Meet Your Landlord’s Worst Nightmare: Tenants Unions

About the Author: Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston ReviewEarth Island JournalHarbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 18, 2024.

ten•ant un•ion
1. an organization of renters who organize to collectively bargain with their shared landlord
2. a neighborhood-wide or citywide group that works to protect tenants’ rights

Why do tenants need a union?

In a phrase: The rent is too damn high! Renters make up more than a third of the country and, as a group, are disproportionately low-income and households of color. In 2019, nearly half of all renters were spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. Since Covid-19, things have only gotten worse, with many cities seeing rent spikes in 2021 and 2022 — even cities with a declining population.

And what do renters get for their hard-earned money? A figurative slap in the face. From callous landlords who fail to meet code and delay needed maintenance to absurd fees for everything from cashing checks to rental applications, many tenants have had enough.

“I think it’s a sign of people being fed up … corporate landlords have really tilted the playing field to be on their side, and to ensure all of the laws benefit them, and by renters coming together, they’re simply leveling the playing field.”

Carmen Medrano, co-chair of Colorado Homes for All

What can a tenant union do?

Tenant organizing has been around for more than a century, with renters banding together to push for fairer agreements with landlords. The tenant union model took off in 1960s Chicago, where tenants in several neighborhoods came together to negotiate agreements with their landlords. It’s the same foundational idea that motivates labor unions: Collectively, renters can negotiate a better contract than they could individually. A union can also help tenants coordinate rent strikes, protests, mutual aid and political campaigns.

In the ensuing decades, unions sprang up at every scale. The National Tenants Union even lobbied Congress for rent control in the early 1980s. The movement is back on the rise, with unions growing from Connecticut to Denver to Los Angeles.

In Kansas City, Mo., the citywide tenant union has more than 9,000 members. The group helped pass a law guaranteeing a lawyer for renters during eviction proceedings, and, this June, one of the group’s leaders won a seat on city council. In Kingston, N.Y., tenant unions and other housing justice organizers won a rent reduction for 1,200 units in 2022.

Sign me up!

If you’re a renter, it’s worth looking up to see if any tenant unions or housing justice groups exist in your community. If not, here’s one good way to get started: Go out and talk with your neighbors, see what you all might need, and organize a get-together to listen to one another.

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage on these ideas, see ​“Nationalization Is a Great American Tradition” and ​“The Guerrilla Gardeners Seedbombing the Suburbs.”

The post Meet Your Landlord’s Worst Nightmare: Tenants Unions appeared first on Workplace Fairness.

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