When HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros visited the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus early this year, he planned to cheerlead for the president and tout federal education programs. But in light of HUD’s blueprint to dismantle current public housing programs, local tenant activists had other plans.
On the morning of his speech, several activists greeted Cisneros by holding up signs reading “Save Public Housing” and “Section 8=Welfare for Landlords,” while others quietly distributed flyers critiquing HUD policy to members of the audience. It didn’t take long to get the secretary’s attention. Before a standing-room only crowd peppered with reporters and television cameras, Cisneros was forced to abandon his prepared comments and take the defensive on HUD’s public housing agenda.
Who were the activists that turned this potentially unremarkable event into a serious discussion of housing issues? They included senior and disabled public housing tenants, section 8 tenants, and relatively affluent university students working in concert with one another. An odd activist combination in some places, perhaps, but not in this college town of 110,000, where progressive social change requires the support – and action – of both students and permanent residents.
The Ann Arbor Tenants Union (AATU) has forged many such unlikely coalitions since its inception in 1968. In order to serve the interests of tenants in a city like Ann Arbor, the AATU must meet the needs and mobilize the resources of a highly diverse and often divided renting community. Combining individual tenant counseling with education and organizing, the Ann Arbor Tenants Union works to bridge divisions among tenants in order to win gains for everyone.
Founded by students at the University of Michigan, the AATU began as the steering committee for a city-wide rent strike. Using the traditional labor union as a model for their organization, activists demanded that the AATU be recognized as the sole bargaining agent for all Ann Arbor renters. Although this goal was never reached, the strike lasted two years, involved over 1,500 tenants, and succeeded in winning widespread maintenance improvements in a city where over 90 percent of all private rental housing had failed to satisfy basic city housing codes. Across the country, tenants inspired by the strike used its lessons to ignite actions in their own home towns. And in Ann Arbor itself, the landlord-tenant relationship was forever changed. While many local tenants don’t remember the strike, most of their landlords do.
That memory is kept alive by the continuing work of the Ann Arbor Tenants Union. For the past 27 years, the AATU has worked to put tenants in power and keep landlords on their toes by counseling, educating, and organizing tenants. Over that time, the AATU has grown from a small student group into a vital community organization, staffed by a full-time coordinator and a team of dedicated volunteers and work-study students. And, though it stands today as an Ann Arbor institution, the AATU hasn’t lost touch with the radical aspirations of its founders. The attainment of decent and affordable housing for all people remains the AATU’s reason for being, and its organizers’ tactics, strategies, and refusal to compromise all reflect that.
Since the famous strike of 1969, the AATU has witnessed countless attacks on the poor, yet has been successful in winning many state and local pro-tenant laws and regulations. These gains can be attributed to the unique incorporation of service, direct action, and coalition building into the AATU’s activist vision.
Coalition Building for Victory
One of the most important things the AATU does is cultivate coalitions between students and permanent residents—two communities that have been traditionally divided. Building long lasting progressive alliances is an important long-term goal of the AATU, but even short-term coalition work can bring great rewards. In 1983, the AATU worked with local environmental groups to win the addition of weatherization guidelines to the city housing code. Five years later, the AATU joined area women’s groups to fight privacy violations and sexual harassment in rental housing. They ultimately forced a reluctant City Council to pass a privacy ordinance in 1990. Finally, this year the AATU helped found the Coalition for Community Unity, a group dedicated to local anti-racist action. Through these measures, the AATU has created common ground where activists from different backgrounds can meet and work together.
None of the AATU’s coalition work could have been successful, however, had the relevant issues not already been dramatized by controversy and protest. As Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Polite requests must be backed by the imperative for change.
In Ann Arbor, rent strikes have proven an effective means of providing that necessary sense of emergency. The pressure needed to pass Truth-in-Renting and Fair Rental Information legislation in 1978 was created in part by a series of well-publicized rent strikes between 1975 and 1977. Since then, the AATU has used smaller actions to the same effect. In 1981, a group of students forced their landlord to sign a private rent control pact, the first of its kind in the country. In 1985, a small but well-publicized strike over housing code violations resulted in improved code enforcement, as well as the progressive revision of city housing code itself. And this spring a group of senior and disabled public housing tenants will finally force the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to provide much needed repairs to their homes. In each of these cases, the AATU used a small strike action to draw connections to larger problems, thereby establishing both the need and demand for structural change.
Service Bound to Action
Most of these actions got their start from a phone call to the AATU tenant counseling hotline. Individual counseling empowers tenants to advocate for themselves, while forming the bonds of trust necessary for collective action. And because AATU staff members assist thousands of tenants each year, they know what problems exist in the community. This in turn makes them better organizers.
It has been said that service without resistance is charity, whereas resistance without service is mere diversion. Finding a perfect balance between those dual purposes may sometimes be challenging, but like any union, a tenants union must provide tangible benefits to its members in the short term, while continuing to work towards its long-term goals. For the Ann Arbor Tenants Union, service and struggle have proved a winning combination.