Building Power in Community – Tenant Unions, Organizations, and Associations

As we continue to see rising rental costs and the highest level of inflation seen in 40 years, millions of renters nationwide are increasingly struggling to find affordable, safe and dignified housing. More and more tenants are finding themselves having to pick between paying for childcare, medical care, food and rent. In 2022, the federal minimum wage sits stagnant at $7.25 an hour. Currently, no minimum-wage renter working a 40-hour work week can afford a modest two-bedroom rental unit at the average fair market rent anywhere within the US, even in places where the minimum wage has been set above the federal standard.

Beyond affordability, the lack of tenant rights and protections seen across the country has only added fuel to the fire – creating a system of winners and losers that is heavily stacked in favor of landlords. Tens of thousands of Missouri renters are faced with living in unsafe and undignified housing conditions, while others are coerced into tolerating abusive, deceptive and discriminatory practices. At the end of the day, tenants are innately aware of the power imbalance between them and their landlord and are less likely to assert what rights they do have knowing that retaliatory actions such as evictions, raised rents, utility shut-offs, and non-renewal of leases are a very real consequence.

With all the facts pointing to the likelihood of worsening conditions for tenants, renters are increasingly looking toward tenant unions to challenge the notion that continued exploitation and eventual displacement are the only possible outcome. For many decades now, housing policy reforms have primarily been left to subject matter experts, elected officials, landlords, and the financial and real estate industries. This status quo may be changing, however, as more tenants realize that building tenant power to fight for tenant-focused housing reform is essential in solving the wide spread dysfunction – housing advocates and policymakers, take note!

So, what are tenant unions and how can they help solve our affordable housing crisis? Tenant unions are building, neighborhood, and/or city-based organizations made up of and led by tenants to fight for their collective interests and rights. Typically, tenants initially mobilize in response to severe problems at their complexes, such as substandard living conditions, harassment and intimidation by landlords, rent hikes, and the threat of mass displacement. By taking collective action and having a specific set of demands, tenants unions have a far greater capacity than any individual tenant to address problems, and are more likely to be able to bring landlords to the negotiating table. Organizing tactics can include, but are not limited to; forcing direct negotiations with building managers and landlords, calling for rent strikes, filing collective complaints to city or state agencies, or organizing to win housing policies on the local, regional or state level. A well-organized tenants’ union can have the power to self-advocate regarding a variety of grievances. 

The terms tenant unions, associations, and organizations are often used interchangeably. Building based tenant unions are frequently referred to as tenant associations, while neighborhood or city zone/ward based tenant organizations are commonly referred to as tenant locals – which form branches of larger city-wide tenant unions. Landlord or corporate based tenants’ unions provide the infrastructure to organize bigger networks beyond municipal boundaries. Unlike labor unions and the oversight of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), there is no regional or national organization that oversees tenant unions, which means that no “official” recognition is required for a tenant union to be legitimate or impactful.

What are some examples of Tenant Union wins?

  • Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action grassroots organized for over a year across the entire state of California and passed AB832 in 2020, effectively allowing rent debt for most tenants and landlords to be paid off by the state. Both Richmond and Oakland ACCE ran budget campaigns alongside ally organizations to successfully move nearly $61M into funding critical community services, including funding workforce development and investing in city services for park clean up and litter abatement and bolstering non-police mental health support programs.
  • Kansas City Tenants, along with allied organizations like Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom and UMKC, advocated for and won Tenants’ Right to Counsel, ensuring that no tenant facing eviction in Kansas City ever has to fight in court without legal representation. The program rolled out in June of this year and has been widely successful – not a single tenant has had to face eviction without representation to date.
  • The Ivy Hill-Alice Tenant Unions in California, representing eight buildings around Lake Merritt owned by Jim Lewis and J Hickingbotham, organized rent strikes for 13 months amid the economic and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the union’s 62 members,  65 percent lost income due to the pandemic, and more than half of them were rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. Habitability problems, including severe mold, pests and heat issues, are widespread in the union’s several buildings. Many tenants have lived in their units for more than a decade. Tenants eventually won $200,000 in concessions from their landlords.

Empower Missouri believes in the power of community organizing and we believe the people closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. This year, we launched our tenant organizing pilot program to support the efforts of tenant organizing in SWMO and Mid-MO. 

Vee Sanchez has begun the work of supporting a group of tenants organizing for safe, accessible, truly affordable homes in Springfield through Springfield Tenants Unite (STUN), a renter-led organization that first started organizing as a response to the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020. The group has canvassed hundreds of tenants in Springfield to learn more about renters’ housing struggles, and plans on releasing their findings in a report later this year to inform tenant organizing strategies for 2023.

Amber Smith will be connecting with tenants in Mid-MO, starting with hosting two public meetings for tenants in Camden County. The first was held on September 17th, with another planned for October 13th. These meetings are an opportunity for tenants to bring their questions, curiosity, and frustrations, and will hopefully be the start of improvements for tenants in Mid-Missouri. For more information about the October meeting, follow this link:

Next month, our Friday Forum will explore more about Tenants’ Unions. You’ll hear from organizers working in the field, and have the opportunity to ask questions. Register here to join us!

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