The year is coming to a close, and all of us here at the TRC have done a lot of thinking about why we do what we do. It's been quite the year: we had a big funding cut (from Dane County, requested by an agency we though was an ally); Tony Robinson Jr was killed less than 500 feet away from where we sat closing up our offices for the day and the community rose up to protest his death. A new set of bills are being put forth in the Assembly that will significantly muddle tenant-landlord laws for all involved.
We get a lot of questions, mostly by folks who don't access our services, about why we are important. After all, we just sit around talking and writing, right? What do we DO? What is the value of this service that we provide? What is the value in even having these laws in the first place?
Which brings me to a November homicide here in Madison. The article in the news says there was a man, who was buying a commercial property through a rent-to-own situation (about which there are very few regulatory laws). The person he was buying it from claimed the buyer hadn't paid, and the original owner filed for foreclosure against the buyer (many laws about foreclosure have recently expired). It was a barren landscape, in terms of applicable laws.
According to the article, the moment that the renter/buyer realized that he was out of legal options, where he was being thrown from the property, not by the sheriff (see more law changes), but by the original owner, who had failed to give him notice (notice is not required under the law). That moment, when he was out of options, out of ways to make his voice heard, out of ways to sustain his livelihood... The article explains that under these circumstances, the buyer shot the original owner, and killed him.
Of course, all this has yet to be proven. I don't want to say I know anything about this case - because I don't - but the situation (as represented) really struck a chord with me.
We see so many people (more tenants than landlords, but still, some of both), who have gotten to a point where nothing can be worse, and they feel like they don't have any resources; they don't have any way to stand up for themselves. They feel like they don't have any way to get someone to listen, to intervene.
We give people a way to find their voice. We look for relevant laws. We talk about options. And it might seem like a lot of talk, sometimes, but I wonder if what we can't see from here is what people do when they feel like they are out of options; what extreme actions might feel like the only way out.
I want a less violent world. I want a place where people find language to stand up for their rights, to assert themselves. I want people to have access to the resources to learn how to do that. I think that not doing so, not giving people that support, that knowledge, might mean more moments like this. In which a gun seems like the only solution left.
In the moment I'm thinking about here, there was a significant human cost - a life lost - because one person did not feel he had rights as a tenant. And wouldn't it have been better, if in that moment, instead of a gun being pulled out, he had thought, well, there's one choice left. I can go talk to the TRC. Maybe they'll know something I haven't thought of. And then, that landlord might have been irritated that we would have encouraged that tenant to write a letter, to contact a lawyer, to petition the court. But he would have been alive.
The human cost of NOT doing this work, of not talking, of not using the words - the price of taking that away is significant.
This is why we do what we do: We are telling people about their choices. We are listening deeply to their problems. We are doing our best to build a community that we want to be a part of.