By Kim Rivera, Director of Community Outreach, Massachusetts Parents United
Although I am a homeowner now, my journey wasn’t easy.
My story begins when I was living in a small two family home in Springfield. I actually thought I had a pretty good relationship with my landlord. He made such a lasting impression on me and my family that I still remember his name (though I won’t list it here).
One day, my landlord mentioned to me that he had another apartment down the street that was much bigger than the place my three children and I were in now, he asked if we would want to move there.
My kids and I went to see the apartment and decided yes, the space was much bigger, it had six rooms! I thought that my landlord had done me a favor.
We moved into the new place and things were already rocky form the beginning. One day, I came home to find that my landlord had hired some men work on the house, and they broke a window while putting siding on the house. I figured the men were going to fix the broken window, but when they left and it wasn’t done, I called repeatedly and then my children and I waited for days, and then weeks — nothing was being done.
It wasn’t until I told my landlord that water started to accumulate in the hallway because of the broken window that he came to take a look at it. He cleaned up some of the water, and I thought he was finally going to replace it. Unfortunately, he left it like that for several more weeks. My family and I experienced more rain water on days it would rain, slush on days it would snow, and even birds in our house on occasion.
At some point, my landlord came to put a plastic cover over the broken window, but it was winter time and our house was so cold our heat couldn’t keep up with the temperature outside. I knew I had to change something, I couldn’t keep putting my kids through this kind of living situation.
Also, what I know now is that that allowing a broken window in a tenant’s home is a violation of the State Sanitary Code in Massachusetts. I didn’t know that then, and even if I did, I would have been too afraid to speak up.
I started looking for other options, and I talked to my friend about a program called Habitat For Humanity that helps build houses for families who have had hardship finding a stable home. I filled out an application and I met with a representative from Habitat.
After giving her some information she asked to make an appointment to see my current living conditions. Boy, did I show her.
When she came to my current house, I showed her my two boys’ rooms where one of my son’s bedrooms did not have any working electricity so we had to use an extension cord from the other room to give him light.
I showed her all the windows that had a draft, allowing air to come in and out. She saw the big broken window first hand, the holes in the ceilings from pieces that started to fall down, the walls that were peeling.
She saw how in the winter we had to put up sheets in the living room doorway and on the windows so we had one warm room in the house, where we would eat our food and the kids would do their homework and sleep in there during the winter.
This was the worst I had ever been treated by a landlord and I really needed this to work out — I needed a change for my family.
A couple of weeks later, I cried happy tears when we got the acceptance letter that Habitat for Humanity would help us get a real home.
I wish I could say things were easy from that point on, but in reality the process of getting a house from Habitat from Humanity is still a long one. I would have to wait until a property was available which could take about two years.
They did find me a property and started to build my home. I was assigned a mentor through Habitat to keep me on track during the process, but eventually my mentor did not have time to mentor me anymore. I had all sorts of questions, but I didn’t ask them because I didn’t want to bother anyone and risk getting kicked out of the program.
Turns out that wasn’t good either, because there ended up being some problems with my final application process and I was suspended from the program because of my credit score, which had lowered slightly since my first application. When I got the letter that I was no longer eligible for the house they had built for me and my kids.
I felt like my world crashed down on me.
I felt like I was letting my children down time and time again. Kids look up to their parents for love, guidance, support and protection from struggles and challenges of life.
I promised them a home, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that it wasn’t going to happen. I had come so far that I didn’t want to just give up easily, so I kept talking with Habitat for Humanity trying to work things out. I finally did get the keys to my house on December 18, 2009.
I have experienced the hardships of not having a stable home, of being too afraid to stand up to my landlord, of having to put my kids through years of living in conditions that were less than what they deserved.
I want others to learn from my experience, and that means getting educated and learning about your rights as tenants. Take a free course at your local library or see if a community organization offers help or support in housing issues.
There is always something you can do, even if you feel stuck. There are hundreds of thousands of families across Massachusetts who are in terrible situations and are living in adequate housing, places without heat or hot water, places infested with rodents, places with landlords who couldn’t care less and are bending or breaking the laws, taking advantage of people who might be too afraid to speak up.
It shouldn’t be like this. Families shouldn’t have to make difficult choices between how much they can afford to put into housing and whether they can afford to put food on the table, or clothes for their growing children, or medications for any health conditions they have. I want other families who have been in worse or similar situations as me to have a chance at creating a better life for themselves and their kids, that’s is why I advocate.
And that’s why you should, too.