NJ Tenant Organizing—Looking Back at the Film Techos y Derechos

A decades-old tenant organizing film—now in digital form for the first time—is still relevant today.

In the late 1980s Shelterforce produced a series of films around housing justice and tenants’ rights. The series was spearheaded by John Atlas, then director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society in New Jersey and one of Shelterforce’s founders and long-time board members. “I got $100,000 or so, which was big money in those days, from the national Legal Services Corporation to do a group of tenants’ rights tapes,” recalls Atlas. He made the case for the grant by arguing that “it was not enough to tell poor people what their rights are. People learn by watching movies and TV.”  

“We were the only legal services doing things outside of individual service,” Atlas says. “It was all very dicey, because legal services was always under close scrutiny from Republicans who oppose[d] helping the poor.”

One of the movies in that series was Techos y Derechos (“Roofs and Rights”), a Spanish-language film on tenant organizing and tenants’ rights, featuring the stories and experiences and victories of tenants in Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey. Produced in partnership with La Casa De Don Pedro and Newark Media Works and directed and filmed by documentary filmmaker Tami Gold, the short documentary was aired on Spanish-language TV stations to encourage tenants to understand and stick up for their rights. It premiered at the Newark Museum, and got a screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Gold remembers lugging heavy equipment around to do the screenings. “You had to have muscles to do this work,” she recalls.

Despite the film being over 30 years old, the problems—and the solutions—featured in it will be quite familiar to anyone who works in tenant organizing. Atlas suggests it might even be “more essential today than it was when first shown in 1988.” And indeed, Gold says that unbeknownst to us, a very worn VHS copy has been in ongoing use in tenant organizing work in Brooklyn.

We digitized Techos on request in 2015 for the exhibition Not yet at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Now, in conjunction with Home Truths: Films About Housing Rights, Displacement, and the Meaning of Home, we decided to add subtitles and share it with all of you. (Please excuse the glitches from the condition of our original copy. We left the momentary blank frames in so you wouldn’t miss any of the audio.)

Shelterforce was started by tenant organizers, and we’ve been pleased to see and cover a recent resurgence in tenant organizing. We hope Techos y Derechos enjoys a second wave of interest and influence.

La lucha sigue!

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