#105 May/Jun 1999

Whatever Happened to the Tenants Movement?

Last June, thousands of New Jersey tenants wrote to Republican Governor Christine Whitman and urged her to include more tenant/consumer voices on a Landlord-Tenant Task Force set up to study […]

Last June, thousands of New Jersey tenants wrote to Republican Governor Christine Whitman and urged her to include more tenant/consumer voices on a Landlord-Tenant Task Force set up to study local rent control and state eviction protections. Last July, Governor Whitman increased the number of “tenant-friendly” seats on the task force from one to three. The New Jersey Tenants Organization (NJTO) credits grassroots efforts as the factor that pressured Governor Whitman.

While the governor’s expansion of taskforce membership shows that New Jersey tenants wield some influence, NJTO warns that there’s still only 25 percent tenant/consumer representation on the task force. The very fact that the governor has proposed convening the taskforce presents a danger. Across the country, tenant protections are increasingly threatened. Many states have enacted laws preempting local rent regulation, and tenants in the Massachusetts and California communities that had rent regulation have seen those laws either removed or eviscerated.

The power of the landlord lobby may partly account for these changes, but the absence of well-organized tenant resistance has also been a factor. Mitch Kahn, a veteran tenant activist with NJTO, said the organization used to get calls from tenant activists all over the country every week, and that has been in sharp decline. Similarly, Carole Norris, formerly with the now defunct California Housing Action and Information Network (CHAIN), said tenant organizers no longer get together to work on common issues as they once did. Today Norris, who is now vice president at ICF Consulting Group in San Rafael, California, managing the western U.S. housing and community development consulting practice, finds no tenant presence at statewide housing conferences. Instead, people from nonprofit community development corporations and homeless advocacy groups dominate the meetings.

It’s a far cry from what the tenants movement of the 1970s sought to accomplish. While there have been earlier waves of tenant activism – such as the socialist-led rent strikes in the early part of the century and the tenant uprisings of the 1930s – the push for tenants rights reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In June 1980, tenant activists from around the country gathered in Cleveland for the founding convention of the National Tenants Union (NTU).

“The formation of NTU,” wrote advocates Peter Dreier and Woody Widrow in the October 1980 issue of Shelterforce, “follows a three-year upsurge of tenant activism and ‘tenant consciousness’ in every major area of the nation.” Widrow is also a former editor of Shelterforce, which was then a national tenants newspaper spawned by tenant activists in the 1970s.

Echoed Ronald Lawson and Reuben B. Johnson in The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984, “The improved political outlook for tenants is a dramatic indication of the greater movement influence. Within the space of a few years, tenants have moved from politically being solely reactive to seeking to shape housing policy.[I]t is certain that during the period 1970-1984, [the tenant movement] developed a diversity, sophistication, and power greater than it has ever previously possessed.”

Tenant activists had ambitious goals: a clearinghouse for information, the development of model programs, and the creation of a presence on capital hill. But the NTU couldn’t get adequate funding, Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition (NYSTNC) recently recalled, and it faded away a few years after it began.

What’s more, the national tenant “movement” itself fizzled out. Today, tenants in privately owned, unsubsidized housing do not make up the substantial political force activists hoped for. Many organizers who do still seek to galvanize tenants toward major change in the landlord-tenant relationship or the current housing system are finding it harder to do so.

“The fervor for organizing within tenant communities has changed, it’s become more difficult,” said Kahn.

The decline in tenant organizing partly reflects the transformation of the political climate since the onset of the Reagan years. “Back then we were all angry; it was a movement era,” said Iraida Afanadoor, director of organizing for Philadelphia’s Tenant Action Group (TAG). “People don’t have the fight and anger channeled properly. That is the role of organizers and advocates, to bring that anger into something constructive that we can take to a citywide and statewide level.”

The shift away from tenant activism also points to the professionalization of activists. “People got older and settled down, took on careers,” said Mike Rawson, who helped start the Oakland Tenants Union in 1979, became a legal services attorney around the same time, and served as president of CHAIN for four years, fighting for tenant-friendly state legislation.

Rawson added that some people moved on to efforts to change things systemically. Shelterforce exemplifies this evolution of those who began as tenant activists and now advocate for or develop affordable housing, organize tenants in subsidized housing, or push for community reinvestment. These efforts are all critical, but the people and groups involved in them work largely apart from the remaining groups that organize tenants in unsubsidized housing. This has had negative repercussions.

A Legacy of Legal Reforms

Among the fruits of earlier tenant organizing is a legacy of legal protections for tenants, particularly in New Jersey, where NJTO’s efforts have helped win the strongest state landlord-tenant codes in the nation and the enactment of rent control in more than 120 municipalities. Begun in 1969, NJTO initially engaged in direct action organizing and rent striking. In the ’70s the group turned to lobbying legislators and pushing for passage of rent control, first unsuccessfully on the statewide level and later with much greater success on the municipal level.

Because of this state-level activity, New Jersey tenants have been politically legitimized, according to Kahn. He said state officials have been encouraged to provide better enforcement, and there’s now an infrastructure of support for tenants, such as the Essex County Tenants Resource Council and the Hudson County Tenants Resource Center. These entities are either publicly or foundation funded and provide free legal guidance to tens of thousands of tenants. And while they have a social services agenda, Kahn said they funnel tenant activists into NJTO.

When necessary, NJTO is able to rouse some of its 40,000 members (including organized tenant groups and individual members) by using a list of local tenant leaders who serve as prime contacts for information on legislation and hearings. They then mobilize their members to turn out to hearings or contact public officials.

But NJTO has recently had to expend much of its energy fighting defensive battles to protect earlier gains. The group has also been hard pressed to build a movement powerful enough to address the serious housing affordability problem in New Jersey.

For one thing, the leadership of the Democratic Party in New Jersey, upon whom the NJTO once heavily relied, has followed the national Democratic party and “moved away from positions that show some deference to a progressive class oriented politics to a more conservative centrist position,” Kahn wrote in a 1994 article in the Journal of Community Practice. “The Democrats’ recent support of tenant legislation has been erratic and unreliable.” This trend continues, both in New Jersey and nationally.
Sandy Rollins, director of the Texas Tenants Union (TTU), also cited a lack of progress on pro-tenant legislation. Rollins said TTU has made only baby steps through the legislature. “We have not had many great reversals,” she said, “but we haven’t had anything great to reverse.”

It’s a common position for tenant groups, just hoping to hold ground. That may be partly because organizing works best when there’s an immediate crisis, as Carole Norris noted, which is why there’s now more vigorous organizing among tenants in subsidized buildings with contracts that are up or due to come up for renewal. [See news& views column.] Since TTU pulled off a great rent strike in the ’80s, according to Rollins, the group’s organizing of tenants in privately owned, privately financed housing has declined. Though TTU continues to advise tenants in unsubsidized housing, it has turned most of its attention to organizing tenants facing the threat of expiring subsidies.

The truism that it works best to organize around an immediate crisis didn’t hold in California and Massachusetts, however, where tenants couldn’t muster enough opposition to stave off attacks on rent control in the few communities that had it. And in New York, tenant activists have mixed opinions on whether tenants scored a victory during the fight over state rent regulation and tenant protection laws two years ago. [See Shelterforce #94]

Mike McKee of NYSTNC maintains that the threat not only helped activate enough tenants to prevent even more damage than the law that was passed did, but has also kept tenants involved. “There is still a tremendous awareness on the part of tenants that maybe they have been taking these laws for granted,” McKee said.

During the rent regulation fight, NYSTNC saw its budget shoot up, thanks partly to a professional grassroots fundraising campaign begun in 1995. Its membership also swelled to 20,000, though it has seen a dip to 17,000 since.

NYSTNC is now gearing up for the New York City Council elections and the expiration of New York City’s rent laws in March 2000. The organization is planning to hire more staff and is working to activate tenants to target 24 or 25 city council members in three boroughs who are on the fence in their positions on rent regulation. McKee said tenant activists hope to have 30 to 35 council members on their side by the end of 1999 – enough to preempt a vacancy decontrol amendment.

In the effort to protect rent regulation, NYSTNC joins forces with other groups, including organized labor and the Metropolitan Council on Housing (MetCouncil). MetCouncil and NYSTNC have a history of both conflict and collaboration. Begun in 1959 out of struggles against Robert Moses’s demolition projects, MetCouncil organizes tenants associations and assists tenants in pushing for repairs and services (which NYSTNC does not do), along with mobilizing around rent regulation and other policy issues.

NYSTNC also tries to build bridges between different groups of tenants, according to McKee. For example, the group encourages rent regulated tenants to lobby the legislature to preserve Mitchell-Lama housing, a New York State program, and McKee said many Mitchell-Lama tenants, realizing that they may live in unassisted housing one day, have been involved in the struggle for rent regulation.

Following the Money Trail

NYSTNC, like TTU, receives HUD funding to organize tenants in subsidized housing, particularly buildings with expiring contracts. The group’s budget has grown significantly since it began receiving external funding for this purpose in 1993 through its tax-deductible affiliate, the New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Information Service. It recently received a three-year outreach and training grant from HUD to organize tenants in HUD-subsidized buildings throughout the state.

Tenant groups’ willingness to accept government grants to organize tenants represents a break from the past. There was once a lot of purism among tenant activists around issues of money, according to Woody Widrow. “And then the financial realities sunk in.”

Iraida Afanadoor of TAG said the group doesn’t shrink from confronting public officials and trying to affect the political process, even though TAG receives city, state, and federal money, as well as foundation funding, to organize tenant councils. TAG works to get city officials involved in addressing troubled properties and revitalizing the community. “It’s like a marriage of sorts,” Afanadoor said.

NJTO has relied on membership dues, not government money, for most of its history, Kahn said. But membership is now about half what it was in its heyday. Condominium and co-op conversions in the ’80s left NJTO with fewer members from suburban, middle class communities, who historically made up most its membership – and much of 1970s tenant activism altogether. In order for NJTO’s membership just to stay at the same number, the group has to organize 60 to 70 tenant groups a year – hard for an organization without a paid staff. Because of constant funding pressures, Kahn said NJTO has also “kicked around the idea of going the 501(c)3 route,” and hiring paid organizers.

But the growing reliance on government and other non-tenant funding doesn’t solve tenant groups’ struggle to sustain themselves. Rollins called TTU’s funding situation “dismal.” “It’s a constant struggle to keep the organization going,” she said.

NJTO is trying to extend its reach by balancing its state-level lobbying with increased local organizing, though it doesn’t have the staff to actually organize many buildings itself. NJTO organizers assist newly forming tenants organizations, and the group sponsors workshops to train tenant leaders to fight for better maintenance, effective code enforcement, and strong tenant protection.

Bringing new members, particularly younger people, into these efforts is a challenge. When NJTO began, its members were a mix of old left and younger organizers, many of whom have remained committed to tenant organizing. While that commitment can be difficult to sustain, Kahn said the lack of new people now ready to take the reins is what keeps him involved. “A lot of us feel that if we let go, what we fought so hard for will be lost,” he said.

Building New Leadership

More than the aging of tenant organizers has contributed to the vacuum in activity. Norris attributed the quieting of the tenants movement to people not wanting to self-identify as tenants. Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, once president of the East Orange Tenants Organization and now the director of New Jersey Citizen Action and an NJTO board member, said it may be that it’s now easier for people to become homeowners, so many see themselves as just passing through tenancy, not as tenants for life.

Still, in many cities, most people are long-term tenants. Most low-income people in the United States are still tenants in unassisted housing. Kahn pointed out that NJTO needs to fortify its organizing in low-income urban communities, where most tenants will live in the coming years. Ideally, the tenants movement should be urban based, he said, and in the hands of people who understand organizing philosophy.

Getting people involved who live in urban minority communities that have become poorer while the rich have gotten richer is difficult, noted Salowe-Kaye, because they’re struggling just to survive and put food on the table. Similarly, Afanadoor said TAG finds it hard just to sustain tenant councils among people who have a myriad of crises. TAG organizes tenant councils to address issues such as slum housing – still a huge problem in Philadelphia – lead abatement, and the state of landlord-tenant court. TAG has about 1000 members (who don’t pay dues to join), including tenants in multifamily housing and “single dwelling” units, according to Afanadoor.

Afanadoor said TAG is trying to resurrect a citywide tenants organization. The group wants to broaden low-income tenants’ outlook so they see their organizing as part of a much more holistic, comprehensive approach to community revitalization. TAG just graduated 16 women from a leadership development program for that purpose.

Another group working to build tenant leadership is San Francisco’s Mission Agenda, a three-year-old group that organizes tenants in privately owned single-room occupancy (SRO) housing and seeks to respond to the housing crisis in San Francisco, where increased commercial development and skyrocketing rents are making it a struggle for all but the rich to live. The Eviction Defense Network (EDN), which preceded the Mission Agenda but has now become a taskforce of the group, organizes public housing tenants facing displacement under HUD’s HOPE VI program. [See Shelterforce #109 to read about one of their successes.]

The Mission Agenda is one tenant advocacy group with a nucleus of young people involved. And it is blatantly radical, tending to use direct action organizing, letter writing, and “phone zaps” to accomplish its goals. For example, the group responded to the recent rash of fires in SRO housing in San Francisco by holding two tenant-led sit-ins at the Mayor’s office and winning better relocation agreements for fire victims.

The Mission Agenda plans to hold a citywide tenants convention, “Rage Against Rent,”  this Sept. 11. The group is also looking to organize Bay-area-wide, since tenants in Oakland and Berkeley face similar situations. “Our ideal is to pull together a united front of apartment dwellers mostly affected by owner-move-in-evictions,” said James Tracy of the Mission Agenda.

In addition, the Mission Agenda has expanded beyond a narrow focus on tenant issues. For example, it has been pushing for treatment-on-demand services for heroin and speed addicts and just won a campaign for drug treatment, and it supports community residents using video cameras to monitor police activity.

The Mission Agenda hopes it can ultimately build a movement of tenants “that’s independent of established political machinery.” An all-volunteer group, the Mission Agenda goes where other groups can’t or won’t go because of funding limitations, Tracy said. He said the Mission Agenda receives no government funding and would only take foundation funding that wouldn’t limit its ability to organize and be political. It has a variety of funding sources, including the Tobacco-Free Project, since it incorporates its work “around an analysis of how poor people are targeted for tobacco, bad housing, and everything.”

While the Mission Agenda’s controversial positions haven’t won it many friends, even among the liberal establishment, Tracy said the group collaborates with other advocacy organizations as much as possible, including the city’s longtime tenant group, the San Francisco Tenants Union. The Mission Agenda looks to work with groups that share its belief in the ability of common people to become organizers.

Illustrating that belief are the Urban Survival Forums Mission Agenda and EDN have been holding every few months since last year. One panel, for example, included Richard Walker, renowned professor at University of California-Berkeley, next to a woman resident of an SRO, next to Christian Pray, who writes for The Nation and Z Magazine. The forums seek to “reinvigorate the idea of a public intellectual,” Tracy said, adding that most of the people active with the Mission Agenda “have that weird double life of having real family ties in the working class but having gone through college.”

Formulating the kind of response to gentrification that the Mission Agenda would like to, Tracy said, will require building leadership from the bottom and coming up with a program of tangible demands for reforms. “We first need to go back to days of Harlem and Detroit in the Great Depression and declare the city an eviction-free zone,” he said. He added that the city needs to put a curb on speculation and live-work lofts (created by a 1988 zoning change initially intended to provide affordable housing for artists but now being used by developers to build purely residential condominiums on cheap land and sell them at top prices).

Fusing Approaches, Building Coalitions

It remains to be seen whether the Mission Agenda can maintain its radical stance and make progress toward its ultimate goals. Perhaps the answer lies in fusing the different approaches – bringing together the in-your-face style and high ideals of the Mission Agenda with the politically savvy coalition-building work of older groups like NJTO, NYSTNC, and TAG.

As activists for other causes are finding, it will also be necessary for groups that organize tenants in private, unsubsidized housing to link with labor and other progressive groups to bring about a revival. Likewise, groups that organize people who happen to be tenants around other social justice issues should make tenant issues part of their work.

Some groups are already doing this. ACORN often starts by helping tenants organize around building security and safety and win repairs or stop abuses by landlords, such as illegal rents or intimidation. These are usually easy victories, said ACORN national field director Helene O’Brien, and once they have been won the group tries to connect those tenants to the bigger push for social justice.

O’Brien said some organizers make a mistake by trying to initially activate people around larger issues. In cities like New York, where most low-income people are tenants, O’Brien said, it’s not rocket science to start by organizing around the issues they face as tenants. Kahn noted that there’s a danger of losing members who join to address immediate concerns, and he said NJTO tries to discourage such short-term membership through its dues structure, offering a lower rate for members who join through a tenant association than for those who sign on as individuals with a particular grievance. O’Brien said the flip side of this issue is that some people who get involved and stay involved might not have done so had they not seen progress in addressing their immediate concerns.

People who first became active around tenant issues, O’Brien said, are now involved in a campaign to improve public schools in three school districts in the South Bronx. Others are advocating for a statewide living wage bill in New York. ACORN has also joined low-income tenants with labor groups in the Working Families Party in New York, which aims to run third-party candidates for public office. In New Jersey, NJTO members (and National Housing Institute board members) hoping to forge a broader political effort in the 1980s began New Jersey Citizen Action.

These steps are important, but ACORN, NJTO, and others still have much coalition building left to do if tenants issues are to get the attention they deserve.

The need to organize tenants in privately owned unsubsidized housing is still great. Millions of low-income tenants are left on their own to find housing on the open market, where many are squeezed by gentrification or forced to live in deteriorated housing and neighborhoods. Without a stronger effort, laws to protect tenants will continue to be endangered or pre-empted.

To build far-reaching coalitions, tenant-organizing groups need to once again talk to each other often, along with other progressive advocacy groups. They should redouble their efforts to bring low-income tenants into their discussions and their organizations not just as members but also as leaders. Organized labor, ideally, could be a good source of funding and support for tenant organizing. Organized labor is trying to create a resurgence – including increased activism among college students – and the living wage movement, which significantly involves low-income tenants, is spreading across the country. These efforts should include advocacy on tenants issues.

Finally, seniors will continue to be a key group of tenant activists. As the baby boomer population ages, the number of senior renters will increase. This can be an opportunity to rejoin moderate- and low-income tenants.

These converging factors suggest that the time could be ripening for a new wave of tenant organizing to solidify the gains of the past and support a stronger tenant presence in the future.


  • Mission Agenda/Eviction Defense Network: 415-431-0931
  • Metropolitan Council on Housing: 212-693-0550
  • New Jersey Tenants Organization: 201-342-3775
  • New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition: 212-695-8922
  • Texas Tenants Union: 214-823-2733
  • Tenant Union Representative Network: 215-940-3900
  • ACORN: 718-246-7900