The Story of Tahata Brooks vs. T.E.H. Realty
By Angelo Vidal
August 7, 2023
After her kitchen ceiling collapsed, Tahata Brooks was forced to cook meals for her family in the living room, using a hot plate. Plaster and insulation had buried the vinyl floor, and dust rained into the apartment along with the St. Louis summer heat. No matter how many times she called her landlord to request maintenance, they would not repair the ceiling for months.
Landlords looking to profit off the poor exacerbate the situation,
and the imbalance of power and resources…leaves people like Ms. Brooks with an impossible choice: homelessness or exploitation.
“For a while, I felt like I was displaced in my own home,” Ms. Brooks told us. “It doesn’t make sense for anybody to pay money and have to live in these conditions.”
But many tenants do. In St. Louis, 25% of renter households experience severe housing problems, the majority of which are Black and low-income. Landlords looking to profit off the poor exacerbate the situation, and the imbalance of power and resources between landlords and tenants often leaves people like Ms. Brooks with an impossible choice: homelessness or exploitation. Either way, she would suffer the indelible consequences of housing insecurity – until we fought back.
Plaster and insulation cover Ms. Brooks’ kitchen floor and countertops after the ceiling collapse. Photo by Lee Camp.
“Living in a Warzone”
For 10 years, Ms. Brooks resided at the Northwinds apartment complex in Ferguson, Missouri and remembers when it was called the “hidden jewel of North County.” But when T.E.H. Realty took over the property in 2018, her once comfortable home became a “warzone.”
“After that, the property really went down. The ground crew was not picking up trash. Suddenly, there was always gunfire, helicopters, even drones,” she said. “Maintenance never showed up. However, they were expecting and acquiring the rent every month. I wasn’t able to move, so I kept paying my rent. I don’t know what they did with that money, but I know they were not putting it back into the apartment.”
At the time, T.E.H. Realty was one of the largest providers of low-income housing in St. Louis, managing approximately 3,000 units. News reports detailing the out-of-state, shell company’s mismanagement had begun to expose T.E.H. as a notorious slumlord.
“I lost so much to the negligence of T.E.H.,” expressed Ms. Brooks. In addition to the ceiling collapse, she dealt with broken appliances, smashed windows, mold, and flooding in her basement – all of which T.E.H. was unresponsive to. Due to flooding, she lost treasured memorabilia that can never be replaced.
Substandard living conditions such as these often contribute to health issues. “They put us in medical danger,” Ms. Brooks declared. “My son is an asthma patient. When the ceiling collapsed and dust exploded everywhere, he was negatively affected. When the basement flooded, we didn’t know what kind of germs and bacteria were in that dirty water.”
“I felt hopeless and lost. I was always in a state of anxiety
and panic. I suffer from PTSD, and it escalated my condition.”
The home is supposed to be a place of emotional support, but when the condition of your home is a consistent cause of stress, it can be debilitating: “I felt hopeless and lost. I was always in a state of anxiety and panic. I suffer from PTSD, and it escalated my condition.”
Despite her struggles, Ms. Brooks wanted to fight back on behalf of her neighbors at Northwinds.
We Fight Together
With Ms. Brooks as a lead plaintiff, we filed a class-action lawsuit against T.E.H. in October 2019, as well as a motion for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction asking the court to require T.E.H. to immediately repair the uninhabitable units at Northwinds and to prohibit T.E.H. from collecting rent until repairs were complete.
“The only thing beneath the conditions we were living in is homelessness,” said Ms. Brooks. “There’s no reason for landlords and their employees to be acting so exploitatively. They need to take accountability for their properties and the people that live there.”
In total, the lawsuit relieved about
250 tenants from paying $300,000.
We fought in court to bring Ms. Brooks’ words to fruition, and we won. In March 2022, the Court ruled that T.E.H. had violated Missouri’s warranty of habitability, which requires landlords to provide a habitable living space. It also ruled that any rental debt owed by Northwinds tenants during T.E.H.’s ownership would be forgiven, and that the tenants would not pay rent until their homes were restored to livable condition. In total, the lawsuit relieved about 250 tenants from paying $300,000.
The win lifted a massive burden off the families at Northwinds. Not only that, but continued public pressure and ACD’s persistent litigation against T.E.H. helped prompt a federal investigation and catalyzed the downfall of the company’s entire scheme.
“I feel happy,” Ms. Brooks told us. “I feel relieved that T.E.H. will never be able to affect another person as negatively as they affected us. I would not have been able to stand up to T.E.H. if it were not for everybody at ArchCity Defenders.”
#WeTheTenants Right to Counsel Rally at City Hall. Photo by Johnny Wu Gabbert.
The Road Ahead
Ms. Brooks’ housing struggles didn’t end after leaving Northwinds. The next apartment she leased had severe water damage, which the landlord, Monarch Investment and Management Group, refused to acknowledge. She fought tooth and nail to get her security deposit, application fee and first month’s rent back before she continued looking elsewhere.
It took over a year for Ms. Brooks to find her current home, which is comfortable and safe, but the past has taught her to proceed with caution. “Things are looking good now, but if it starts going down the way that Northwinds did, I’m out of here,” she recently told us.
“Let me tell you what’s a handicap for poor people: legal representation…
If you have someone who can help you legally…that takes a load off the tenant.”
We know that it will take more than the downfall of one bad landlord to transform St. Louis from a region that enables the exploitation of tenants into a place where everybody has safe and stable housing. At ACD, we continue to litigate against out-of-state, corporate investors who create uninhabitable conditions, displace tenants and extract money from poor people – but the courts alone will not save us.
Since 2021, We the Tenants, a campaign co-anchored by ACD and Action St. Louis, has met monthly and advocated for tenants’ rights. After building momentum and pressure, the campaign celebrated the passage of a Right to Counsel Bill in St. Louis City, which will provide access to legal representation for tenants facing eviction.
Ms. Brooks knows how critical this is. “Let me tell you what’s a handicap for poor people: legal representation,” she insists. “If you have someone who can help you legally maneuver the people with power who are abusing you with that power, that takes a load off the tenant.”
Though Right to Counsel in the City is a vital step towards housing justice, until it is enacted in the County, its impact will fail to reach tens of thousands of people who are facing homelessness and housing insecurity. The work continues.
There are multiple ways you can support our housing advocacy. If you’re interested in building power for renters in St. Louis, join We the Tenants at our monthly renter’s meetings. Sign up here. You can also make a donation at archcitydefenders.org/donate.