MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A group of tenants at a federally subsidized property has called on public officials to step in after they say Millennia Companies management blocked their organizing efforts and broke federal law.
Becky, who doesn’t want to share her last name, and Joyce Warren were two of the tenants taking part in the organizing action.
Becky has lived in Memphis Towers since September 2022. Joyce has lived in the building for ten years.
They joined the Memphis Tenants Union, a group led by professional organizer Alex Uhlmann.
“The Memphis Tenants Union is what it says it is. Tenants coming together to fight for their rights,” Uhlmann said.
He cited federal law protecting his presence to help tenants at a property like Memphis Towers, which gets funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In the two years since they started, they’ve made a difference, he said. After months without reliable hot water, tenants were proud of their successful campaign to get it restored.
“We were able to pressure them into finally installing a functional water boiler,” Becky said.
Other conditions are still challenging, they said. WREG has documented a long history of issues at Memphis Towers as well as Serenity at Highland, another property also owned by the Millennia Companies.
“We have no cameras. We have no security,” Warren said.
“I’ve been sexually harassed many times by people who aren’t authorized to be on the property. Other people have had similar issues, and that’s how we came to launch our demand campaign around safety and security,” Becky said.
The letter from members of the tenants union had three main demands: 24-hour security, keycard access for all tenants and better emergency medical services access to the building.
Uhlmann helped them write the letter.
“The residents here are primarily composed of folks that are elderly and have disabilities, and the fact that there’s no one at the front desk, the fact that sometimes people are locked out of the building because they don’t have key cards, the fact that sometimes the building is not locked and anyone can come in from the outside makes it an incredibly dangerous environment,” Uhlmann said.
In cell phone video of the encounter, you can see Uhlmann and others helping to guide Becky to deliver the letter to Memphis Towers management. The manager refused to take the letter and called the police on Uhlmann, the organizer. She can be heard in the video saying, “What am I supposed to do with this? That’s not anything I need.”
“Management was very combative with us, very hostile,” Becky said.
The manager in the video was breaking federal law, according to Bridgett Simmons, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project.
“Under the regulations, it says tenants have a right to organize,” Simmons said.
The National Housing Law Project helps advise a national group called the Millennia Resistance Campaign, which tries to improve conditions at Millennia-owned properties like Memphis Towers.
“This is not just happening here. This is something happening at several properties,” Simmons said.
In response to the situation at Memphis Towers, a Millennia spokesperson based in Ohio offered a different message than the building manager.
“We do recognize that several residents at the property have organized. We are unaware if [they] represent the opinions of all residents in the development,” marketing and communications director Valerie Jerome wrote in an email.
She did not specifically address the letter incident.
“It’s not complicated when you look at HUD regulations that organizers are entitled to be in the building, knock on people’s doors, to organize residents,” Uhlmann said.
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Within hours of delivering the letter, Becky said someone came to her door.
“Pounded it like they were trying to break it down. It was very scary. They told me my piece of paper was a notice to vacate in ten days,” she said.
Becky can’t see so she had a friend look at the paper. They told her it was just a complaint warning. She felt like they were targeting her in a way that is another violation of federal law.
“None of that was in a manner consistent with my request for reasonable accommodations under Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act that governs effective communication in delivering notices in a manner that is accessible to me,” Becky said.
When the WREG Problem Solvers asked Millennia officials about the situation, they said they would start communicating electronically with Becky so she can have the messages read out loud.
But Becky wasn’t the only one who got a notice.
“Mine said that I owed $900 and something and I have 10 days to relocate,” Warren said.
“We’ve had retaliation from management which includes residents here and our organizers,” Uhlmann said.
Millennia officials said the timing of the notices was coincidental and denied allegations of retaliation. They also said they’re working on security improvements in line with the tenants’ requests, such as adding new doors.
Simmons, the housing attorney, said Millennia has done this before.
“The Millennia Resistance Campaign had a call with HUD headquarters. That was in the fall of 2022. That same day, tenants who lived at a property in New Orleans received eviction notices,” Simmons said.
Tenants want intervention from officials who can help protect them and appeal to HUD.
“I want the elected officials to come in and do what they’re supposed to do,” Warren said.
The Memphis Tenants Union has contacted Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy and Congressman Steve Cohen to help them defend their rights.
They’re also filing an appeal with HUD.
In the weeks since WREG started covering this story, Uhlmann, the organizer, had an encounter with Memphis Towers management where they detained and cited him for trespassing. As a result, Memphis Tenants Union members met with DA Mulroy, who reinforced their rights to be on the property. In a letter, he wrote, “I have advised Memphis Police Department officials that hey should not arrest any such person. Further, given that HUD regulations forbid retaliation against tenant organizing, I respectfully advise Memphis Towers management not to have private security attempt to detain or arrest tenant organizers…”
► Got a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org