By Oliver Whang, The New Yorker
Cara Grimes and her fiancé, Justin Pitts, moved with their eight-year-old daughter from Delaware, Ohio, to Bedford County, Tennessee, in the spring of 2019. Grimes was pregnant, and the family took up residence in a camper in Pitts’s brother’s yard. “We were desperate to get in anywhere before we had the baby,” Grimes told me.
Rent was about seven hundred dollars a month; utility and Internet bills were another five hundred or so. Grimes noticed a leak coming from a hole in the bathroom ceiling. The apartment had bugs, too. The floor appeared to be rotten in spots, which Grimes covered with a toy box and a laundry basket.
Around this time, Grimes saw a post on Facebook about the Bedford County Listening Project, a group founded three years before by low-income renters with help from a regional organization called Southern Crossroads. On behalf of the Listening Project, a community organizer named Kelly Sue Waller, along with a handful of other local residents, went door to door in Bedford County, listening to renters’ concerns and telling them about resources that they might use to address them.
Early in 2019, the group began a ten-month survey of two hundred and thirty renters; by the time that Grimes found the group, the results had recently been released. Ninety-four per cent of those interviewed said that they “had trouble finding safe, affordable housing.” Seventy-seven per cent dealt with pests, sixty-seven per cent dealt with mold, and fifty-one per cent had heating or cooling issues. Seventy-three per cent said they sometimes had to forgo groceries in order to pay rent, and forty per cent said they had to forgo health care. Grimes began attending the Listening Project’s biweekly meetings.