In order to fight back against this lawsuit aimed at silencing MATU, we are calling for donations to our legal defense fund at https://chuffed.org/project/solidarity-matu.
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On June 23rd, 2023 a lawsuit was filed in the Ozaukee County Circuit Court by Youssef “Joe” Berrada and Berrada Properties Management (BPM) against the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) and union member Hayden Harwood, who is a tenant of Berrada. This lawsuit alleges that MATU and Harwood damaged Berrada’s reputation in the community by speaking to the press about a fire that occurred in one of his buildings, taking the life of a child, and by publishing an infographic about BPM hiring former Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) employee Archie Blunt to be his community involvement director. MATU maintains unequivocally that we have taken no action that has damaged the reputation of Joe Berrada or BPM any further than they have damaged it through their own actions. Dozens of news articles, reports, and interviews have been conducted exposing the slumlord behavior of BPM and Mr. Berrada and slumlord is the perfect title for him and his company. BPM has a 2.3-star rating on Google reviews with hundreds of past and present tenants giving one-star reviews and condemning BPM’s practices.
Over the past three years, MATU members have visited a sizable number of Berrada-owned and managed buildings and had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of tenants, observe the living conditions in the buildings, and take photographs and videos of what we found. From these experiences it is clear that 1) Tenants of BPM and Mr. Berrada are mostly dissatisfied with their living conditions and have numerous legitimate complaints against him and his company, 2) The majority of the buildings owned and managed by BPM and Mr. Berrada have several easily identifiable code violations that make inhabiting the building unsafe, unsanitary, and/or undignified, and 3) We have the photographic and videographic evidence necessary to demonstrate that these conditions exist as well as hundreds of tenant members and contacts living in Berrada buildings whose assertions we accept as legitimate and well-informed.
The reason MATU started working with BPM tenants in the first place is the high volume of complaints we received from the tenants in Berrada-owned buildings, including, but not limited to, evictions, illegal evictions, harassment, failure to answer maintenance requests, broken appliances, broken windows, electrical problems, plumbing problems, water damage, flooding, illegal entry, failure to return security deposit, retaliation for complaints to DNS, retaliation for complaints to Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection, retaliation for complaints to MATU, carrying out evictions after accepting rental assistance, failure to address pest infestations, and more. These allegations have been brought to MATU and we have accepted them in good faith, often having the opportunity to investigate and confirm the details of these allegations. MATU takes its investigative work seriously and spends time with tenants to determine the efficacy of their allegations and what can be done to address them in a manner that is productive for the tenant.
In the interview with CBS 58 News mentioned in the complaint, MATU member Harwood stated that electrical fires are a common occurrence in rental properties in Milwaukee, particularly those owned by slumlords like Berrada who do not maintain their buildings and force tenants to live in hazardous situations. The inconclusive results of the Milwaukee Fire Department inspection are not surprising as many house fires are designated in this manner when sufficient evidence of the cause does not exist. However, the report does note thermal damage around an electrical outlet in the room in question, which is often an indicator of an electrical fire. In our conversations with the family, who reached out to MATU to invite us to protest with them, they divulged to us that there had been electrical problems in the unit prior to the fire including flickering lights, fuses constantly blowing, and outlets that would pop when something was plugged into them. Based on our reading of the MFD report and conversation with the tenants, MATU maintains a reasonable belief that an electrical malfunction could have caused the fire. We are not and never have alleged that an electrical malfunction definitively caused the fire and union member Harwood’s interview served more to recognize a pattern of electrical fires occurring in poorly maintained properties owned by slumlords on the northside, as demonstrated in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article Electrical fires hit Milwaukee’s Black renters hardest. Nobody is held accountable, by Raquel Rutledge, John Diedrich, and Daphne Chen.
In terms of the social media post and graphics alleging improper collusion between BPM, Mr. Berrada, and former DNS employee Archie Blunt, MATU stands by this characterization which is based on information from a variety of sources, including materials obtained through a public records request, conversations with current and former employees of BPM, conversations with current and former employees of the DNS, and conversations held with investigative journalists. Based on information and belief, MATU reaffirms its allegation that the relationship between BPM and Mr. Blunt is ethically improper, a belief reaffirmed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article Veteran building inspector leaves city job to work for giant landlord, Berrada Properties by Cary Spivak, and that Mr. Blunt colluded with BPM and Mr. Berrada in a manner that served their business interests while he was supposed to be acting as a public regulator. Additionally, MATU made this allegation within a systemic critique of modern capitalism. We assert that this system leads to austerity and neoliberal reforms that lead to the deregulation and defunding of public regulatory bodies as well as fostering a culture that enables revolving door politics where government regulators join the private entities that they used to “regulate.” MATU is well within its first amendment rights to make such allegations, critiques, and to portray Mr. Berrada and Mr. Blunt in whatever manner we choose because Mr. Berrada and Mr. Blunt are notable public figures who are subject to public scrutiny.
The complaint portrays MATU as holding radical views about social change and accuses us of being advocates for Socialism. Both of these things are true and we embrace these portrayals. We do favor the de-commodification of all housing and the abolition of the system of landlordism. We do characterize landlords as parasites in an economic sense because they create no value in society, instead extracting the value created by working people by acting as a gatekeeper to housing. We do not necessarily blame BPM or Mr. Berrada for their status as parasites and bad actors, this is merely a social role that they have been allowed to take up within a particular configuration of the socio-economic order. They are economic parasites because the system of capitalism allows for such parasitism to be practiced in a manner that is extremely lucrative to those who have the means to take up this social role. In using terms like “slumlord” and “parasite”, we are not expressing malice toward BPM and Mr. Berrada because they are not unique individuals but are rather signifiers of a problem that transcends their position and exists across the United States. We despise the system of landlordism as a whole, of which BPM and Mr. Berrada are merely constituent parts. BPM and Mr. Berrada abuse the system of housing because they are allowed, enabled, and encouraged to do so by the capitalist system, which seeks to commodify every aspect of life and exploit people on the basis of this commodification.
The MATU will not be intimidated or silenced by harassment for reporting and acting on what’s happening on the ground in the city. And the reality is that Joe Berrada and BPM have bad reputations in Milwaukee. This is their own fault. The government on the local, state, and federal level have done little to stop them. Especially the city government which has done the bare minimum to regulate Berrada and other slumlords, allowing them to run roughshod over the majority Black, poor and working-class tenants on the Northside. MATU and its members will not stand idly by. We are fighting for the tenants of Milwaukee guided by an anti-capitalist analysis and our statements, characterizations, and depictions are protected as freedom of speech and expression under the First Amendment.