth Arlington Homes and the Ericsson’s 566 apartments, which are owned and managed by the same companies. Those tenants gathered Oct. 4 to announce their union and demands in the parking lot of Key’s Place, bordered on three sides by dilapidated buildings with missing siding, gaping holes to the interior, cracked and broken windows boarded up with plywood and hordes of trash strewn around the property.

Wilbeth Arlington Homes was formerly owned by Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, which managed the property as subsidized housing since the 1950s, before it was ultimately sold to the privately-owned, for-profit Redwood Housing Partners in February for $14 million.

AMHA sold the Ericsson’s land for $10.1 million in 2006 to Hillwood II. Around the same time as the Wilbeth Arlington Homes sale, Redwood also acquired the Ericsson from the previous owners for $10.75 million. Both properties are managed by KMG Prestige.

​​“(Wilbeth Arlington Homes) was in need of a rehab,” said Debbie Barry, the interim executive director at AMHA, which receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We felt a for profit company could do better with a rehab than we could.”

But tenants said that is not what happened. In the months following the sale, the new management “took a bad situation and made it worse,” said Ray Greene, the executive director of Freedom BLOC, a nonprofit that empowers the Black community.

Angela Gorman’s front door, which maintenance has not fixed or addressed. Gorman said she doesn’t feel safe with such a damaged door, especially because she has custody of her grandson. Eventually, she bought her own door handle. (Photo by H.L. Comeriato)

In addition to complaints of rodents, black mold, broken doors and resident intimidation, Community Legal Aid’s managing attorney, John Petit, said new management is not providing receipts for payment, making it difficult for tenants to prove they are paying rent in the case of evictions or for personal record keeping.

Tenants spent months organizing and working with Freedom BLOC, the Akron Democratic Socialists of America and Community Legal Aid to create a union to fight the unsafe living conditions.

Freedom BLOC is working to train the tenants on their unionization process, while DSA is helping canvas and lobby local legislators to create and pass fair housing laws. Legal Aid, a non-profit law firm for low-income residents, will provide legal assistance.

“For too long, tenants at Wilbeth Homes, Ericsson apartments and many other HUD housing complexes across the county have been living in substandard conditions and being told they should accept it because of their income, because they’re disabled, because they cannot go anywhere else,” said Alyssa Figueroa, a member of Akron DSA. “Helping to organize tenants is a direct affront to racism, classism and ableism that still permeates our community.”

Most of the tenants in the complex are single Black mothers, who Petit said have been disproportionately affected by evictions in Akron.

Not having access to safe, affordable housing not only takes a toll on physical health, but Greene said it affects the renter’s mental state as well. 

Edmikia Minter, a single Black mother and president of the Ericsson tenant union, said she and her two children have been living with fear and depression since they first moved to the complex.

“I’ve been having anxiety attacks, nosebleeds, weight up and down, headaches, my baby Sammy crying all the time,” Minter said. “I get so mad seeing my kids scared somewhere where they should be the safest.”

Under the new management company, which is not based in Ohio, Minter said she was threatened with eviction and forced to move out of their three-bedroom apartment into a two bedroom that had black mold in the tub and no stove for four weeks.

Within the first two months of their move, her parked car was totaled by a drunk driver, their apartment was broken into, and they spent nights huddled inside sheltering from the shootings and fights they often heard outside their door.

“My son sleeps with me every night on the couch, scared someone might break in again,” said Minter. She said their door was not fixed until three weeks after the break-in. 

Edmikia Minter speaks about the health and safety difficulties facing her family while living at the Ericsson on Oct. 4. (Photo by H.L. Comeriato)

“All I think about is how I’m going to get me and my babies out of this mess we shouldn’t be in,” she continued. “We didn’t choose this situation. (Management) chose it for us. I’m tired of my concerns going unanswered. I just want them to do their jobs.”

The union’s goal is to provide immediate relief to renters in both complexes living in unsanitary conditions.

Community Legal Aid assisted tenants in penning a letter to property managers announcing their unionization and outlining a list of demands, including a call to end harassment and intimidation; thorough inspections of units for health and safety concerns; structural repairs; temporary, sanitary relocation while repairs are being made and a meeting within the next 30 days between union members and management.

The letter was sent Oct. 1. Wilbeth Arlington Homes and Ericsson management have not yet responded. KMG Prestige could not be reached for comment by The Devil Strip

Repairs and maintenance can only do so much for such dilapidated buildings, Greene of Freedom BLOC said. As interest in the union grows, many residents said they would like to see the apartments torn down and rebuilt with proper health and safety measures and heavy tenant input. 

“We are ensuring solutions to these issues come directly from the residents of these low-income neighborhoods,” Greene said. “For the most part, the people who own our homes have no repercussions while the tenants have limited avenues to their rights. This is just the beginning in a fight to shift power from the landlords back to the tenants.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com

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