An ad for Shelterforce's webinar, "Fighting Back Against Corporate Landlords." We had four speakers.

Interview Homes or Cash Cows?

Fighting Back Against Corporate Landlords—A Shelterforce Webinar

Shelterforce recently hosted a conversation about how to fight, and win, against corporate landlords and their extractive business models. Watch the video or read the transcript.

This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Homes or Cash Cows?

Nowadays housing is treated more as an instrument for financial gain than a place for shelter. How has this way of thinking changed the market? In this series we explore what people mean when they talk about the "financialization" of housing, some of its causes and effects, and what housing advocates are trying to do about it.

This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Tenant Power Returns

In this series Shelterforce dives deep into the past, present, and future of tenant organizing. We take a closer look at the components of what many organizers call a tenants bill of rights and give you accessible ways to share them with others, plus lots more.

Shelterforce recently hosted a conversation about how to fight, and win, against corporate landlords and their extractive business models. We explored how corporate landlords harm tenants and homebuyers, how stronger tenant protections can curb those abuses, and the view from the ground from organizers who have had dramatic wins.

Speakers included:

  • Benjamin Teresa, RVA Eviction Lab
  • Cornell Crews Jr., Community Reinvestment Alliance of Florida
  • Tony Bravo, Monument Impact
  • Sofia Lopez, Action Center on Race and the Economy

The webinar was moderated by Shelterforce’s Miriam Axel-Lute.

Below is an edited version of the conversation. Watch the full video above.

Miriam Axel-Lute: I am so glad you joined us today. I hope you’re feeling fired up and ready to learn and think about how to push for changes. I’m Miriam Axel-Lute. I’m the editor-in-chief at Shelterforce. We’re a national nonprofit publication covering affordable housing, community development, and housing justice.

Several times a year we run our Under the Lens series, where we do a deep dive into a specific topic. This summer, we published one called Homes or Cash Cows, focused on the financialization of housing.

This week, we’re launching one called Tenant Power Returns, on tenant organizing. Today’s event is going to link these two because so many of our authors and reporters in Homes or Cash Cows noted that strengthening tenant protections is a crucial way to push back against some of the worst abuses of finance firms playing in the housing market, especially since so many of them have business models that actually rely upon displacement and exploitation of their residents.

We have a really great group of speakers today who are going to give us some more context about how these two things connect, where the opportunities are to fight back, and where and how some wins are happening.

I’m going to ask Ben to start us off. Introduce yourself and then give us some context as to how we got here in terms of these large financial firms having such a presence in the housing market and why would increased tenant protections make a difference.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Ben Teresa: My name is Ben Teresa. I’m an associate professor of urban and regional studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. I also co-direct the RVA—Richmond Virginia—Eviction Lab, where we focus on data and research for supporting policymakers, service providers, organizers, and advocates to address housing instability.

Ben Teresa

To get us started, the rise of large-scale corporate investors in housing markets is something that we’ve seen across the urban hierarchy. It takes place in urban context, suburban context, and rural context as well, across high demand, expensive cities, and declining disinvested cities as well. It happens internationally outside of the U.S. and across the housing sector. In rental housing markets, in ownership, home ownership markets, and in a proliferating set of new market spaces like land contracts, contract for deeds, rent-to-own market spaces.

This is a trend that is not just in a single-family rental market. It’s not just in high-demand places, and it’s not just in the U.S. context. Certainly, it manifests differently in all these different places. I think it’s important also to place the rise of the large corporate investor in housing markets, not just, of course, in the last year or two where we’ve seen some dramatic expansion of those activities in certain periods of the pandemic, but to really put it in a deeper historical context.

There’s maybe three key large-scale transformations that really give rise to this new type of investor and these new types of market spaces that they are creating and all the effects for tenants, communities, and cities.

The first one, of course, is long-term privatization and austerity regimes at the local level, state level, and federal level that really has disinvested from public commitment to affordable housing, direct construction, and provision of publicly owned housing [with] public housing being one of the biggest examples of this.

Secondly, there’s been a long-term transformation in terms of the housing market and financial and capital markets. We often talk about this as financialization, or the continued integration of real estate and financial markets, which means that housing, property, is treated increasingly as a financial asset, with the kinds of expectations that come from financial assets—that they’ll continue to produce income, to increase in value—and the kinds of imperatives that that places, to continually extract—rents, fees—from housing at the ground level.

In the early 1990s, after the savings and loan crisis, the federal government steps in, and to deal with the financial crisis, basically sets a template for private capital to come in and take distressed assets, foreclosed homes, delinquent loans on property, and to facilitate what is really a crisis of financial markets and a crisis of profitability and transform those into new market opportunities, as opposed to stabilizing housing and stabilizing people in housing.

Finally, increasing inequality in labor markets, of course, over the past 40 years or more means that people have constrained choice in their housing options. It also means that urban growth in and of itself is increasingly less effective in terms of delivering that growth toward those who really need to benefit the most. That means that a growing city might be producing a lot of housing, but that housing is not actually reaching those who need it the most.

I’m going to turn to Cornell now to tell us a little bit about what this looks like on the ground in Florida and how it’s affecting both tenants and potential home buyers there.

Cornell Crews Jr.: Cornell Crews Jr., executive director from the Community Reinvestment Alliance of Florida. We’re a nonprofit membership organization serving the state of Florida, based in Miami. Florida is going through a serious housing crisis, either with rent or folks who want to purchase. Let’s start with the purchase side first. One of the big items that’s happening in our state is corporate buyers.

Cornell Crews

These are hedge funders in Wall Street, organizations who are buying up the single-family homes and turning them into forever rentals. In the second quarter in Miami-Dade County alone, which engulfs the city of Miami, investors, hedge funders, and Wall Street investors bought $2.75 billion worth of single-family homes.

In our state now, one in every 4.5 housing closings are done by corporate buyers. Those include hedge funders and Wall Streeters who are buying up these homes, some of them sight unseen, and not giving everybody the right to the American dream. They charge astronomical rents and with no opportunity to ever purchase or own the land.

Hedge funders are on a different mindset. 60 Minutes did a piece on this back in March, and they focused on the state of Florida, in particular the Tampa area. One of the leaders of these hedge funds actually said into the camera, “Americans no longer want to buy the American dream, they want to rent it.” I found that very insulting. We know that building generational wealth for the most part in this country comes from owning land and purchasing homes.

We know how important purchasing homes, being a homeowner or landowner is simply by the fact that the hedge funders continuously were buying the land up. There’s a reason why the Pilgrims took all the land from the Indians. It’s wealth. We know that it’s wealth. In our particular state, this is an ongoing problem, trying to bring it to the attention of legislators and elected officials. They seem to be way behind the power curve.

As far as renting is concerned, our rents are astronomical here, in particular in South Florida, which includes Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach county. It costs more to live here now than it does in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. A whole lot of factors come into it: income inequality, bad transportation policies, and so on.

We’ve had a few governments, county and city governments, try to help folks with rent, but that’s only a temporary solution. On election day last week, Orange County, which is in the Orlando area, voted to have one-year rent stabilization at a 9.8 percent cap. That’s all they wanted, was one-year rent stabilization. Fifty-nine percent of the voters voted for it.

Of course, several organizations led the fight against it, including the Florida Realtors Association and the Apartment Owners Association. It’s in appeals court now saying that it’s unconstitutional and the elected officials can’t certify those election results even though that’s what the people wanted. We have a lot of headwinds going against us as we try to rent stabilize, encourage homeownership, encourage land ownership, and give folks peace of mind and also help towards building generational wealth.

It is a challenge that has to be met. We cannot continue on this road. We cannot continue with rents not being stabilized in our state. We can’t continuously have rents that are out of reach, home ownership that is out of reach, not having enough affordable housing, and not having housing affordability.

One of our organizations, Miami Homes for All, did a study just on Miami-Dade County earlier this summer. As of June, we need 221,000 affordable housing units to meet the need. You got to figure that we fall further and further behind every 30 days. We have a lot of issues here, and it’s something that we definitely have to address. We believe that housing is a right, so we keep looking at ways to encourage the powers that be to help us with rent as well as homeownership. Thank you.

Sofia, in your work with tenant organizers around the country, why is addressing this particular corporate ownership particularly important, and how could increased tenant protections help?

Sofia Lopez: My name is Sofia Shahr. I’m with the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE). We’re a racial justice organization, and we’re focused on Wall Street accountability. Because I work so closely with organizers across the country, the question that I get more often than anything else is can you help me understand who this landlord is, and how we can fight back against all of the things that they are clearly doing motivated by greed?

Sofia Lopez

I think that the private equity and financialized housing model, it’s just pure business logic and just so acutely focused on maximizing revenue and cutting costs. The stories that I hear from tenants really make clear to me why tenant protections would be so powerful in cutting into the worst parts of this business model. I characterize it into four main buckets.

The first is increasing rents. For example, I’ve heard from organizers in North Carolina and Las Vegas, where tenants face increases of $100 to $200 per month and really intense pressure to sign lease renewals really quickly. If they don’t, within a certain allotted timeframe, that triggers month-to-month leases with doubled rents. Now, we know thanks to research that came out of ProPublica that a lot of these rent increases are actually fueled by algorithmic pricing in ways that might potentially be violating antitrust law, an important piece of information.

Fines and fees are another one. Cornell mentioned the 60 Minutes piece. One of the landlord CEOs that they talked to, a gentleman named Gary Berman, [is] the CEO of Tricon Residential. Just for context, in 2020 after Tricon received an investment from Blackstone, Berman said, “The pandemic has been a godsend for our business. In a sense, it’s the best thing that ever happened to us.”

It ties into the crises that Ben is talking about that create these moments where these kinds of landlords are able to take advantage. On fines and fees, Tricon’s profits tripled between 2020 and 2021, and in their SEC filing, they talked about being able to take in $640 per home, per month, in fee and other revenue, so that’s on top of rent. In their filings, they talked about being able to increase that figure to between $850 to $950 per month.

That’s on the revenue side. On the cut side, there are things like cuts to maintenance and offloading responsibilities to tenants. For example, in 2021, tenants in Minneapolis organizing with the organization Inquilinxs Unidxs were talking about needing to wait up to a year for necessary and urgent repairs on homes that are managed—at the time they were managed by Haven Brook Homes, now managed by Progress Residential.

Issues included holes in their roofs and ceilings, broken stairways, lead paint, flooding, faulty electrical systems, and broken or inoperable appliances, in addition to other things. Things actually got so bad in 2022 that the same portfolio of properties actually lost their residential license and conditions were deemed to be putting residents’ lives at risk. That is just how bad it got in a suburb of Minneapolis.

The last one is eviction. A lot of us might have seen a report that came out of the House Financial Services Committee about eviction filings during the COVID crisis. Research in that report documents that certain landlords resorted to knocking on tenants’ doors in the middle of the night, replacing air conditioning units with faulty ones as ways to pressure people to leave their homes, or I think even giving people misleading information to make people believe that they were going to be forced and maybe didn’t have the same protections that they thought would be available to them.

Just to note, all of this happens behind this incredibly convoluted and totally opaque LLC structure that makes it so difficult for tenants to know who actually owns their home. I like to think I’m pretty good at this research and even I struggle at times to know exactly how much of a portfolio a private equity company might be invested in. That was a lot of stories, but it’s important for us to know that, particularly with these single-family rental companies, a lot of them are concentrated in specific markets across the Sunbelt and Midwest.

If you read filings from multifamily companies, you know those same markets are incredibly important to them. They also happen to be markets that have incredibly weak tenant protections and there’s a financial advantage to these landlords in operating there and growing their portfolios there.

With robust tenant protections, we don’t get things like 50 percent rent increases or 20 to 30 percent average rent increases that we’re seeing in some of the hottest markets in the country. That’s why things like rent stabilization and rent control are so important to protect people from the worst parts of this industry.

With the right to counsel or just cause eviction, it’s illegal to kick tenants out in order to be able to turn around and charge higher rents, and with transparency and ownership, we know who actually owns these buildings and we have a better idea of where to go when problems arise. We know these aren’t the cure-all to everything that’s happening in our housing market or the ways in which investors are harming people, but we know this is a huge step towards moving us to a place where we actually have a market where everybody can afford a beautiful, decent, safe, quality home..

We’ve been talking about what the problems are. We’re going to move on to some of the ways that we try to solve that.

Landlord and tenant law is typically local but states often also weigh in to set parameters about what’s possible, and they can do that in good and bad ways. I’m hoping that all of you can weigh in a bit about what the roles are for cities and states. People have already been asking about federal in the chat, and we will come to federal next because we definitely want to get to that as well.

Crews: I’ll jump in. I saw in the chat that there’s been some housing associations who have tried to implement some plans to try to stop corporate buyers and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, as you said, Miriam, the elected officials or legislatures haven’t done anything to enact ways to curtail the practice of, as Sofia was talking about, raising rents.

We had one building here in particular. Right on the water, the building raised the rents up to 75 percent in order to drive out tenants so they can rent it at a higher rate. What did happen though is that the commissioners and the mayor are implementing a program—there has to be a 60-day notice for rent hikes that are over 7 percent. Granted, that makes it even more difficult because it’s not like there’s a lot of units when you’re trying to find a place that’s reasonable and safe to live. Those are few and far between, but at least gave some reprieve.

Every other week, there was another big article in the media about raising of rents. I think that we have to engage the elected officials. We have to engage the legislators at some point to try to preempt some of these things. Also, in my state, if the legislature or the governor does not like something that a municipality, city, or county is implementing, they’ll find a way to undercut it so that it doesn’t happen.

If they try to do something for the good of the community or for the good of the renters as well as homeowners, and they don’t like that particular item, they’ll find a way to undercut it by saying something along the lines of, “Well, they can’t do this without our approval. This is at a state level and not at a local level.”

They’ll do things like that particularly in certain counties. We’re going to have to engage them one way or the other and we’re going to have to take folks to court in order to try to make change.

Lopez: I’m happy to pick up next on some of these local and state-level dynamics. I live in Texas [and] in a city, unfortunately, where if at the local level we were able to mobilize and win tenant protections, we would also face preemption at the state level. So much of ACRE’s analysis is rooted in corporate power and the ways in which our local, state, and federal dynamics are dominated by corporate interests.

Our antidote to that is building tenant power, certainly, but I think for all people who are being exploited in our housing market, which I think is tenants and beyond. Having a safe, decent, and affordable place to live shouldn’t boil down to the luck of where you happen to be born, where your family lives, where your job is located. Certainly, that’s a feeling that I have at times. I’m from Texas originally and I don’t have the luck of living in a state or a city that is more friendly to tenant protection.

That means that there is long and hard work to do to try and change those dynamics. I think one of the core interventions that an organization like ACRE has to offer is an analysis of how we got to this situation. For states like mine that have rent control preemption, I have spent a lot of time looking at organizations like the National Multifamily Housing Council—they are a massive lobbying group and many of their members are actually the private equity companies themselves and the landlord groups that they have set up.

I’ve read in real estate industry papers where the NMHC takes credit or is given credit for rent control preemptions that exist across the country. There’s been a very concerted effort by the landlord industry, and particularly, large corporate landlord industry, to keep tenants from having the things that they need across the country, within particular cities, within particular states. It’s important to know that that is where the power sits and that’s where we have to take that power on.

I do think that there are probably a number of creative things that local governments can do. In some ways this is a newer issue or maybe a new cut of an old issue. I think there are questions to probe around how we regulate LLCs. Is there a way to promote some transparency at the local level to at least start to build things like registries of where violations are happening?

Also, what do we do when those kinds of violations take place to make sure that people don’t end up displaced?

I personally feel a lot of excitement for the energy that is bubbling up through organized tenant power. I think it has the potential—I know certainly the industry is very worried about the potential—to change dynamics at the state level. I think there’s no way to go but through and to me that through is continuing to build out that tenant power.

Ben, you mentioned thoughts about New York and a positive thing about state-level intervention.

Teresa: One of the ways to think about policy is that it of course delivers immediate benefits and relief targeted in that way, but also policy as opening new terrain for power building and organizing. For example, what Miriam was referring to was the 2019 New York State reform to the rent laws, which closed a number of loopholes in rent stabilization regime. Crucially, what it also did is expand the ability to opt-in to rent stabilization beyond New York City and a couple of immediate surrounding towns to statewide.

Immediately what happened is that you blew open the terrain, literally the geography for organizing tenants for rent stabilization expanded statewide. Most recently, we can see that playing out [in] Kingston, up the Hudson from New York City. Kingston opted into rent stabilization and their rent guidelines board recently voted for a 15 percent rollback reduction in rents. I think thinking strategically—of course organizers and advocates always think strategically!—but thinking about policy, how can it operate and give us more room to maneuver and build towards those future opportunities.

I do want to highlight what Sofia was saying, which is totally on the money about what the real pressure points are. The National Multifamily Housing Council for the last couple of years has published a report. They produce a map of what states are threatening rent control; they literally have three tiers of states and their risk levels for enacting rent control or the few states that have rent control, they’re on the top lists of offenders in their eyes.

This is a central preoccupation of the industry. I think that demonstrates where it cuts into their power. We also have the example of the struggle over emergency rental assistance through the pandemic and how uneven that was. The industry, within nine months, elevated their challenge of the CDC renter protections to the Supreme Court, which ultimately nullified the CDC renter protections alongside a real apathy. The ERA [Emergency Rental Assistance] Fund . . . there’s still a third of the nearly $50 billion for rental debts that remains unspent. You see what the industry priorities are.

Knocking down regulation and constraints over their control of their assets and their investments is the number one priority. Actually, cash payments is like, if the power is going to be constrained, then they’ll eschew cash payments in favor of maintaining control over their assets.

I think expanding the terrain for organizing and room to maneuver for advocates and organizers as well as pinpointing these major pressure points of how landlords in the industry exert control over tenants and their properties, which are fundamentally where their sources of power come from.

Tony, I wanted to give you a chance to talk about the power of large landlords affecting tenants on your local level, and then maybe you can fold in what you had to say about the topic that we’re on right now about local and state relationships of those levels. I know in California you had a relationship between your state-level law and the local rent control law that you were trying to pass.

Tony Bravo: I am the co-director of organizing at Monument Impact in Contra Costa County in the Bay Area.

Tony Bravo

A lot of the organizing that we have been doing here at the local level has been really trying to pass rent control, specifically in the city of Antioch, which we were successful at. We got that victory, but it was a very difficult one, of course, because of what Miriam mentioned around a state law in California, the Tenant Protection Act, or AB 1482, which essentially requires landlords to have cost-free eviction and limits rent increases to 10 percent.

That is the state law, and obviously, like many state laws, it has its loopholes. This is the argument that the opposition was using [for] why local jurisdictions or local cities don’t need rent control: because we have a state law that already provides those protections to tenants. This was the argument that the California Apartment Association would use, that certain city council members who were against rent control would argue.

The 1482 obviously does protect tenants. It is important and something that many people organized and advocated for. It was a huge win, especially as we were entering the start of the pandemic in 2020. It did protect a lot of families, but we knew that there were a lot of loopholes. One of those properties or apartment complexes that are not protected, are the low-income housing tenants who are not protected under 1482. In Antioch, when we were organizing for rent control or rent stabilization, we were very clear in our demands that low-income housing complexes have to be included in the policy, because the tenants that were impacted the most who are receiving high rent increases of $200, $500, $600, were tenants that were coming from low-income housing.

Because of the organizing and advocacy from the tenants who are directly being impacted by all of this, along with organizers like Monument Impact, the East County Regional Group here, ACCE, we were able to organize and mobilize a bunch of tenants from these different LIHTC properties or low-income housing properties into getting that written into the policy. We organized for rent control because we knew that the people that were being impacted the most were low-income community members who are Black, who are Latinx, who are immigrants, who are undocumented. That’s why, for them, it was super important that their voices be heard, and that they should be the ones at the forefront. And they were, and because of this, we were successful in moving city council to vote in favor of rent control.

Not that long ago, new rent control laws were considered dead on arrival. They wouldn’t happen anywhere. I think that’s really important to pay attention to that and realize how much the dynamics have shifted in the country.

We had mentioned, and a couple of people have brought up in the chat, federal, what’s the federal role in all this? Landlord-tenant law mostly doesn’t happen at the federal level, but what can we look [for] in terms of organizing or pressure at the federal level, maybe to remove some of the unfair advantages that these large corporate landlords have, or to counteract some of the state level obstacles in places like Florida and Texas, where the state steps in the way?

Teresa: Tony mentioned subsidized properties. I’ve seen some discussions swirling around federal rent freeze for all federally subsidized properties, including those that have a mortgage held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, of course, subsidize multifamily housing finance. With that portfolio, we might remember that the CARES Act actually had an eviction moratorium, I believe, a 60- or 90-day moratorium, in the original CARES Act that was passed at the beginning of the pandemic, in March of 2020.

It included a federal moratorium on all federally subsidized properties, including those that didn’t necessarily receive operating subsidy from a subsidy program, but just had their mortgage held by Fannie or Freddie. I think something similar in terms of rent freeze or rent stabilization on those properties could be certainly within the power of those agencies to do that. Depending on which region, that probably is 25 percent, 30 percent of rental housing in any particular region. A significant share, and of course some of the more vulnerable residents in those properties.

The LIHTC properties— low-income housing tax credit properties—are another key kind of property to be aware of. Often, it’s state housing agencies that administer those tax credits. Nonetheless, Treasury, which actually operates LIHTC program, given it’s a tax credit program, could and actually enforce the just cause provisions and require extending lease renewals in LIHTC properties. We also know from research that private LIHTC properties that are operated by for-profit developers actually are quite unstable. They have high eviction rates; that’s been demonstrated in research out of Atlanta. That’s a low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Properties that are subsidized with public money need to have these types of anti-eviction policies as we were talking about earlier. We can’t be subsidizing instability. I think that’s definitely one avenue that wouldn’t even necessarily require congressional authorization. You could do that through the executive branch with the right pressure. I’ve already seen some of those conversations happening.

Lopez: I’m happy to dovetail on that. I think that Ben mentioned so many of the programs that exist that are supposed to alleviate the housing crisis, and yet clearly they have so many challenges with them. At the same time, I think important to note, fitting within the comments that Ben made initially, programs like LIHTC have emerged as another place for many of these same private equity landlords to increase their share of a different kind of property. For example, Blackstone recently became, I think one of, if not the largest, owner of LIHTC properties across the country through their acquisition of April Housing in 2021.

I think it’s important to note that the federal government, not just through the subsidy programs—which are good and need to be strengthened and should do more to protect tenants—but also through things like 1031 like-kind exchanges, which are this mechanism where basically if you purchase a property and then sell it, you get to reinvest the earnings into another property tax-free. You ultimately don’t end up paying taxes on the sale at all. This is one of the key things that props up our real estate market in the way that it exists today. It’s something that has in the past emerged as a potential area of conversation at the federal level, but there seems to be the political will lacking to do that right now.

I think there are REIT structures that are very favorable from a taxing standpoint to more of these publicly traded large private-equity-backed landlords. There are all of these mechanisms that support the market without the matching benefits or protections to make sure that tenants are safe and secure in their homes.

To me, when I think about this, it’s a choice that we’re making about where we allocate our resources. If we’re able to prop up a speculative model that ultimately harms tenants, why aren’t we able to dedicate those same resources to public housing, which obviously needs tens of millions of dollars of investment, or social housing, community land trusts, the kinds of things that are more democratically governed.

I think there are conversations like the ones that Ben alluded to. I think the Homes Guarantee is doing an incredible job currently of talking to the White House [and] different agencies, to make a push for those agencies or the White House to act through the authority that they have today. I am sadly a pessimist on what Congress will be able to do, but that doesn’t mean that those elected officials get to skirt accountability for making our housing crisis either worse or not doing anything to fix it. There’s a short-term answer—I see a lot of hope in what the Homes Guarantee is trying to accomplish—and there’s the long-term answer, similar to what I said with respect to state and local-level politics.

At the end of the day, though, I want to see more solutions at the federal level, because, again, I live in a state where ultimately our ceiling is very low for what we’re able to accomplish in the long term. By no means should our housing policy be the patchwork that we have today.

Absolutely. We are coming toward the end of our time, and I want to make sure we have time for some questions, as well as hearing about wins. Talk about some of the wins that are happening at your local level. Tony, just tell us a little bit more about how you won rent control in Antioch, and what having it has meant for your members.

Bravo: Thank you. I think folks were just tired of living under the conditions that they had been living in. The rent was being increased, as I mentioned before, $200, $500, $600 for an apartment that just was not worth it, and a lot of these habitability issues were going unattended to. The rent was going up, but the living conditions were terrible, and people were tired of being abused, not being listened to, their issues not being addressed. They started to organize, they started to mobilize, showing up to city council meetings, demanding that rent control be brought up, that their demands be listed, and that included that LIHTC be included in the rent policy, [and] that the rent cap be at 3 percent.

These things were all demands that the tenants wanted to see in the rent policy. Holding actions outside of their apartment complex, inviting city council to show up to these actions and mobilizations that were taking place across different properties in the city of Antioch, and inviting even those who were in opposition to rent control to see the living conditions that a lot of these tenants were living in as proof to say like, do you think that this apartment is worth the rent increase, or what the value is that they’re asking for? Folks were tired of—I think Ben mentioned it earlier—the financialization of real estate that is happening, that it’s become profit over people, and I think people were tired of that, tired of just being abused.

[At] Monument Impact, with our organizers, we have been able to teach and develop those organizing skills to tenants who had no idea that organizing was as effective as they have been able to see with the passing of rent control. Rent control is a victory, and it’s a huge victory that many are proud of but know that it still doesn’t address a lot of the habitability issues that are still happening where they’re living.

Now there’s conversations about forming a tenants union in a lot of these properties, at least the property that we’re working with. To be able to see that, that they got a victory, they’re moving to still wanting to organize and improve their living conditions, is a win for the entire community of Antioch because we hope that it causes a ripple effect to other properties to say, we’re also tired, we want to see an organizing infrastructure happen in the city of Antioch, and that is happening.

Also our champions at city council, those were super powerful to have on our side. At the local level, elections are super important because they impact what we can get done, and because of that, we were able to win rent stabilization in Antioch, and it shows a message to the entire county of Contra Costa.

Cornell, I’m going to ask you to speak about what you’re doing in South Florida to try to get some of these properties not to be snapped up by corporate landlords, in terms of an equity fund.

Crews: One of the things that we’re doing is not trying to reinvent the wheel. Let’s do what they are doing, let’s put together funding so organizations and the nonprofits can actually buy up the properties and institute the lease-to-own programs and some programs that can benefit the community.

I’m working to facilitate agreement between one of the banks whose foundation has been doing some money to help homeowners get to purchase homes and not get priced out by investors, and one of the quasi-governmental organizations who’ve gotten some money together in order to do the exact same thing. I’m trying to marry those two together so they can put their resources together in order to make a bigger impact, hopefully to attract more funding. Like I said, that’s going to be hard to get because legislators always look at free market, not really understanding what the free market may do to low- and moderate-income in particular folks.

Marrying those organizations together and then seeking more organizations in order to come together to not reinvent the wheel and do exactly what they do.

Sofia, can you give us one or two wins that you’ve seen around the country? Then we’re going to bring up some questions.

Lopez: Yes, I will say generally, most of the organizations that I work with have corporate campaigns. Again, rooted in this analysis that corporations are responsible for so much of the circumstances that dictate our housing conditions. I will say, the organizations I’ve worked with have done a really good job of recognizing what potential opportunities to move those corporations look like. One of them is looking at where a lot of these companies are actually getting their money as a way to help bring the companies to the negotiating table. That has been very promising in advancing many of these campaigns.

One that I was not involved in, but I just have so much respect and admiration for, though, is in San Francisco, where tenants of this massive company, Veritas, were able to win a right to bargain collectively with their landlord. Then not only that, they won debt cancellation for people who have back debt from throughout the pandemic, but then they moved to make that a law in San Francisco. Now landlords have to bargain collectively with renters who want to organize. To me, it’s just such an inspiring model of what might be able to happen at a municipal level to force corporations into negotiations with tenants.

We have a question from the chat: Are any of you aware of any luck with any legislation or regulation approaches to just limit the size of a housing portfolio that a corporation can own? Has anyone even tried that?

Crews: In my state, it hasn’t been tried, and I don’t see it happening. I would love for that to come into play, but I don’t see it happening. Again, legislators have a tendency to say this is the free market, and it tends to stay that way. I know in my state, developers run my state, so I wish it could happen, but I don’t see it happening in the near future.

There’s another question about habitability, one of the big issues. Tony, you were describing it a lot. What’s the best way to get accountability for terrible conditions onto the books? What does a good accountability tool for habitability look like?

Bravo: For us here in Antioch, there’s a code enforcement department that tenants are supposed to report. We use that for keeping track for tenants. If they end up having to go to court, they have proof to say, “We’ve been reporting this to the city that these conditions have been happening and nothing has been done.” We use it more for those accountability purposes.

Once we do that, we also reach out to city council to say, “Hey, we reached out to code enforcement. It’s time we reached out. It’s been two to three or a month, sometimes even longer. No one has responded. What can you do on your end to get them out to the apartment to check out what’s happening?” That is something that we are starting to do for tenants so that they’re protected if for whatever reason they ever have to go to court. It’s another way to just hold the landlord and property managers accountable, and for city council to see this is happening in your own backyard and you’re not doing anything about it.

Lopez: Happy to chime in also. I think in my work, because I have the joy of working with people in so many different communities, I’ve again seen how it’s such a patchwork. For example, I think that tenants in New York City, for example, they’ve got this incredible database that shows how many violations have been filed against a particular landlord, how many of them are currently open. That’s a significant piece of information to have when you go to a pension fund and you describe why an investment in a particular company might not be a good idea, or when you’re trying to enter into a conversation with maybe your city council person or if there’s some kind of hook where a landlord might be seeking some kind of incentive. I also named this example in my opening comments about how there’s habitability issues that were so grave in this one Minneapolis suburb that this one landlord lost their license to operate, which is terrible in some ways. It’s terrible that conditions got so bad. It’s also a big problem because that meant that all of these tenants were suddenly displaced and didn’t have anywhere to go.

I’ve also been in conversation with folks in Chicago who were telling me that there, there’s more of a receivership-type model. Instead of people getting displaced altogether, a property then goes into receivership basically managed by some public entity until there’s a process to negotiate who should actually hold it.

I think there are all kinds of ways that this plays out depending on the market that a person is in. I think it means that we have to be really careful when we’re calling for some redress or organizing to make sure that habitability is taken into consideration so that we’re shifting property more toward community control and not unfortunately displacing a bunch of people until a landlord gets right with city rules and things like that. I think it is such a powerful measure because it is such an incredible problem right now. There’s an urgency and a responsibility to act that we should be calling on our elected officials to act on.

We have questions coming up in the chat. [Have] any of you heard about large rent increases mid-lease? Specifically, I think this is in LIHTC properties, because of the recent changes in census, changes in area median income allowed mid-lease rent. We reported on some in Virginia. There’s some other folks in the chat who are seeing it in other places, and they’re wondering if there’s any organizing happening around that particular issue.

[No answer]

It sounds like there’s an opportunity there.

A number of people spoke on the use of public funds. This goes back to our conversation around federal angles or levers. Emergency rental assistance is sometimes used to incentivize landlords to accept lower-income renters. Is this at all effective or are we just pouring more money into landlords’ pockets? Maybe some ideas around how one would structure those incentives to actually be productive for tenants.

Teresa: It’s one thing to talk about small-area fair market rents, which is the idea with the housing voucher, that there could be a higher payment standard, a higher rent allowed in different parts of the region rather than just the median payment standard used for the whole region, which can open up some access. That’s one thing.

There’s been other discussions of, well, we need additional subsidies to incentivize landlords to uptake the housing voucher. I do think that this offering these additional bribes for landlords to house people is really a dead end. I think what the industry has demonstrated over and over again is that they will prioritize control over their tenants, over their screening process, over their right to evict, over this immediate cash, because they understand their long-term ability to generate profitability is controlling all of those aspects of their investment.

I think that simultaneously using policy and organizing to build power in opposition to property owners, as well as market pressure—sometimes we think of market pressure as “if there’s more [of] any type of additional housing in the market, this will exert market pressure.” I think that actually you need a very specific type of market competition, that would be very targeted at the lowest segment of the market. It directly competes with the affordable housing or the private market sector that is serving the lowest-income renters. You need to really compete with the private market at that level, which is historically why public housing in the United States was sabotaged from day one. The real estate industry recognized its threat to its business model, that it would actually provide a better source of housing for low-income renters and then cut into that segment of the market’s profitability.

Any final thoughts?

Lopez: I just appreciate all of the energy in the chat. I wish I could have read everybody’s comments as they were coming in. I’m going to drop my contact information if anybody wants to talk about issues with particular corporate landlords or further discussion on how we fight back against them, I’d be happy to hear from anyone who is here.

That is great. I’m just going to reiterate that we’re in a time when tenant protections and tenant rights are being won in various places, and we have a long way to go, but the tide is shifting, and I encourage everybody, please to follow along with Shelterforce’s Tenant Power Returns series to learn more about that, both some history and some forward-looking articles on what’s going on now.

Thank you again, and I agree, the chat conversation has been really great. Thank you to everyone for participating and thank you to our wonderful panelists.

This article is part of Tenant Power Returns, an Under the Lens series produced by Shelterforce. Support this work by donating today.

Other Articles in this Series

Homes or Cash Cows?