Jessica Lewis can still remember the anxiety that sat like a rock in her stomach as her parents struggled to pay their bills when she was a child.
“We had a lot of scary situations, worrying about getting evicted,” Lewis says. “Constantly scrambling, being behind with landlords. My parents tried to shield us from it, but we could feel it.”
In later years, as her family’s finances improved, Lewis was able to go to college, play the cello, travel. She says she “sorta forgot” the frightening feeling of being on the edge of homelessness. But the more inequality she witnessed as an adult, the more she began to think again about the issue of poverty.
When Lewis arrived in Baltimore to take a new job, she was stunned by the sheer number of vacant houses peppering the city. “It wasn’t something I got used to the longer I lived here. In fact, it just became more and more of a button-pusher,” Lewis says.
Lewis’ interest in housing insecurity grew. And after volunteering with a group of Occupy Baltimore advocates working on foreclosure issues in 2011, Lewis realized that a key group of residents were being left out.
“I said we need to talk about homelessness and tenants’ rights and not just talk about homeowners,” Lewis recalls thinking. “Not everyone can afford a home here in Baltimore.”
In fact, Lewis says, housing insecurity among renters actually is a bigger problem in the city than foreclosures. In 2012, for example, there were nearly 2,800 foreclosures in Baltimore. At the same time, there were close to 150,000 complaints for non-payment of rent, often the first step toward eviction.
“People don’t view renters the same way they do homeowners. There’s a perception that the reason people are renting is because they’re lazy or they’re just not willing to work hard enough,” Lewis says. “But people are renting because they’re struggling or maybe they just don’t want to buy a house. That’s their right. In the big, scary stories that get told about why these evictions happen, they mostly blame the people who rent the houses.”
To combat that false perception, Lewis and volunteers she’d worked with on the Occupy Our Homes movement partnered with the Public Justice Center and started the Right to Housing Alliance, which works in many ways to advocate for the rights of renters. Advocates and volunteers go to district court and pull rent court dockets and then contact renters before eviction notices are filed. The volunteers educate tenants about the process and their rights and help connect them to free legal advice.
Alliance representatives have knocked on more than 1,400 city doors, hoping to stave off evictions. They’ve been successful in that effort nine times in court and countless other times by giving renters tools to advocate for themselves before ever getting to court. Through her fellowship, Lewis hopes to grow those numbers—and engage more people around eradicating housing insecurity in the city.
Already, Lewis can see a real grassroots organizing movement forming around housing in Baltimore.
“The really important thing is that some of the first people who we helped stay and help others and are starting to move into leadership roles in the organization. That’s really the goal,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to take back some of landlords’ power to just put people out on the street. But we’re not going to be able to challenge the system until we have community power.”