Hope is brewing on a state level as tenants fight for better living conditions

HAVELOCK, N.C. (WITN) – A former tenant of a Havelock complex says the apartment she rented was nearly unlivable. She even took her landlords to court back in May 2023 and won.

Now, other tenants and even some community leaders are standing beside her – saying her story echoes the sentiment of renters across the state and something needs to change.

Meanwhile, the property owners say they’ve done their part to respond to each of her complaints.

Our Investigative Team talked to both sides to learn more about the problem and what’s being done about it.

Kristy Zanatos called her Shipman Road apartment in Havelock “home” for about four years – but she says it wasn’t the peaceful haven most of us hope for, thanks to a long list of maintenance issues.

“I would say I consistently had a hard time getting maintenance to make the proper repairs,” she explained.

Zanatos says she had more than 107 maintenance requests put in within the three years she was living in her apartment. Included in those requests: leaks in her bathtub, washing machine and toilet.

“My usage was consistently about 2,000 gallons,” Zanatos explained. “During that time period, it spiked to 15,000 gallons, so I knew something was wrong”

So, she took her landlords to court.

“My case in particular was a water bill overage due to neglect on the bathtub handles,” Zanatos said. “They came out and repaired them 12 times, and they didn’t properly repair them, so it’d consistently start leaking. “

She won the judgment for unsafe living conditions, maintenance neglect and lost wages for representing herself.

While it was a victory, Kristy had a feeling she wasn’t alone. She made a Facebook post, asking for anyone who could relate, to reach out.

“I did also go door to door, and many tenants were expressing their concerns and how they’re not getting the proper treatment,” she said.

Most of the tenants Zanatos heard from were afraid to speak up on their own for fear of retaliation.

She also caught the attention of Joanna Wishon, who’s with a group called CASE or Creating and Sustaining Equity.

“It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of landlords in this community that don’t respect or appreciate their tenants,” said Wishon. “I think that tenants deserve better.”

Wishon says they want to create more resources in Havelock and Craven County for tenants, but that’s still a work in progress.

“The first thing we’re doing is putting out a survey that’s live now where you can share your experiences with whichever your landlord is and help us get an idea of what’s really going on out there,” Wishon explained.

Meanwhile, the owners of Carteret Craven Real Estate say they responded to each concern Zanatos complained about, even sending me a timeline of her complaints and their actions in response. They called her efforts to organize with other tenants an “aggressive campaign.”

Based on their experience with Zanatos, the property owners say they’ve made some changes to how they handle tenant complaints.

First, they plan to contact tenants after completing work orders to make sure the issue has been fixed.

Second, they’ve say they’ve contacted all tenants and asked them to report work orders in a “timely manner” so they can handle issues before they become bigger problems.

They’ve also given all tenants direct access to their pest control technician to report any issues with bugs and plan to do inspections of units every six months instead of once a year.

Meanwhile, some state leaders say, Zanatos’ situation speaks to a much larger issue of tenants facing landlords with often more power than the tenants have.

That’s why Nick MacLeod, the Local Organizing Director for the NC Housing Coalition, is working with Wishon and others to form a statewide tenants union.

“There are also a lot of critical parts of tenant law that are decided on a state level, and so we just wanted to be sure that there would be tenant voices in the room all across the board,” said MacLeod. “Our goal at this point is that we’ll have a statewide structure finalized and stood up in probably the next two months.”

While not an immediate solution, they feel it’s a step in the right direction – of empowering tenants to demand better.

“As long as you do have a roof over your head, you should be treated with respect,” Wishon added.

When it comes to Kristy’s situation, she has since moved out. The tenants union, as we mentioned, is still in the works on a state level, however, other states like Washington have unions that may serve as a powerful resource.

MacLeod says tenants can educate themselves by reaching out to Legal Aid of North Carolina. They have a variety of links on their website with information on the rights of tenants.

Something important to remember is that a crucial first step for tenants with concerns is talking to neighbors to see if they’re facing a similar problem. There is power in numbers.