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When JoAnn Vasil relocated to Shelbyville, Tennessee, she thought she had set everything up for herself. She secured a rental home in town, had work waiting for her, and was ready to move in. But what she found when she arrived at her new home threw a wrench in those plans.

"When we showed up, there was literally a piece of pizza stuck to the wall, the fridge had just been unplugged and it was full of rotten food, there was cheese in the shower, there was electrical outlets with just the wires sticking out of them," she says.

Disbelief etched on her face, even years later, she shakes her head. "We were like, okay, great. Welcome to Tennessee."

Vasil is a member of the Bedford County Listening Project, also known as the BCLP. Her grievances are among a litany included in a report titled "Home is Where the Heart is," which the group recently published.

One family interviewed for the report said that they resorted to using buckets and gas station bathrooms when their landlord neglected to fix the toilet. Another alerted their landlord about a broken refrigerator and water heater only to be instructed to buy a cooler and boil their water. Bedbugs, broken locks, illegal evictions and unsympathetic judges, heating and cooling problems, unfair charges and verbally abusive landlords––all of these conditions are part of the hostile atmosphere renters face in Bedford County.

Over the course of 2019, BCLP's community canvassers, in partnership with a PhD candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, knocked on 230 doors in Bedford County. With statistics and personal stories, the BCLP final report exposes how landlords' rampant abuses of power affect the most marginalized people in the county––refugees and asylum seekers, and families below the poverty line.

The Bedford County Listening Project holds monthly know-your-rights workshops and other gatherings where renters can get to know each other.

Shelbyville, the biggest city in Bedford County, is home to over 20,000 people, and about half this population are renters. An hour south of Nashville, Shelbyville is becoming home to low-income renters who can't find a place in Nashville's crowded housing market, especially as the surrounding suburbs balloon in response to rapid gentrification in the city center. Of the 230 residents surveyed, the majority made $20,000 per year or below, and mostly worked for hourly wages, paid out biweekly.

One family interviewed for the report said they resorted to using buckets and gas station bathrooms when their landlord neglected to fix the toilet.

Like many small cities and towns, Shelbyville is dominated by a select few politicians, lawyers, landlords, and realtors, many of whom leverage power in multiple professional arenas. The county mayor of Bedford is a former property manager, and BCLP says that at least one major local landlord they've received complaints about is also a lawyer. Multiple BCLP organizers describe the landlord community as a "monopoly"––small, mostly friends, and able to set prices more or less at will. 

When asked what should be done about the Bedford County housing crisis, tenants overwhelmingly asked for oversight. At the top of BCLP's list of community-driven recommendations is a demand that Bedford County pass and fully comply with a local version of Tennessee's Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act, or URLTA. The state law includes tenant protections, but it doesn't apply to counties with populations under 75,000.

The recommendations also call on the City of Shelbyville to punish code violations and create a fair housing commission with a majority of low-income renters, among other measures.

The Bedford County Listening Project follows in the tradition of other, similar door-knocking campaigns, notably Down Home North Carolina. Listening projects organize through the age-old strategies of walking around, porch-sitting, and having conversations that open up unexpected pathways to liberation. After these relationships are built––by returning to homes again and again, identifying community members with deep grievances and the desire for change, and talking to them over time––then, people can start to mobilize.

This dream began as resistance to the rising tide of white nationalism. In 2017, a coalition of white supremacist groups arbitrarily chose to march on Shelbyville, claiming its vulnerable immigrant population was a threat to their vision of a restored, imaginary white America. While Shelbyville has made few attempts to welcome tenants, city council members bent themselves into knots to avoid insulting the white nationalists who marched there in 2017.

Listening projects organize through the age-old strategies of walking around, porch-sitting, and having conversations that open up unexpected pathways to liberation.

According to Stephanie Isaacs of BCLP, this event incited her work. When she heard that the white supremacists were coming, her concern for her community––many of whom are not only poor and working-class, but also refugees and asylum-seekers from Central America and Somalia––led her out to the street. 

"I wanted to make Shelbyville [a place] where people like that [white nationalists] didn't feel comfortable coming," says Isaacs.

White supremacists at a 2017 rally in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Community members came together to oppose the rally and ended up starting the Bedford County Listening Project. Photo by Tabitha Kaylee Hawk via Flickr.

Isaacs joined with neighbors to form a group called Shelbyville Loves, which aimed to show the city's most vulnerable residents that their neighbors were looking out for them. In the weeks preceding the white supremacist march, they went door to door with a clear task: informing their community that they did not support the march––despite the apathy of the city council and county commission––and furthermore, that they were ready to take the next step in organizing their community. Their listening sessions, all conducted in the shadow of the neo-Nazi threat, reached across community boundaries and asked the open-ended question of what ought to be done to improve life in Shelbyville.

Despite the immediacy of the march, most people had longer-range concerns, and housing was the biggest one, Isaacs says. When asked about injustice, fear, and economic struggle, community members talked about housing and landlords. It unearthed a years-long economic struggle: "us against the landlords," as Isaacs put it, "not us against each other."

Those conversations presented an opportunity to build power and community towards a better city for all. Cash-poor white folks and immigrants, traditionally pitted against one another, could sway the city if they could only build power through understanding their shared struggles with housing insecurity.

When asked to talk about injustice, fear, and economic struggle, community members talked about housing and landlords.

Members of Shelbyville Loves created the Bedford County Listening Project to carry the conversations forward. In the years since, they have compiled a stark list of statistics. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed had trouble finding safe housing. Sixty-four percent spend over half their monthly income on rent. Sixty-seven percent have experienced mold. The list goes on.

"Surveyees frequently referenced the monopoly of a handful of landlords, as well as landlords' sole focus on money, intimidation tactics, threats of eviction, and refusal to engage fairly and ethically as common experiences that create instability in housing, health, and finances," the survey concludes, completing a textured depiction of a town in which renters are forced to simply take what they can get.

Now BCLP members are working to get the county to adopt their recommendations. County commissioners recently invited them to present their policy demands in a meeting. Meanwhile, BCLP is continuing to build community among renters. They hold monthly know-your-rights workshops as well as potlucks and other gatherings where neighbors can get to know each other. They're also working to get out the vote, noting that local elections are often won with only a couple hundred votes and a mass drive to the polls could hold elected officials more accountable to a newly activated working-class electorate.

In a town where so many people feel abandoned by the state, with no one to defend them from the rampant abuses of the landholding class, BCLP organizes to hold that class accountable to the law. In doing so, they're enabling neighbors to recognize the vast potential of the love they hold for one another when that love transcends divisions within the working class, and unites neighbors in shared struggle.

This piece has been modified to reflect factual errors.

Katie Myers

Caitlin Myers is a writer and organizer splitting her time between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Whitesburg, Kentucky. Caitlin writes primarily about economic justice as it relates to labor, health, and the privatization of public services, and she loves to explore the many ways in which communities take power back.