By Nicole Ann Gorny
Larry Davis understands what it’s like to need a hand up. That’s part of the reason he keeps his own hand so firmly out.
And through his role as president of the Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants, Davis, who sits on NEOCH’s board of directors, feels particularly poised to offer this hand. The alliance acts a liaison between low-income housing tenants and their landlords, Davis said, explaining that his work involves both educating tenants about their rights and responsibilities before problems arise as well as smoothing out conflicts when they do.
“Nine times out of 10, people do not know their rights as tenants,” Davis said of the renters he’s worked with in his more than 10 years advocating for their rights.
That’s not to say that Davis himself has always been versed in landlord-tenant law. The once homeless veteran said his interest was piqued when he moved off the streets and into Cleveland’s University Towers in 2003. “I saw middle-aged and elderly tenants who didn’t have anybody to carry a voice for them,” he said of his neighbors. “They didn’t know their rights. They didn’t know what a tenant council was. They didn’t know how to deal with tenant councils.”
Davis credited his neighbor and tenants’ right advocate, Cleo Busby, as particularly influential in his path toward tenant advocacy. Alongside Busby, Davis educated himself on the nuances of landlord-tenant law and became involved in the tenant council at University Towers.
And for the apartment complex on East Boulevard, Davis said, the effect of the council was apparent. Tenants and management became closer with an effective tenant council in place, he said, noting a picnic he helped to organize between tenants and management as an example.
In addition to laying the groundwork for Davis’ growing expertise in tenant law, Davis’ involvement at University Towers led him to the Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants. The alliance operates with a greater scope in Cleveland than the apartment-specific tenant councils found in most low-income residences, he explained. So although he moved out of University Towers in 2007, he said, he’s continued advocating for tenants’ rights through the alliance as well as through the Cleveland Tenant Organization, which is a separate organization with a similarly broader scope.
In his more than 10 years of experience in the area, Davis said he’s come to see tenant-management issues as a two-way street. While tenants have the right to a clean, safe and secure dwelling, he said, they’re also obligated to hold up their end of the lease. Drug activity or allowing a visitor who isn’t named on the lease to stay for more than two weeks are both common ways tenants might unintentionally overstep their lease—and find themselves sitting in a management office.
“I try to step in and tell that tenant what they’re going to be facing,” Davis said of his role in bridging tenant-management communication. “Then what I try to do is explain what the landlord-tenant law says.”
“The management already knows the law, “ he added, emphasizing his responsibility to the tenant. “That’s why they have that tenant there in the office."
Davis also addresses tenant-management relationships from another angle, aiming to prevent conflicts before they happen rather than sort through them after they do. He said he tries to spend about an hour each month visiting various tenant councils around the city for seminars that brief renters on landlord-tenant law or educate them on actions that could be grounds for eviction.
He said, “I always tell people, ‘Don't get mad, get educated.”
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Street Chronicle October 2014 Cleveland Ohio