15-1 In the Wake of Disaster

A Tenant Organizer Shares Her Advocacy Story

By Sid Betancourt, NLIHC

This article was adapted from an interview conducted with Stephanie Winn, a tenant leader in Houston, Texas.

It was disaster – not one but two catastrophic storms – that brought tenant leader Stephanie Winn to the world of housing advocacy. Driven by her personal and professional experiences, she became a tenant organizer committed to creating positive change. Her journey involves facing major obstacles, advocating for the rights of her community, and working towards achieving safe living conditions.

Stephanie’s advocacy story began in 2017, after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on her home, causing tremendous damage and even leaving her carpet infested with maggots. As mother to a young daughter, addressing the dire living conditions was especially urgent. Yet despite reporting the issues, no action was taken by those in charge. “[The building] was old, and they weren’t even thinking about rehabilitating the apartments,” Stephanie recalls. Fortunately, Ericka Bowman, a local community organizer with Texas Housers, stepped in, providing residents with stipends for groceries and rallying around a lawsuit against the owners of Stephanie’s building for neglect. Stephanie notes that Erica was a huge mentor to her and inspired her as an organizer. The group won the lawsuit, but unfortunately the judge reversed the decision, which left much work still to do to improve living conditions. Ericka was able to organize residents and collaborated with Lone Star Legal Aid to initiate a $40 million project to fix Stephanie’s apartment complex.

Reflecting on the challenges brought about by Harvey, Stephanie emphasized the importance of resilience. It was this quality that enabled her to respond quickly and effectively a few years later, when a major ice storm hit Texas and left Stephanie’s home in critical condition for the second time in fewer than five years. In response, Ericka, Stephanie, and the community came together once again to aid those affected by the power outages caused by the storm, ensuring fairness in rebuilding while working to address the damage.

Motivated by Erica’s encouragement, Stephanie has since begun expanding her work, taking on issues like inadequate compensation for displaced tenants and pushing for better living conditions. She now advocates for comprehensive renovation from the ground up. “I don’t understand what these owners are holding on to; these subpar living conditions are unfair,” Stephanie says, emphasizing the need for the right support to drive positive change. Growing frustrated by the lack of progress in her community, Stephanie has taken matters into her own hands. She began advocating at the federal level in 2023 and in 2024 joined the Housers Academy, a group facilitated by Texas Housers to grow a statewide network focused on expanding the rights of low-income households. She envisions greater community involvement and unity and dreams of empowering her community with housing vouchers, enabling residents to choose where they live.

Stephanie’s journey is a testament to the power of resilience, advocacy, and community engagement. Through her efforts, she strives to create lasting change for her community, driven by the conviction that everyone deserves the right to affordable and accessible housing in a community of their choice.