In late December, tenants at the Lofts at Cargill Falls Mill in Putnam, Connecticut, an old mill town, received a letter from the Northeast District Department of Health (NDDH) notifying them that a toddler living in the residential complex had severe lead poisoning.1 The department of health had identified toxic levels of lead inside of the apartment unit and directed other families with young children to schedule inspections and blood tests immediately.
“I was scared, angry,” Kate Slininger recounted to me, her mind heavy with thoughts of her own three-year-old son. “It’s upsetting to think about.”
That day, Slininger spoke with her neighbors, Kodylynn Perkins and Maggie Bergin. Perkins whose baby was only a few months old at that point, began thinking about what they all needed to know in terms of housing laws and their rights as tenants.
“I kept researching more housing laws and about building codes,” said Perkins once she returned to her apartment, “We needed information to know what we can actually do right away, to demand what we needed as tenants from management.”
The complex where they lived is an eighty-two-unit, mixed-income residential that had been converted from an abandoned textile mill from the early nineteenth century. After several years of construction, the Cargill Falls Mill complex was officially opened to potential renters in 2020.2 Konover Residential, the property management company, had advertised a combination of luxury units and state-subsidized options that would ease demand for housing in the post-industrial New England region. Putnam is small town, like many scattered across the northeast, where many of the mills have been shut down for several decades, left to disintegrate under the sun.
Despite renovations to turn the textile mill into a livable space, many of the tenants found serious issues early on. There was suspected lead paint on wooden beams and flooring inside apartments. There was mold festering in water-damaged windows. There were also recurring problems with pests, windowless bedrooms without airflow, and constant leaking and flooding, including what some believed was sewage water collecting into a sickly pool by the first-floor elevators.
But the lead poisoning was the last straw. Lead poisoning of young children can lead to severe developmental issues and health problems haunting them forever.3 Motivated by a mixture of anger and fear, Slininger and Bergin began knocking on doors, as Perkins rushed back to do more research, clicking away on government websites, digesting scraps of useful information.
Having retired from a twenty-plus-year career as an English professor at a community college in Montana, Bergin had always wanted to return to New England, where she’d been born and raised. Putnam was one of the few places that had available apartments that she could afford, as someone with some subsidies at her disposal. But the rents at the complex still hovered between $1,200 to upwards of $1,900, far higher than in the surrounding regions, with many apartment complexes rejecting Section 8 housing vouchers, and other types of government assistance.
Surviving on social security and her pension, Bergin knew there was no choice but to stay and fight the local management.
“It’s either I stay at Cargill Falls and fight back with everybody else, or I end up homeless,” she stated.
The nightmarish situation at the Cargill Falls in Putnam is part of a broader housing crisis impacting millions of people across the United States, a crisis that’s been building since the tail-end of the Nixon administration.
For nearly fifty years, rents have been rising exponentially, first in major cities such as Manhattan and Boston and Los Angeles., with government officials coordinating with high-end property developers and other financial institutions to transform their cities into playgrounds for the more affluent and well-connected.4
“Government, particularly at the municipal level, becomes increasingly obsessed with raising property values and redistributing wealth upward through land and rents,” Samuel Stein writes in Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State about the period of time following the shrinking of the federal government in the late 1970s, after decades of deindustrialization and corporate resistance against labor unions in the Northeast and Midwest.5 With labor unions concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, major manufacturers would start the process of shifting their resources into the Sunbelt instead, leaving behind husks of major city centers and dwindling tax base, prompting developers to swoop in.6
However, the effects of this political dynamic have now spilled over into midsized like Philadelphia and Kansas City and into smaller towns, like Putnam, which has a total population just under ten thousand.7 Rents are rising so high in major cities, forcing people to leave the metropolitan areas into other cities and towns. This, in turn, then raises rates there as property developers trail after, finding ways to take advantage of the lack of affordable housing and churning out apartments from old decrepit mills.8
In small towns like Putnam, most working people have houses that have been passed on as well, however old they may be.9 Others who arrive in such towns, refugees of gentrification, are desperate to find anything. Konover and other developers are there to and squeeze out as much as they can from tenants, until residents are compelled to give up and move elsewhere: to yet another small town taken over by the real estate industry.
A Crisis Looms
Randy Shaw, cofounder of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, has been on the frontlines of housing justice issues since the first years of the Reagan administration.
Under Reagan, funding for the department of Housing and Urban Development was slashed.10 The federal government took a step back in building homes, which by that time, had already become increasingly difficult for working people, especially people of color, to find. With the end of Jim Crow, the federal government had pretended that somehow, racial justice had been achieved, allowing for the same municipalities that had been so restrictive in explicitly racial terms to carry on similar types of exclusion, only less explicitly. With Reaganism in full swing, many towns and cities felt emboldened to utilize zoning policy to outright ban affordable housing from being built, or even for high rises to include subsidized apartments.
“Since Reagan, we’ve gone in completely the wrong direction instead,” Shaw said, “Major cities and towns refused to allow more affordable housing to be built. Refused to let working people live where they wanted to live. Refused to allow renters to live in cities and/or neighborhoods even if it is close to their work.”
With the federal government allowing for housing policy to remain in the hands of private industry, most developers are keen on building when it’s for affluent residents who can afford higher rents, or more expensive housing. This has led to what Shaw described as an “artificial scarcity” in housing for people. In smaller towns like Putnam, apartments are rare, let alone affordable, and as people are escaping higher rents in cities, they are faced with houselessness and overcrowding. Essentially, the stock of low-rent housing doesn’t meet growing demand.11
Since the onset of COVID-19, this corrosive dynamic has only intensified. In poorer cities like Philadelphia, major developers have emerged, given the saturation of the housing market in other major cities like New York.12 Salem Snow, someone who has experienced displacement multiple times, has been housing rights organizer in Philly for several years.
“The housing crisis has gotten worse in Philly and across the country for the past several years,” he said, “Most new housing in Philly has been outside levels of affordability for most people who already live here, many who are working class. It’s forcing people to move further away from the city and to commute instead.”
Canyon Ryan, executive director of the fifty-year-old United Tenants of Albany, has seen a rise in rents in Albany as well, a rise in evictions, and more housing instability in New York’s capital city and the surrounding region.
“Since the pandemic, rents have gone up 15 percent,” he said, “We’ve had one in every six residents being evicted. It’s been intense.”
Whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House, the power and influence of private developers and real estate have expanded into now all corners of the country. That said, as Karl Marx once stated about capitalism creating its own “gravediggers,” this housing crisis has now affected a range of people, including white-collar workers who are being priced out from gentrified city centers. There is a growing level of frustration that Ryan himself hadn’t seen in recent memory. This tracks with more tenant unions forming, and more of that being featured in daily news.13
“The current crisis creates opportunities and momentum for those of us who believe in housing justice,” Ryan explained, “But this momentum must be organized.”
“It was eye opening,” said Perkins about when NDDH officials spoke at one of their tenant meetings following the news of the lead poisoning.
The NDDH representatives explained that they were not legally bound to test housing proactively and can only proceed with formal inspections once someone, like a toddler, has already fallen ill. Even then, they are not mandated to inspect every apartment, only those with young children. So that people who are single and retired, like Bergin or others with older children are not promised anything and must go ahead living in their apartments, unsure of what beams might be covered in lead, and if the dust collecting around them is poisonous.
“We’re here because the system has failed us,” Perkins stated.
Following the reveal of lead poisoning from the NDDH, Slininger and Bergin, along with others who had realized it was not just them who were angry and anxious over what was going on, would knock on doors and organize tenant meetings. Shortly before the first tenants meeting, Kate connected with organizers in the Connecticut Tenants Union (CTTU) and DSA’s communist caucus, seeking advice and asking questions. With their support and guidance, she garnered the support of tenants to form a tenants’ union after only a few meetings. Slininger, Perkins, Bergin, and other members of the union continued to canvass and hold meetings as more issues arose and plans for a rent strike were underway.
The meetings have been a way for residents to vent, but more importantly, to strategize and realize they have common underlying concerns.
“All the people who live here are working-class people,” Slininger said, “And in a lot of our apartments, there’s damaged masonry, unsealed floors, and rotting, unfinished wood. There’s also mold and leaking in the building.”
Konover Residential have not released comprehensive plans for the abatement of lead and mold months after initial findings. The property owner, Leanne Parker of the Historic Cargill Falls Mill LLC, has been avoiding being served by the housing court and civil attorneys.
“For a long time, people were afraid to speak out because they didn’t want to get some retaliation or be blamed for the problems,” Bergin expressed, “Now, with having this union, having a communal voice, people are much more willing to say what they want to say about the building and about what they need.”
Management has so far told tenants, along with the NDDH, to avoid lead poisoning and other health issues by consistently cleaning and scrubbing their apartments every single day, despite refusing to provide the necessary HEPA vacuums. There is the expectation that people individualize the problem, treat it as some kind of personal issue that could be overcome with cleaning and personal hygiene.
But the organizing committee of the Cargill Tenants Union (CTU) has been educating tenants on the responsibilities of management and what they deserve as tenants. Slininger also emphasized that the purpose of a tenants union is to not only win immediate demands within the complex, but to address systemic issues like housing availability and affordability in the region.
“We hope other tenants in Putnam, and in the state, can learn from our lack of information about lead and housing policies,” Kate explained at a recent CTU press conference held outside a local radio station. “But we also hope our organizing and protecting each other through the tenants’ union is a lesson as well. Collective pressure is more powerful than an individual complaint, and standing together as a union protects tenants from landlords’ most powerful tools like eviction and harassment. Our tools as a tenant union are solidarity, public pressure, and the rent strike.”
As demonstrated throughout history, the formation of regional and national organizations and groups help shift power in favor of the oppressed and exploited. This is what turned the tide during the modern day civil rights movement with formation of the SCLC and SNCC, organizations that accumulated leadership, expertise, resources, and helped train and further politicize Black people impacted by Jim Crow and their allies.14
This is why communist and progressive organizations have been critical in the past when it came to challenging the status quo in this country and abroad, as they would coordinate leadership, relevant political strategies, and resources.15 The hope is that tenant unions and associations continue to grow but also develop linkages across regions and finally, across the country, just as corporate power has done over the last fifty years. This is necessary with the hopes of pushing federal government to once more increase funding for housing, and to actively build newer and affordable units, which would add pressure to existing landlords to better maintain their so-called property.
Members of the Cargill Tenants Union started going on rent strike in January 2023, and more joined the following month. By April of this year, they plan to have at least half the tenants paying rent into escrow accounts while awaiting their housing court case to be heard. This is a pressure tactic designed to force the landlord and management company to address chronic issues in the mill buildings.
From Putnam to all corners, the frustration grows. But the power of real estate remains. The abandoned houses lie scattered, foreclosed, bought up. Apartment buildings sinking into the dirt, windows covered up with tape, while scions of real estate wine and dine with aldermen downtown.
But also, one can imagine people behind doors, trading ideas, laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation, calling up others in the towns nearby, and eventually, across the globe, informing them of what’s next.
“The mutual communal feeling that you get from being in these meetings, being part of a tenants union, a bunch of people talking about it,” Maggie said, “It makes you feel supported. That’s an important message to get out. If you’re in a building having these issues, don’t try and do this alone. You will be overwhelmed.”
1. Linda Colangelo, “NDDH Responds to Lead Hazard at The Lofts at Cargill Falls Mill,” Northeast District Department of Health, January 4, 2023.
2. Stephen Beale, “Cargill Falls Mill Development in Putnam Opening to Residents,” Bulletin, August 2, 2020.
4. Mike Winters, “Rent Prices Will Keep Going Up—Here’s What to Expect,” CNBC, September 28, 2022.
5. Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (New York: Verso, 2019).
6. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (New York: Verso, 2018).
9. Eleanor Laise and Katie Marriner, “Believe Escaping to a Small Town Will Revive Your Dream of Homeownership? Those Housing Markets Are not as Idyllic as You’d Think,” MarketWatch, June 18, 2022.
11. Kristian Hernandez, “Rising Construction Costs Stall Affordable Housing Projects,” Pew Research, April 25, 2022.
12. Chris Gelardi, “Philly Tenants Are Fighting on the Front Lines of the Low-Income Housing Crisis,” Nation, August 11, 2022.
13. Laura Jedeed and Shane Burley, “As an Eviction Crisis Looms, Tenant Organizing Explodes Across the Country,” Truthout, January 25, 2021.
14. Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984).
15. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (New York: Verso, 2018).