There is this creepy little man named Ken Volk who runs a phony tenants’ rights organization called Arizona Tenants Advocates (ATA). Purporting to be a nonprofit organization, ATA is actually a nonprofit shell of a for-profit company that diverts callers, who think they are calling a free hotline run by a nonprofit social service provider, to Volk’s for-profit, fee-for-service, company, Tenants Assistance Program (TAP), whose main program is to break tenants out of leases for a high fee, usually 65-85% of a month’s rent or more. Those tenants who don’t fall within the parameters of Volk’s break lease business are given only the most perfunctory help on the hotline and are then gotten off the phone as quickly as possible to make way for the next potential break lease caller. ATA (and TAP) are not interested in providing any meaningful help to most tenants to solve their very real problems, or to be involved in the creation of any kind of tenants’ movement in Arizona.
I’ve known Ken Volk for close to twenty years. When I came to Arizona in the mid-1990s from Chicago and New York, in both of which places I was involved in an active, thriving tenants’ rights movement, there was no such movement here. Ken was sort of a hippie living off a small trust fund in a run-down apartment in Tempe where he was having problems with his own landlord. When he took his landlord on, other tenants in the building came to him for help, and he started developing a passion for helping tenants and fighting slumlords. But he had no political or organizational experience; his strategy when I first met him was to use his trust fund money to hire lawyers to lobby the Arizona legislature to change the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act to make it more favorable to tenants. You can imagine how far those seedy lawyers, with the limited funding given to them by Volk, went against the Arizona Multihousing Association, the landlord’s lobby, with their millions of dollars of landlord dues available at their disposal!
Nevertheless, it was to Ken’s credit that he actually tried to do something for tenants at that time. He had just started the Arizona Tenants Association, the predecessor to Arizona Tenants Advocates, when I first met him. Because of both of our passions for tenants’ rights and because of my years of experience in the field, we joined forces. I taught him the business program I had developed in Chicago which funded the tenants’ movement there by charging tenants a fee to legally break them out of their leases. But in Chicago, we used this program as the financial foundation for advancing the cause of tenants’ rights in general, not just as a service provided by a for-profit company.
Unfortunately, I suffered a series of personal crises and left the movement. When I came back to Arizona fifteen years later I found that Ken had morphed this simple, elegant program that used substantive and technical provisions of the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act to overwhelm the landlord with a variety of formal written demands so that the tenant could terminate his lease when the landlord was unable to comply, into this behemoth of procedures that took large numbers of staff members to administer. Ken is a hoarder, and it’s not just stuff that he hoards (although it’s a trip to visit his home office: you wind your way through junk piled to the ceiling to end up sitting on a corner of a couch where Ken greets you in his pajamas and has you chop vegetables for him or vacuum his carpet while he works on your paperwork in between showing off his new soy milk maker or his record collection); he also hoards procedures and people to administer them. Where my organization in Chicago was able to terminate 20 leases a week with a three-person staff and have extra funding left over hire someone to do tenant and political organizing, all of the convolutions of the multiple extra steps that Ken inserted into his program leaves him barely able to pay the dozens of extra people he has had to hire to administer them. This has left Ken with a fledgling practice that limped along from year to year, remaining in business only because he had no competition, but not leaving him the resources to expand operations or to help tenants in any way other than to provide the service of terminating their leases for a high fee.
When I came back to Arizona the year before last I worked again with Ken, but this time our relationship had changed: he was no longer my acolyte; he was now my boss. But during the next year or so we worked on a plan to change ATA so that it worked more efficiently and became a real nonprofit organization, driven by membership dues, and supported by I.R.S. 501(c)(3) tax exempt status that would allow it to become eligible to receive charitable donations. We agreed that we would run the new organization together, with him running the tightened-up break lease side and me running the organizing/political side. I gave him everything I knew to turn the organization into a real, working, nonprofit tenants’ rights organization. And then when he had everything he needed, he fired me.
I had told him that if he didn’t want to make ATA into the real thing, I would simply start my own organization. And when he fired me, that’s exactly what I did. Charles Gosmon, the IT guy there, and I formed Arizona Tenants Union and we turned it into the real nonprofit that I envisioned. We became membership driven, not fees-for-services; we received 501(c)(3) tax exempt certification from the I.R.S., and we opened up a real office and started business. And that’s when the problems started. Ken’s retaliation was swift and sure (and obsessive and demented). The first thing he did was he hacked into my match.com account (I had my password left on my computer when I left and he didn’t give me a chance to remove it) and he went into the account and started sending lewd emails to the various women I was in communications with. I called the police but they just considered it a prank. Next, he hacked my PayPal account, but that was just to sniff around, not to remove anything, so the police still were not interested. But then he became emboldened and started acting recklessly. My business Facebook account was linked to my personal Facebook account, and he hacked into that and took the entire thing down. Now he was interfering with commerce and the police were finally interested. I also started a lawsuit against him – I actually filed it, but the police asked me to hold off serving him until they had completed their investigation.
I guess the lack of immediate consequences made Ken feel even more emboldened, because now he has made a second serious mistake. He plagiarized, word for word, at least five blog posts that I wrote and posted on the ATU website. I guess he didn’t understand that these were considered legally copyrighted at the time they were posted. So the police are going to arrest him on felony computer fraud and identity theft charges and then I’m going to amend my civil complaint to include additional counts of copyright infringement and serve it on him once he’s arrested. It may still be a matter of time, but the die has been cast. Ken is on his way down, and all I have to do is wait and watch it happen.
This is all very unfortunate. Ken Volk could have left a legacy of actually starting a tenants’ rights movement in Arizona. He really could have been heroic. But that legacy is now doomed because he lost sight of his purpose, and because of his outrageous actions against me. You know, since I stopped working for Ken and formed Arizona Tenants Union, there’s no question that his longevity doing “tenants rights” in Arizona (which, ironically, he has only been able to do because of my giving him break lease fifteen years ago) is hurting us. But we’re getting stronger, with more recognition, and now with funding, and as each month passes, and as we march forward we are offering real opposition to slum and negligent landlords, both by helping tenant members individually and by organizing tenant associations in buildings so that the tenants can speak to the landlord in a position of strength, in a single voice. We are also forging relationships with elected officials and organizations that are committed to serving the poor and working people in this state. We’re becoming the real thing.
Ken Volk was my friend, and what he did to me really hurt me. Even as I write this blog – which I know Ken is going to read because of his obsession with everything I do – I invite him to reach out to me. There’s absolutely no reason why there should be competing tenants rights organizations in Arizona. But I’m afraid that the end of the story will be that Ken is arrested, put out of business, sued by me, or all of the above. It really is a shame.