MEEKA GADSON LIVES in a 22-unit "hell hole" in Renton with her eight-year-old daughter, rats, a leaky ceiling, and a tribe of yucky silverfish.

In January, sick of her landlord's neglect, she did something about it. She called the Tenants Union, the county's renters' rights group. The group put her in touch with free legal council, and now she's suing her landlord to fix the problems in her apartment. "I have no damn clue what I would do without the Tenants Union," says 29-year-old Gadson, who makes less than $16,000 a year at the car wash across from her building.

The Tenants Union's goal is to keep low income renters like Gadson from losing housing by counseling them on their options. Unfortunately, in October, King County Executive Ron Sims tried to cut off the Tenants Union from the county budget. This sucks for renters who live in south King County, because they have fewer resources than in Seattle. Moreover, the rest of the county doesn't have the liberal protections for renters that the Seattle City Council provides.

There's a clear need in south King County for the Tenants Union, a 24-year-old advocacy group that knows all of Washington's housing laws by heart and is hated and feared by landlords. Last year, the Tenants Union answered 3,000 calls from renters who live outside Seattle, about a third of their total calls. That was a slight decrease from the year before, says Tenants Union executive director Arlen Olson, because the group's staff and funding was already on a downhill spiral. "We took a hit from the city a few years ago," says Olson.

Apparently, Sims' philosophy is to kick 'em when they're down. His proposed cut would kill nearly a third of the Tenants Union's $300,000 overall budget. The Tenants Union is finding itself in the bizarre Catch-22 of Sims' thinking. According to a note written during funding reviews, the way Sims sees it, since the Tenants Union is underfunded and understaffed, it's an ineffective organization and the county shouldn't support it.

Sure, county officials had to cut the budget to make up for statewide property tax cap Initiative 722. The combination of this budget squeeze and the county's mandate to pump money into the criminal justice system left officials with little choice, according to Sims' staff. "Human services is what we call discretionary," says Sadikifu Akina-James, manager of the county's Community Services Division. In other words, social services are among the first to go.

While the King County Council is trying to save the day by putting the Tenants Union and several other social service groups back in the community services budget, it's already too late to avoid the harm that Sims caused. He's made select social programs appear expendable. By explicitly naming the Tenants Union as a cut, Sims put the group in a precarious position for future budget crunches.

"In the short run they'll probably be restored," says council staffer Doug Stevenson. "In the long run they might be in jeopardy again."

Sims' attempted budget cut didn't just stigmatize the Tenants Union. It also had a literal effect. It perked up the ears of Tenants Union foe the Apartment Association of Seattle & King County (AASK), the largest rental housing owners' group in the Pacific Northwest. "I think they saw a vulnerability," says tenants' advocate Olson.

"We didn't know the county provided funding. That was news to us," says Jim Nell, AASK's executive director. "It shocked us."

Nell says the government shouldn't subsidize a "radical" organization that "makes it very difficult to remove problem tenants." He wants to protect AASK members who own buildings outside of Seattle from new restrictions, like a statewide version of Seattle's "Just Cause Eviction Ordinance," which the Tenants Union is pushing for.

Obviously thrilled with Sims' budget, Nell alerted AASK's membership about the move to cut off the Tenants Union. Early this month, landlords rushed to lobby the council in support of Sims.