#197 Winter 2020 — Incarceration to Community

Tenant Organizing When Rising Rent Isn’t the (Main) Issue

Tenant organizing has been re-energized in coastal cities where housing costs are soaring. But tenants need a voice in the rest of the country too—and they are organizing to get one.

Photo by Paul Joseph_CC BY 2.0

It wasn’t until at least 2013 that the term “gentrification” slid into everyday conversation in the U.S. Spike Lee’s famous February 2014 impromptu speech probably helped, but it wasn’t the cause. It was an effect of community organizing against and community research on the phenomenon’s increased prevalence. The strategies coming out of the invaluable work of tenant organizations in expensive coastal metropolitan areas like Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Boston; the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C., often get taken for models of what to do about tenants’ issues, throughout their home states, across the country, and across the world.

However, geographic concentration of poverty, for which I use the term “slumification,” is actually increasing several times faster in U.S. cities than gentrification, as a result of growing national and global race and class inequality, facilitated by a suite of policies and political negligence that have undermined and isolated working-class, mainly Black and Brown, communities. And while much translates from tenant organizing in superheated markets to tenant organizing in the rest of the country, much doesn’t.

While rents skyrocket in some hot rental markets, the more numerous lukewarm-to-cold markets have higher numbers of the poorest overburdened by rent. While gentrification may make some tenants fear eviction because their landlord wants to close the gap between what the rent has been and what it now could be, many more tenants live in uninhabitable housing and fear retaliation if they complain.

The exceptions have been taken for the rule since the exceptional places are home both to the longest-lived tenants organizations and to media outlets with national audiences. But looking for the rule means looking to the middle of the country, like Omaha, Nebraska, and Ames, Iowa, or to coastal suburbs on the margins of hotter markets, like Concord, California, and parts of Palm Beach County, Florida. In areas like these, the tenants movement is blossoming in many forms. 

It’s About Habitability

Though rent burdens are high in Palm Beach County due to low wages, rents are only 1 percent higher than they were in 2008, having fallen after the mortgage crisis and then risen again. Palm Beach County Tenants Union’s (PBCTU) organizing is focused around habitability problems. In the Rainberry Woods development of Delray Beach, where a majority of tenants are Haitian American, the homes aren’t being maintained, PBCTU member Rodolfo Plancarte says. “They’re having water leaks, they have mold, roofs are collapsing.” These are especially common problems in the region, due to humidity and hurricanes. In May 2019, tenants in the independent Rainberry Woods Neighborhood Council, together with homeowners, built pressure against corporate landlords who had purchased homes within the development by taking over the Rainberry Woods homeowners’ association. The HOA has jurisdiction to fine negligent landlords and place liens on their properties.

Meanwhile in a mobile home development populated largely by Guatemalan immigrant tenants in Lake Worth, an explicitly nativist, classist code enforcement policy led city officials to aggressively red-tag homes for minor code issues or unauthorized additions, says Adam Wasserman, a co-founder of PBCTU. Meanwhile, the city was “ignoring [tenants’] actual complaints about broken pipes for their sewage”—which would be the responsibility of the park owner, says Wasserman. Adding insult to injury, the code-violation notices came only in English. Early in 2019, PBCTU protested the Lake Worth city commissioners, demanding that red-tagging stop until they hire a Spanish-bilingual code enforcement official.

Difficulties with code inspections are familiar to Omaha tenant organizers. An organizer with Omaha Tenants United (OTU) who asked to be referred to as Simon for fear of reprisal from Omaha landlords, says, “if an inspector were to come into most of the buildings that we’re going into, and they were actually doing their job according to the law, [the buildings] would just be condemned.” Early in 2019 Simon told a local radio station, “Omaha has a big problem with slumlords taking advantage of people in affordable housing. Slumlords offer cheap properties but oftentimes they use that for an excuse to not provide adequate services for their tenants or take advantage of them.” Simon cautioned that “slumlord is more of a rhetorical device. We always try to just say ‘landlords’ wherever possible, to highlight that even the ‘good landlords’ are still exploiting.”

There’s strong potential for tenant organizing in areas where conditions are really bad, says Simon. “You have agitation points kind of ready-made for you.” OTU has successfully supported tenants of Dave Paladino, whom Simon referred to as “the biggest slumlord in Omaha,” whose buildings are in disrepair and who has been accused of confiscating tenants’ security deposits and fabricating exorbitant fees. In one case, OTU was able to eliminate $1,045 in fees and get $500 of a disabled Black tenant’s $550 deposit returned by bringing dozens of supporters to a negotiation the tenant had scheduled with management after voluntarily vacating a unit the tenant considered uninhabitable.

In Ames, Iowa, students at Iowa State University make up a large majority of renters. Several of the biggest issues tenants face stem from the ways that Ames’s rental market has shaped itself in response to this majority. “The student population increased pretty dramatically earlier this decade [which] has caused a lot of property managers to rush to the area and really oversaturate the rental market with very poorly constructed buildings that have mold, that aren’t up to safety standards,” Ames Tenant Union (ATU) organizer Preston Burris says. At one such new building, The Madison, ATU gathered more than 100 petition signatures last year complaining of insufficient insulation and high utility costs, among other problems. Unfortunately, managers refused to collectively bargain with tenants and the new tenants union wasn’t able to continue that campaign.

In Concord, California, a suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rent increases are starting to become an issue, the underlying condition of the homes is still a dominant concern. Betty Gabaldon, the president of Todos Santos Tenants United (TSTU), says her path to becoming a tenant organizer began in 2016 when she received a $375 rent increase. “I decided to go knock on my neighbors’ doors and see if they were getting the same increase,” Gabaldon says. They were—“and everybody was getting upset because they were all having issues with their units.” The building was overrun with bedbugs, the outdoor common areas and parking lot were filthy, and some individual units lacked a working refrigerator or had rats coming in through punctured walls. With support from Eduardo Torres of the statewide group Tenants Together, Gabaldon and a strong majority of her fellow tenants founded a tenants association and launched a partial rent strike, eventually defeating the rent increases and winning improvements to their units and the building. The landlord fired the manager, Steve Pinza, and hired a new one, who dealt with the bedbugs and rats, cleaned the property, and replaced broken appliances. When a new landlord took over in 2018, however, members of the association were, one by one, targeted with legal, no-fault evictions at the end of their lease, says Gabaldon.

Though her own organizing experience started with massive rent increases, Gabaldon says that in Concord habitability issues are the main problem, combined with landlords “terrorizing” tenants with threats when they request repairs. Gabaldon gave further examples of Pinza treating tenants poorly, on properties he owns. She said he has retaliated against tenants who were organizing by shutting off their water, pressuring them to sign papers written in a language they didn’t understand, and evicting them. In a July 2019 letter, Pinza threatened tenants with rent increases and evictions if they joined with other tenants he was already in the process of evicting for organizing.

With Weak Laws, Turning to Direct Action

While states like California, New York, and Oregon have moderately strong tenant protections and currently some political will toward improving them, that is mostly not the case in other places. Beyond those states, only D.C., and localities in two other states, Maryland and New Jersey, have rent control. A few places without rent control have, or are waging active fights to enact, protections from evictions without good cause. Elsewhere, tenants may at best have rights to privacy, to their security deposit, and against retaliation, which are difficult to enforce, and the right to live in habitable housing, which is difficult to enforce without risking eviction by landlord or by inspectors. Passage of local rent regulations is prohibited in 60 percent of states, including Florida and Iowa.

Each organizer I spoke with told me about a hostile political atmosphere toward tenant protections in their area. Even in Concord, city council intransigence toward implementing local protections was a crucial provocation for tenants to found TSTU this past summer.

In Ames, a town almost half-populated by Iowa State University students, organizer Preston Burris told me that ATU formed in part as a result of city council passing a law in 2018 that would cap the number of rental properties in neighborhoods. (The law was overridden by the state legislature.) Burris says tenants—students and non-students alike—are viewed as “not really part of the community.” Landlords familiar with student populations offer leases that don’t run a full year, leaving all tenants without a home for a couple of days to a couple of weeks in late July. This leasing schedule makes it difficult to rent out of season, despite Ames’s many vacancies. Furthermore, landlords take advantage of tenants’ unfamiliarity with their rights to charge illegal carpet cleaning fees at the end of the term of their lease.

“Florida, right now, is completely hopeless on the policy level,” says Wasserman of Palm Beach County. Florida’s state legislature is ruled not only by the interests of developers, landlords, and real estate agents, but also by the Republican Party, so tenant organizers are not hopeful about state support. Even at the local level, fairly modest tenant-protection efforts can be a challenge. In the city of Riviera Beach, for example, a law merely requiring landlords to pay for tenants’ relocation costs when poor conditions make it necessary to move was tabled in November 2019 when the council sponsor lost reelection.

Simon, of Omaha Tenants United (OTU), describes Omaha’s tenant-protection laws as minimal. But, like Wasserman and PBCTU, he and OTU understand this as an opportunity. Tenants affected by the trend toward slumification in these areas have inspired the formation of groups dedicated to grassroots organizing, direct action, and solidarity, because these approaches make immediate improvements in tenants’ lives without having to wait on unlikely gains from legislative advocacy. Negligent policy environments have given such an approach unique traction among growing numbers of tenants. If they engage in legislative campaigns, this typically extends from their grassroots efforts, as in the case of PBCTU fighting red-tagging in Lake Worth, and OTU successfully opposing the awarding of development subsidies to Dave Paladino.

According to Simon and Wasserman, in many areas like these, if there are institutional nonprofits, those nonprofits still aren’t organizing to build tenant power, perhaps because of the political orientations of their foundation funders. Tenant organizing in Omaha, Ames, and Palm Beach County is instead being spearheaded by volunteer-based groups solely motivated by politics and bonds of solidarity. These groups often explicitly identify as anti-capitalist, despite the strongly property-rights-oriented attitudes of those in power. Many of them share membership with local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America and the lesser-known Marxist Center, which have made tenant organizing a focus of their grassroots work. Popular wisdom suggests that putting radical politics out front can hinder building broad support. But according to Simon, the notion that “the tenant/landlord relationship is inherently exploitive” is easy for many tenants to understand and has not turned people away.

PBCTU and OTU both emerged out of mutual aid projects. In Palm Beach County, activists and community members who had been defending immigrants from deportations got together to build a tenants union in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, which damaged many tenants’ homes and which landlords used as cover to mass-evict tenants. In Omaha, organizers with For the People, which offers free food and hygiene products, found that landlord complaints were frequent among participants and decided to begin solidarity work with tenants in 2018. The ultimate goal of OTU is to “build institutions through which people can use their collective power as tenants, in order to mitigate a lot of these abuses that we see by landlords,” Simon says. “For us, that means staying outside of the court system, not relying on legislative maneuvers. … We try to keep people out of the courts as much as possible because then we’re playing on their playing field. … And then we have to rely on bourgeois law which is rather unreliable, obviously, in order to get results that win. So to that end we rely very much so on direct action, directly confronting landlords with tenants.” For example, another organizer with OTU, Mark Vondrasek, describes the case of an elderly Black tenant who learned about OTU through a friend who’d also won results through direct action. This man had been washing his dishes in his bathtub for years because he lacked hot water throughout the apartment, and the sink had leaked since moving in. He’d never gotten a response from the landlord to complaints about the water and the leak. With OTU, the tenant wrote a letter about these and other issues with his home, including faulty electrical wiring. Then the group turned out about 10 people to support the tenant in delivering the letter to the landlord’s home. The landlord wasn’t present but watched the delegation on his security cameras and called the man right away. Shortly after, the water and electrical were fixed.

OTU does not currently consider itself a tenants union—it intends to build up local tenant power to the point of founding one using an organizing model called a “solidarity network.” The idea is that a small volunteer group begins by taking on smaller, winnable cases, and fights for them exclusively using collective direct action, mobilizing their own and the tenants’ communities. Each fight generates new experience and attracts new members. In OTU’s vision for itself, which ATU and others are adopting, this process escalates, taking on more difficult cases with more tenants, until they’re confidently organizing full buildings of tenants.

OTU had its first win of this latter kind over the summer in a nearby suburb. There, tenants had already had code inspectors visit, to no avail. With tenant leaders, OTU distributed surveys to the building’s residents to collect complaints. From the survey results, they crafted and hand-delivered a demand letter, calling for “mold inspections, repairs to the laundry room which had been flooding repeatedly and had holes in the ceiling causing it to spill debris into the washer, and a $100 rent reduction until the pool was fixed.” All demands were met promptly.

PBCTU’s most extensive campaign, with the Section 8 tenants of the Stonybrook Apartments, as of late 2019 had become a barricade-building, direct-action eviction defense. Organizing in the complex began in April 2018, focusing on habitability issues, from mold to pests. By that summer the association had launched a 20-person rent strike, which is within their rights under Florida’s implied warranty of habitability, and won relocation assistance for more than 40 of their members who had to move due to uninhabitable units. However, issues like the rats, roaches, and mold persisted, and so tenants have continued and extended participation in their rent strike. In November 2019, PBCTU released a statement defending the strike and claiming that it “spans the entire property.” According to the management company, Millenia Housing, Stonybrook includes 256 units. By late November Millenia had responded to the strike and accompanying legal action by seeking to evict several of the tenants who had fought hardest for better conditions and resisted previous harassment. Among those targeted is Stonybrook Tenants Association’s President Crystal Lewis, whose car, in the early days of organizing, was vandalized in what she took to be attempted intimidation.

Challenges and Mutual Support

Burris says Ames Tenant Union’s efforts at The Madison at the end of 2018 were ultimately defeated, partly because management outflanked them by making small concessions without recognizing the association of tenants, and partly because, even though “there was definitely momentum to be found there, we were too inexperienced to really capitalize on it.” In response to this inexperience, as well as difficulties with members becoming burned out, this fall ATU began restructuring, dropping back to a focus on things that would be in reach of a core activist team and planning for a slower escalation “to a place where we can really get that rank and file,” says Burris.

This restructuring comes after Burris spent a summer connecting with other Midwestern tenant organizers at leftist conferences—he met up with the Iowa City Tenants Union at Socialism 2019 in Chicago, Illinois, and at Red State 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, he attended a panel of OTU members titled “We Took on the Biggest Slumlord in Our City and Won–You Can Too!” OTU offered Burris advice after the panel. OTU has taken on mentorship with a number of newer tenants organizations in the region, including groups in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Illinois.

PBCTU has also mentored new tenant unions, including one in Miami. But because winning statewide tenant protections in Florida is viewed as hopeless, Wasserman believes there’s less value to coordinating statewide. He favors networks built around shared targets. For example, the Stonybrook tenants’ manager, Millenia, owns and operates properties all over the country. To strengthen their leverage, the tenants hope to spark a coordinated movement against Millenia. This isn’t easy because many of the places where Millenia owns property don’t yet have any tenants organization, but that’s starting to change. “Mostly, it starts with us either hearing from or reaching out to tenants on the ground,” says Wasserman, “because the thing about Millenia is that they tend to own the worst property in every city they’re in, which always makes the news, and so you see on the news tenants actually talking about these conditions.” Tenants at Millenia properties in Galveston, Texas, for example, have been able to connect with the new Houston Tenants Union for support. “We should coordinate like we do in the labor movement, coordinate all the workplaces against a single boss,” says Wasserman. “That would be a good way to actually get this movement functioning together.”

Sharing experiences, building relationships, and taking action are the backbone of collective organizing. Across regions and landlords, tenant organizers working outside of rapidly gentrifying areas are connecting with others facing similar conditions, sometimes even in gentrifying areas. Gabaldon told me about a conversation she had with a tenant from Long Beach, in the heavily gentrifying Los Angeles County, at the California Renter Power assembly in October. “He got a rent increase, and he got upset that the landlord was abusing the other tenants because most of them didn’t speak English. And when he started telling me this story it started sounding more and more like mine. To know that other people are in the same movement as us, you know, it felt really good actually.” Tenants Together, the organization that first mentored Gabaldon, was among the assembly’s conveners. Gabaldon and others founded their tenants union with the support of Tenants Together and several local organizations, so they could build relationships locally in Concord. “Start talking to your neighbors, that’s the main thing,” Gabaldon says. When asked what she expected the focus of the new union to be, she said, “We want to be doing more actions. We also want other tenants to know that they’re not alone.”


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