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Business & Economy

Columbus renters push back against rising rents with formation of tenants' union

Damon Blanchard recently formed a tenants' union in response to what he calls an "unfair" rent increase at Bexley Commons, the apartment complex where he has lived since 2005.
Matthew Rand
Damon Blanchard recently formed a tenants' union in response to what he calls an "unfair" rent increase at Bexley Commons, the apartment complex where he has lived since 2005.

Damon Blanchard has spent the better part of two decades living at Bexley Commons, an apartment complex on Columbus' east side.

He said he had no complaints about his original landlords.

"Everything was good. Everything got fixed when you needed it to," Blanchard said.

Fast forward to last year, when the property came under new management and Blanchard learned that starting this year, his rent would go from $450 a month to $800 a month.

Blanchard said he’s on a fixed income after getting hurt on the job three years ago. The new rent amounts to about 70% of his monthly income.

“It's just a crazy thought to think that somebody would double your rent during a pandemic," he said.

Melissa Benson, managing attorney of the housing team at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, said owners can charge what they want when it comes to new leases and month-to-month agreements like Blanchard's.

“In the state of Ohio, there are no laws that restrict rents, or cap rent increases in any way," Benson said.

It's not just Columbus seeing rents go up. Across the country, average monthly rents jumped more than 14 percent year over year in December, according to data from real estate brokerage Redfin.

“People are moving out of their parents' basement, they're forming households, are also coming back from overseas, they're getting divorced. There's a lot of different ways that our people are creating new households," said Redfin's deputy chief economist, Taylor Marr.

In other words, limited supply and red hot demand.

Faced with this reality, Damon Blanchard began collecting signatures from his neighbors, petitioning the rental company to lower their rents.

What he got back was an email from attorneys saying that "management refuses to engage with a fictitious tenants' union."

"Yeah, I got a kick out of that," Blanchard said.

In Ohio, landlords are prohibited by Ohio law from retaliating against tenants who unionize or trying to evict them for doing so. But they have no obligation to engage with tenant unions either.

“In the rental market, we're at the most historically low level of rental vacancy, that tenants and renters in particular just don't have the bargaining power, even collectively. So landlords really do hold a lot more power, if you're comparing a tenant union to a labor union, for example," said Marr.

Still, tenants' unions are growing in popularity. New research says there are hundreds around the country, many of them formed during the pandemic.

"Part of the reason why unions are becoming more popular is because that lack of communication became really evident during the pandemic," said Alexandra Alvarado, director of marketing and education at the American Apartment Owners Association, which supports roughly 130,000 landlord members across the country.

Alvarado said while tenant unions can sometimes threaten landlords' ability to operate, especially smaller mom-and-pop outfits, property owners should listen to their concerns.

"Homeownership is not on the rise, it is declining. Homeownership is becoming less affordable, and so at least for the time being, there may be more renters than homeowners, and they're going to have a voice. And that should be heard, I think, within these conversations, it can actually be something helpful," she said.

The new management company for Bexley Commons, Vision & Beyond, wouldn't make someone available for an interview for this story.

The company issued the following statement:

"Vision & Beyond makes annual rent increases that are in line with comparable Class C rental properties in the area, and also in accordance with property improvements and other beautification efforts we are implementing at the development.

At Bexley Commons, Vision & Beyond has begun a comprehensive, $3 million improvement program with the goal of reducing crime and creating a cleaner, safer environment for everyone. Since acquiring the property in June 2021, Vision & Beyond has begun improvements including new roofing, HVAC, comprehensive renovation of in-unit amenities, and intensive measures to address pest infestations.

Vision & Beyond has also contracted with off-duty police officers for a regular security presence with the goal of reducing shootings, break-ins, and thefts that plagued the development prior to the developer's acquisition.

With regard to tenants' requests for collective bargaining, we are pleased to meet with each tenant one-on-one to discuss the terms and conditions of their lease."

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.