Interview | Organizing

Tenant Organizing in Unexpected Places, a Webinar

Tenants aren't just organizing in places like California and New York—hear about tenant organizing in small and mid-sized cities from Maine, Maryland, Texas and Kentucky.

Spurred in part by COVID and by a growing housing affordability crisis, tenant organizing is picking up, not just in expected places like New York, but in mid-sized cities like Austin and Baltimore, and even smaller cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Maine. Increasingly, tenant organizers are not just winning battles against landlords, but changing public policy. For instance, rent control was passed in Portland, Maine, last November.

In this webinar cosponsored by NPQ and Shelterforce on July 12, moderated by Steve Dubb, NPQ economic justice senior editor, and Miriam Axel-Lute, Shelterforce’s editor in chief, four tenant activists shared their stories of direct tenant organizing and policy advocacy.

The participants were:

  • Anneke Dunbar-Gronke, who works at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. They live and work in Baltimore, representing tenants, supporting tenant organizing, and developing community land trusts and housing cooperatives.
  • Gabriela Garcia, project coordinator at BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action), based in Austin, Texas. 
  • Wes Pelletier, a tenant organizer with the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has run campaigns establishing and expanding tenant protections in Portland. He helped establish the Trelawny Tenants Union, which represents hundreds of renters in Portland.
  • Josh Poe, a tenant organizer with the Louisville Tenants Union and a co-founder and co-principal investigator at the Root Cause Research Center.

The following is a lightly edited account of the conversation. Watch the full webinar above.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Thanks so much for joining us. I am going to turn it over to Josh Poe to tell us about some of his work in Louisville.

Josh Poe

Josh Poe: Thank you, Miriam, and thank you, Steve, for hosting. My name’s Josh Poe. I use the he/him set of pronouns, and I am really proud to be from Eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. I actually started organizing as a child working in tobacco fields. Child labor was still legal in tobacco country. We organized to get wages as children. From there, I started doing tenant organizing in Seattle with what was then called Washington Citizens Action.

I have a really strong background as an impacted person, deeply impacted by racial capitalism. I experienced houselessness, incarceration, substance abuse. I’m in recovery, but also have a really solid policy background. I was able to get a degree in urban planning [and] I’ve been doing tenant organizing in Louisville for over 10 years.

I also did a lot of policy work, but what we found in Kentucky is that without a base of people to really move policy work, that wasn’t enough to build power. In 2022, we felt like we had a solid base of tenants organized in Louisville to actually start a citywide tenant union. The Louisville Tenant Union began in March or April of 2022. We won our first campaign, and we now have over 200 dues-paying members and have a local campaign, a state-level campaign, and then we organized nationally as part of the Homes Guarantee campaign.

Dubb: Gabrielle Garcia, do you want to introduce your work in Austin and tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Gabriela Garcia

Gabby Garcia: My name is Gabby Garcia. I use she/her pronouns. I am originally from El Paso, and I have been doing various types of organizing since college. I’ve been with BASTA four years. I’m the project coordinator and also organizer here. BASTA started in 2016, spurred by dangerous and substandard conditions that were happening all around Austin. There were two balcony collapses around that time. At that point, people were like, there’s a systemic issue.

Other than direct services for people having individual issues, there wasn’t anybody doing organizing to work on the systemic issues. That’s how BASTA was born. Our bread and butter is organizing. We have two teams. We have our BASTA organizing team, and we focus solely on helping tenants at various apartment complexes, organized tenant associations. Then pretty recently, we added an additional team that focuses on eviction mitigation.

Both projects are trying to shift the balance of power that exists between landlords and tenants because we know tenants have very little power. We believe that organizing efforts in order to be successful should be led by those who are most impacted. I’m really happy to be here.

Wes Pelletier

Wes Pelletier: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been involved with tenant organizing for almost half a decade now. I’m not really sure how I got involved. It just happened. We started doing tenant outreach in terms of rights and trying to make sure that people who were at risk of getting evicted knew their rights. Then during COVID, I organized a union within my building, which is owned by one of the bigger landlords in town.

We built on that with my work in DSA. We’ve passed rent control in Portland alongside a slate of tenant protections and have defended those. Really, a lot of it is figuring out how to come at tenant rights and housing protection from both a policy angle as well as an organizing angle, especially when those in charge aren’t particularly interested in tenant rights. Very much excited to learn from my fellow panelists here.

Anneke Dunbar-Gronke

Anneke Dunbar-Gronke: Hi, everyone. I have three more days as a Skadden Fellow with the Fair Housing and Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. My personal background: I’ve been working and supporting organizing around Black land and housing issues for over a decade. I have a family history of displacement in the South and on the West Coast and Bay Area.

I’ve also been working with anti-gentrification organizers for many years in New York against Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville and Harlem, with public housing tenants in New Orleans with a group called Stand With Dignity, and also, with anti-displacement organizers in Boston. I share that to say that my background in organizing and all of these experiences and all of the things that I’ve learned from organizers over the years have grounded my legal work and continue to.

Since I began in this position [in 2021], I’ve been working almost exclusively in Baltimore. I provide direct representation of tenants in rent court, but most of my time is spent supporting Baltimore Renters United, which is a newer tenant-led base-building organization. I provide legal, strategy, and policy support, and also do some organizing of attorneys to support that work, in addition to some transactional advising of cooperatives and land trusts, in addition to some fair housing matters in other jurisdictions. Also trying to be available for impact litigation.

Axel-Lute: Thanks, all of you, for the great work that you’re doing. We have some folks here who are new to thinking about tenant organizing, [so] can you all tell us how you define what is tenant organizing?

Pelletier: I struggle a lot with even defining organizing honestly just because it’s nebulous, but to me, it is getting people together to do something that they might not normally do that benefits the greater whole. It obviously fits in with tenant organizing because these are people’s homes that they’re having to pay for and live in fear obviously a lot of the time. It comes down to a lot of the time building class consciousness and understanding that it is strange that this is the setup.

Then also a lot of it comes down to learning how to be in meetings and learning how to have conversations and learning how to talk to other people, which are skills that are less common than maybe they used to be, but just getting people used to knocking on each other’s doors whether it’s for asking for sugar or whether it’s asking for somebody to sign a letter or wear a button. Just that coming together and building a community while also building awareness of the system and how we can come together to make it even a little bit more equitable.

Poe: We define it pretty simply as just a group of tenants who’ve come together to achieve things collectively that they couldn’t have achieved as individuals. One of the things we really try to connect with with our members when we first engage them is the difference between advocacy, service, and organizing. I think those are three very distinct things, and I think in this country we conflate those three things, but they’re very different.

Organizing is really about power building, and it’s about uncovering our individual self-interest, and then building power based around those shared self-interests.

Garcia: Yes, 100 percent. I think that that’s the way that we did define it as well. Whenever we’re going into a property, people are starting off thinking—if they’re not talking to their neighbors—”Oh, this is only my issue.” Management definitely tries to make it seem like [it’s only you]. Let’s say there’s a pest issue, you have rats. Well, it’s your fault because you’re dirty, and you did this. But then you start talking to neighbors, and it’s everywhere. It’s happening throughout the complex.

It’s people coming together and realizing that what’s happening to them is a more systemic issue, and then working with them from there to figure out, oh, OK, we all have this issue. We’ve identified it, but now what are we going to do about? How can we find solutions that are going to help everybody and not just me individually? Yes, that’s a big part of it. Just letting people know that they’re not alone in this and this is a lot bigger.

Dubb: I’ll direct [the next question] to Anneke. How does tenant organizing build power?

Dunbar-Gronke: This is really just adding to what all of the folks [who] are spending all of their time organizing have already said, but from my perspective as an attorney the power that I have seen built… First of all, of course, there’s numbers. It’s in the way that labor organizing is really powerful because most people have to have a job in order to live. Most people have to have a house or are having an issue with housing or are unhoused.

Everyone has a relationship to where they need to be, where they need to lay their head, and so there are a lot of people that can be engaged to move things. I mean, the more people there are around an issue, the more energy there is around the issue, the more people are talking about an issue, and that leads to more people being willing to do something about an issue. I feel like that’s just fundamental organizing math.

As an attorney, I am often talking to organizers about the limitations of the law. I think that’s a really important conversation to always be having. I know the law can exert a lot of power over folks’ lives, and also it is so not powerful for supporting the causes of tenants.

I often describe the law as a tool for moving resources and moving resources only. It’s not a tool for justice. It’s rarely a tool for justice for the folks that are most marginalized, folks who are undocumented, Black folks, anybody who is not a wealthy white male landowner from, like, 1756. Those are the folks that most laws were written for. We try to pass better laws, we try to pass better policies, but these tools are very imperfect for that purpose and the thing that will actually shift the balance of power, the balance of resources, and redistribute resources into the communities that have been historically marginalized and excluded—it’s going to happen through organizing. What I try to offer when I bring the legal tools, where it’s my job to be good at executing the legal tools, I always want to make it in support of a group of people that is coming together and knocking on each other’s doors and talking to each other, and to bring that tool in the least disruptive way possible so that people can keep building power because the law is never going to do that.

Dubb: Wes, this would be a good place for you to dig into a little bit of the organizing in your own building. That was an instance of building tenant power.

Pelletier: Sure. This is when lockdown first started. We’d been talking about trying to figure out how to do tenant unions for a long time and had hit a wall because Portland is basically a biggish town. It’s the biggest city in Maine, but it’s so small. It’s like 60,000, 70,000 people. We don’t have a ton of services, and basically, people are just trying to keep their heads down. We have obviously no-cause evictions. It just makes people very scared. We had one tenant union that tried to form a year or two back, but it got crushed.

Starting in lockdown, it was very scary all around, both on a community level in terms of just what happens if my neighbor dies, or something like that, and also just a financial level, obviously. I and some others basically just started a Discord server, which is just like a chat room. I knew, OK, we’re going to try to organize around this, but wanted to first start building the community around it.

Then from that, with the help of some of the people that lived in my building, including a former mayor, we started figuring out, “OK, how are we going to engage with the landlord, and how are we going to start collecting demands?” We didn’t make a perfect tenant union, and we are still trying to figure out what it is. I think one of the hardest things is definitely creating a power structure and creating a sense of what it is.

It is more of a community now that sends angry emails and meets the landlord every once in a while. We are engaging as a service, and that part kind of kills me, but it is just like, “Oh, yes, we’re going to email the city and make them enforce this rule.”

Also knocking doors, trying to have dinners, have stuff out behind the building, and trying to thread those two things, while also trying to set an example and try to get people to organize their own building because we don’t have any paid staffers, obviously, in DSA, or really many organizations around town that are trying to organize tenants. It’s really just been trial and error and figuring out how to build power while making sure that people feel connected and bought in and part of the whole.

Dubb: Thanks. Josh, talk about the building of the tenants union in Louisville. You’re in a red state, so you might give that context too.

Poe: I think there are two parts to this question: How do we organize, and then how does our organizing build power? We really try to organize around self-interest as opposed to ideology. I think, in this country, when you organize around your ideology, you end up with a room full of people who have the same ideology as you.

We don’t necessarily have enough of those people to win. For instance, when we go into trailer parks, a lot of people in trailer parks, their rents increase, their trailer park is now owned by a corporate landlord. They see brown people moving into their neighborhood, and they tend to blame that because we don’t have the best public education system in this country. People don’t really have a way of explaining what’s happening to them politically, but they are outraged.

We try to connect directly at that outrage, and then bring them into a base of people who don’t necessarily look like them, and then uncover their self-interest and get them to understand that they actually share the same self-interest as these people that they’ve been told that they’re actually segregated from. Understanding that self-interest is really key. I think this is true of the whole country with the working class, but I think it’s particularly true in the South, is that we’ve been trained to be selfless, and we’ve been trained to give up our power over and over again.

It’s important to understand that we’re not really doing that in and of ourselves. That’s a tactic of the ruling class. Getting people to understand what their self-interest is, and then getting them to act in that self-interest, and getting them to declare that publicly is a real key part. Then the way we build power on top of that is getting them to behave as a collective. Very simply, the working class in this country, I believe, there are two things we have that’s real, and that’s our rent and our labor.

I think the real potential of the tenant movement is that if we can build a large enough base across this country, there’s a day when we can make the call for a national rent strike, and bring this entire system crashing down, and then dictate the demands that we actually want. I tell people, if you’re interested in environmental justice, if you’re interested in cultural justice, tenant organizing to me is really the thing that’s going to win and build the power in this country to shift the power dynamic that we currently have.

As far as the red state goes, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that in a place like Kentucky, it’s not actually a red state, it’s a purple state, and the majority of the population does not vote. We have voting districts in Kentucky where 70 percent of the people aren’t voting. At the same time, the Kentucky Democratic Party didn’t run candidates in 40 districts last year. We see that as a real opportunity to build tenant power in the South and connect with people around their material self-interest. I actually think that tenant organizing is the way we win in the South and in red states in general.

Garcia: We have a really similar approach. Yes, we don’t approach people with ideology, we try to meet them where they’re at because some of what Wes was saying, you don’t want to hear about ideology in the moment that your roof is caving in or whatever, you’re focused on survival. You need to start there, and then get people to see those wider connections.

Then going back to what Anneke was saying, I think … the way that you build power is once you have a tenant association, those groups can show up in spaces where they normally aren’t. If there’s a city meeting, and they’re deciding things about tenants, or if it’s a commissioner or a county commissioner, or whatever, tenants are never at those places because they’re working, and they’re doing things. Other people are deciding what happens in their lives, these major issues that affect them without that voice being heard.

What a tenant association allows you to do is have people in those places telling their stories, giving a different perspective, and having a voice where they didn’t have one before. That’s, I believe, another way that you build that power. Then, also, I think what both Josh and Wes were saying, the base is so important. You’re not going to have this successful tenant association or build real change if you only have two leaders, and the rest of the base isn’t engaged.

You need a group and there needs to be accountability and a collective thought process, not just like how do I fix my individual issue, but how are we benefiting everybody here, even people that don’t show up to the meetings? That’s the hard part.

Axel-Lute: That’s a great segue into our next question, which you’ve started to answer. The way that we framed this particular webinar was to bring in folks from places that don’t have these decades of tenant organizing like in the high-cost coastal cities that people think of. The question is, how does your location and the political context that you’re in affect how you’re organizing?

Garcia: I think Josh had already started talking about it. In the South, I like to joke with people that we’re starting from the rock bottom, and there’s nowhere to go but up from there. There isn’t a culture of organizing in the South. If you’re in New York, people know what tenant unions are, what tenant associations are. Here, you’re introducing this concept to people for the very first time, and so you’re dealing with that.

Because it’s Texas, we don’t even have strong labor organizing here. The whole concept of it is very foreign, and so you’re starting at the very ground. Then you have state laws, and just any little win, they’re repealing those things, and the laws are so much in favor of the landlords. You don’t have the right to organize in Texas.

What managers often do, if we’re having a tenant association meeting on property, they’ll call the police, and the police will threaten the organizer with criminal trespass and tell the people who live there to go home. This is just a normal thing. Not only does it disrupt the meeting that you’re trying to have, but it completely intimidates the people who are brave enough to show up to that meeting. Every time the police will always take their side. These are the things that you’re dealing with on a daily basis. Yes, we’re really, really starting from the bottom.

Poe: I agree a lot with what Gabby said. I think for organizers, it’s so important to do deep, deep research on power in their localities, and especially the history of power, and to really know who the most powerful people are, and how they’re making decisions, and what we’re up against. Again, I’m going to echo what Gabby said. I spent most of my life in Kentucky. I’m still learning about the political economy of Kentucky, and it’s been a lifelong pursuit.

Follow the money and really understand just where interest lies. I think one of the things that we’ve learned organizing in the South is that retaliation is real. We ran a campaign last year; every leader that spoke out publicly was retaliated against in some way by our local housing authority, and a private property management company, including one leader who got a brick thrown through her car window the day before a city council meeting.

Those kind of things happen. I don’t know what retaliation looks like elsewhere, but I know that in the South, it’s very swift, and it’s very severe, and there’s an entire apparatus that’s been in place for hundreds of years to prevent the type of organizing from happening that we’re doing.

One of the things that we’re able to hit on locally is to follow the subsidies. We don’t have [the power] in Louisville to take on Blackstone. Blackstone is our largest landlord in Louisville, Kentucky, large corporate landlord out of California. We can’t take on Blackstone today, but what we found is a lot of the buildings that we’ve organized get low-income housing tax credit money, get some form of subsidy from some entity. In every state there’s low income housing tax credit money [and an] allocating agency that provides that money. If you can organize enough tenants, you can go to your local government or state government who’s subsidizing those landlords and pressure them to make protections.

The strategic plan there is to get those wins. Then as you get the wins, you build up the stronger base so that in three or four years we can take on Blackstone, we can take on the large corporate landlords.

Dunbar-Gronke: Oh, there are so many things, and I’m going to try to keep it brief. I know that lawyers can talk a lot and I want to not do that here because there’s a lot of brilliance being shared here. I think just a few things. On Gabby’s point about, when you mentioned police, I had been thinking about the work that we specifically do in Baltimore City and in the different places that I’ve worked to support organizing.

I think that when thinking about the political context that affects tenant organizing, the intentional fractioning of Black community has historically disrupted the things that Wes was talking about at the beginning about what defines tenant organizing. Being in relationship, being able to knock on your neighbor’s door, being able to even see your neighbor. Mass incarceration, policing, the prison industrial complex, criminalization, all of those things have really intentionally destroyed communities and impacted organizing for a long time.

Miriam, [you mentioned] focusing on organizing anywhere but the big major coastal cities where tenant and housing organizing is happening less. I think it’s been happening [there] for a really long time. It was just more effectively dismantled in those places. I would say that the Civil Rights movement was a housing justice movement. A lot of the power that was built was possible because of some folks who had property, and there were places where folks could gather.

In Baltimore, there was a really powerful housing and tenant organizing movement in the 1960s. They got folks fired, they were able to mobilize to get a rent control ordinance that was passed in the 1970s (that I didn’t know about, and most of the organizers that I worked with, folks who were born and raised in Baltimore didn’t know about). It’s interesting to recognize that that was passed, and then the beginning of what we’d call the modern mass incarceration trend started right around then.

It functionally gutted the capacity of Black communities to organize because you need people, as we’ve talked about, and if a bunch of people are in cages, it’s not possible. When I talk to folks about defund, and abolition, and all of these things, I really just don’t think that anything that we think about or any of the changes that we want to see in policing and incarceration and in the criminal legal system is possible until we shift our relationship to property because the fact of the matter the property law system in this country was conceived of at a time when Black people were property and native land was just thought of as a place for white settlement and eventual takeover after the murder of folks who already were there.

I say that to say that we’re all living in this like really fucked-up system. I am really excited about what everyone has been talking about—the need to organize around self-interest. Sometimes I’ve heard that called a program versus ideology because ideology is inherently competitive, but when there’s a program, when there’s self-interest, there’s something that folks are identifying with each other.

There’s a lot of cultural organizing that I see happening that is so pivotal to creating the communities that a lot of marginalized folks had ripped away from them, rather, from all of us. On the power mapping point, I just want to offer that I think that that’s [another] way that attorneys can be helpful. Not everybody is a litigator, but … we’re all trained to be researchers on power structures.

I work with folks who are experts to figure out where the hell the LIHTC money is going, what is going on at HUD, who can we talk to at HUD, who’s the appropriate target at HUD to get the thing done that we need to get done in Baltimore City.

That’s another way that lawyers can fit into the political context of organizing in a way that I think can be helpful.

Pelletier: We passed rent control, we’ve expanded it. That feels like a win, but one of the criticisms that the law has gotten from immigrant advocacy groups is that the law doesn’t really matter if you are undocumented or there’s a language barrier because the city is not going to proactively enforce it.

Why stick your neck out? Just go find a new place to live or leave the city. That’s what we’re seeing a lot. Or just, you don’t have a house anymore, and otherwise, you have to navigate the morass of legal advocacy programs. What are you going to do? Email your city councilor? That is really one of the struggles.

People are asking in Maine, how can you get rent control here? I hate to shut them down a little bit, but it’s like, “OK, you’re going to be entering a forever war, basically.” We have a very strong understanding of how our city council works, and it is liberal-leaning leftist, but that’s not the case in the rest of Maine. But on the brighter side, tenant protections that exist in Maine, they were first started in the 1970s because a trailer park organized a tenant union to get a pool. It’s so much easier to organize if you aren’t in a mortal fight.

If you can come together and realize these small indignities that are piling up are shared, the trick is creating a system where people feel like it’s not weird to go and talk and hang out, and have that structured in a way where you are working towards something, and you are building something, and you are organizing. I don’t think it should be organizing to pass a referendum as much as that is the tool we keep coming back to because those are just so easy to fight, although if you can get it, go get it.

Dubb: That leads into our next question, which is really about what role can tenant organizing play in changing city and state housing policy.

Poe: I would add national policy to that also, Steve. When we talk about these issues, [it] doesn’t matter what issue we bring up, it’s a question of power. Tenant organizing can build power for working-class people. We tend to run two types of issues. We have issue-based campaigns, which were more along the line of what Wes was just referring to, say we’ve organized buildings where we’ve drafted fair leases, and then we’ve run campaigns against those landlords to get a fair lease. That’s more like a labor campaign, and you’re really organizing for a contract.

We’ve run campaigns where tenants have decided that they wanted a new property management company. We had a really terrible property management company in Louisville. People wanted them out of town. We ran a campaign like that.

Then we’ve also run policy campaigns. Those are the just two ways that we go about that. I think a lot of times those two types of campaigns are very different and they function differently.

The issue-based campaigns, directly against landlords, those are the campaigns where we typically see more retaliation against tenants. The policy campaigns tend to be safer campaigns, but they don’t necessarily build as much power and the base doesn’t get as excited by them. Then what we’ve also found is even when you win a policy campaign, as Wes alluded to, sometimes the implementation side is lacking.

I think the national campaign that we organized with Homes Guarantee is a really good example of how a national campaign can support local organizing. Last year we were a member of the Homes Guarantee campaign. We were part of the first tenant delegation to ever go to the White House in the history of the country. We didn’t get what we wanted out of that campaign, an executive order on rent control. [But] some good things came out of that.

One of the things that came out of that is that the Federal Housing Finance Agency opened up a comment portal where they’re taking comments from tenants until July 31, on things like rent regulations, good cause eviction in those properties that are federally subsidized by Fannie and Freddie. We’ve really used that to strengthen our base-building. A lot of the people we talk to are locked in hopelessness, and they’re locked in this inevitability of hopelessness that my rent is increasing, I want to move, but there’s not really a place to move, and they’re locked into that.

Being able to take a tenant to Washington, D.C., and put them in front of a decision-maker who has the power to materially change their living condition really helps with our base-building. Those tenants typically come back and feel a lot more powerful. The power that they feel translates to bringing in other tenants. We’ve been able to leverage our policy campaigns for the type of power building that we need in bringing in more people.

Dunbar-Gronke: One thing that I think I’ve seen in a few different places is that organizing offers a vision of what could be. Through really powerful direct actions, it can really show people what’s at stake. We want people to have homes. We want people to be able to stay where they are and be in communities because if they don’t, people are dying. People will die.

It hurts them, it hurts their health, it hurts their well-being, and people are dying. I think that the way that organizers and tenant leaders can just get to the point of what the fuck we’re talking about when there are a bunch of lawyers and policy people and elected officials trying to talk about subsidies and bylaws and whatever they can to obscure the issue that’s at hand when organizers, when tenants, with stories of what’s going on can show up and really cut through the bullshit, for lack of a better term, I think that that’s really effective.

It helps people like me who often are tasked with doing the translation and going to talk to the elected officials with their language. I’m like, “Actually what I’m really talking about is this tenant who came to the capital yesterday in this hearing and [said] that if you don’t vote for this tomorrow, they’re going to be unhoused with their kids.” I think that narrative shift and narrative capture is really, really powerful.

Earlier I said exposing more radical possibilities. If the alternative that folks are seeing is that organizers are occupying vacant homes or physically imposing— creating eviction lines to prevent folks from being evicted so that the sheriff can’t even get in, then when we’re having the policy discussion in the minds of all of those folks, all of those decision-makers, then they’re like, “Well, if we don’t do something, then more of that’s going to happen.”

I think instilling fear in the hearts of powerful people or people who are decision-makers and letting them know where the power really lies, which is with the people when they come together and come up with solutions on their own, because the government or whatever the powers that be are refusing to do so. That is what I have seen, and I think will continue to be the most impactful thing.

Axel-Lute: We’ve talked a lot about creating the community and the relationship and understanding self-interest that goes among a group of tenants. Have any of you worked in with groups of tenants who are not physically proximate?

Tenants who may have a common landlord, but don’t have a lobby to meet in, don’t interact in the halls, don’t know which doors to knock on because they don’t know who has that shared interest with them. Have any of you worked in situations like that?

Poe: We ran a campaign last year against the local housing authority and their properties were countywide, and we were able to organize all those tenants into one campaign. The way we did that was, we just held regular meetings, and we have a transportation team. A lot of people live far out in the county, [and] we were able to get people to those meetings. We were able to build a large enough base to win that campaign.

Axel-Lute: So providing transportation and doing the research to know who the base is that’s affected by the particular issue would be some of the recommendations.

Poe: I think one of the keys with that campaign is the base pushed us on that. I haven’t particularly pushed our base toward more of a policy campaign, but the base was very adamant about the campaign that they wanted. Since they pushed for it, they were more likely to be engaged since it was an issue that actually came from them.

Dubb: A lot of the work, obviously of tenant unions, is to protect people’s security of tenure. We’ve seen rising eviction rates post-pandemic. What would be the best advice you can give anyone facing a threat of eviction, and how do tenant unions respond or use organizing to improve people’s odds of staying in their homes?

Garcia: It’s a complicated answer because I feel like that was why we ended up creating a separate team that does eviction mitigation. One of the things that landlords always have hanging over your head is that they can evict you. Anytime that tenants are organizing, it’s a risk. We always want to be really clear with people, there very likely will be retaliation against you. In extreme cases … the landlord could evict you for any number of reasons or not renew your lease.

But oftentimes that undermines the organizing because when you start to see tenant leaders being evicted, that’s like the scarlet letter. Maybe people who are starting to get close are like, “Oh, no, I’m not going to touch that.” What we really try to do is, people who go through that process take it very personally, and they feel like it’s like an individual failure. We try to show, first of all, that it’s not.

This is a systemic issue, and it’s the whole system. The way that it’s set up, it’s not to benefit tenants. It’s not to give them a chance to be able to stay in their homes. That’s part of it. Then the other part of it is just that, in general, people don’t know what the eviction process is. They get that first notice on the door, says, “Be out in three days,” and they’re like, “I’m evicted. I get out.” There are a lot of self-evictions without going through the process.

The way that we’ve been handling it is that immediate need of keeping your housing and trying to figure out if you can get somebody to represent you in court, that’s going to take precedence over trying to organize because of the issues in your home. Here in Texas, your roof literally could be caving in and the judge is going to evict you because you owe $10. It doesn’t matter that your roof is caving, the conditions don’t matter, it’s whether or not you paid.

I think they’re both very connected, but sometimes because of the way that we go about organizing, that has to be focused on first. Then it’s different also, if it’s a mass eviction, then you can build the campaign if everybody’s being evicted and try to do something that way. If it’s them picking people off, it’s more complicated.

Pelletier: One thing we struggle with is if someone’s getting evicted, it might be too late. I think everyone, even if you don’t rent, just get used to building community, get used to talking to your neighbors, and be weird and go ask for something that you would have to run out to the store for, because once you start building those connections, then you’re going to start having those conversations.

Then also, of course, like Gabby was saying, if you hear of this, don’t move, right? Pay your rent, keep doing everything as normal, document everything. That only goes so far, in terms of the color of your skin or your economic status but there are ways that you can, at least, make it a pain in the ass for them to have to kick you out. The mayor who lives in Trelawny, he got evicted because he was organizing and he’s been there for the last two years after having been evicted because he’s tied them up in court.

That’s the result of a lot of different kinds of resources. Unless it’s nonpayment of rent, wait till the sheriff knocks on your door, honestly, because that’s your home. It does empower people to see you take a stand but also make sure you’re protected. Sometimes you do have to leave because the circumstances demand, but don’t be afraid of the landlord. Be polite and follow the rules to their face.

Poe: I’d like to add to that. I think both of your answers were so good that I’m going to stretch it out a little bit and talk about how we define eviction because if someone’s facing an eviction through the court, then obviously they need a lawyer. I think that everything everybody said is really applicable. If we define eviction more broadly and think about lease renewal, then obviously, if you’re facing that type of eviction, then the answer is to organize at tenant union and try to get a good cause ordinance passed.

What we found in Louisville is that we’re only looking at evictions that happen through the courts [and] drastically undercount what’s actually an eviction. We’ve defined evictions a lot more broadly and we actually have a lot of homeowners, especially Black homeowners, who’ve joined the tenants union because they feel very threatened with houselessness. What we find when we canvass is that a Black homeowner in a gentrifying neighborhood, the city codes department is paying a lot of attention to their houses. They’re dinging them for things like gutters hanging off.

If they get too many code violations and get too many fines, then they’re going to lose their housing. We see that as a process of displacement, dispossession, and eviction. We actually have a chapter of the tenant union called the Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance that wrote a policy. A lot of Black folks in the tenant union and specifically one of our organizers, Jessica Bellamy, felt like Black people needed their own space to focus on Black land and Black land repossession and wrote an ordinance that would limit local government’s ability to subsidize market-rate housing and housing that would displace.

What we found is a lot of the displacement that’s occurring in our neighborhoods is occurring because our local government is actually subsidizing market rate or subsidizing just below market rate, and that’s triggering rent increases. I think we need to really change the way we think about eviction and define it a lot more broadly in order to really address it. My advice to any tenant, like Gabby and Wes said, is to start building power with your neighbors to fight against all forms of dispossession.

Dunbar-Gronke: On that last point, Josh, I think you can be a tenant of a landlord or you can be a tenant of the bank—we’re all still tenants and there are lots of ways to build across. You might have more protections as a homeowner but, especially if you’re a Black homeowner, there’s all kinds of things that can happen. The one thing that I would add to the definition of eviction is it’s not [just] the person that’s evicted, it’s also all of their stuff.

There’s a bill that was going through the Maryland legislature this year. We called it the Landlords Take Your Stuff Bill and there are lots of different laws in different states about this, some states are better, some states are worse. In some cases, landlords can just take whatever you leave behind and if you don’t know exactly the time that they’re going to lock you out, you’re not going to have access to the stuff that you’ve left inside. That can include birth certificates, it can include lists of phone numbers for all of the folks that you hold dear. It can include all kinds of things.

I would add, don’t be afraid of your landlord, connect with your neighbors, get legal representation if it’s accessible to you. If it’s not, practice what you’re going to say, even if a judge is trying to interrupt you when you go into court, practice it in the mirror and be prepared to just tell your story, get it on the record, do everything that you can and show up to your case if you can. Tthat’s a really big thing that I always advise folks even if I can’t represent them.

[Make] a plan for your most important things—in the worst-case scenario that you are being put out—so that to the degree that you can, you’re not finding a new place and also, having to replace a bunch of important things that you’ve lost (or really realistically have been stolen from you). The law often doesn’t define it that way, even though that’s what it is.

Axel-Lute: This morning I was spending some time with the Northwest Bronx Clergy and Community Coalition. They have done tenant organizing for decades, and they’ve had a number of wins, but they’re talking about feeling like they were continually falling behind. They’re still doing their tenant organizing, but they’re also wanting to move toward shifting these buildings to cooperative ownership as opposed to constantly fighting landlords.

The end goal, in a lot of places, is community ownership, creating limited-equity co-ops and community land trusts as a way of actually really shifting the power dynamics. I wonder if that topic is on any of your radars or how you think about it in relation to power building and organizing?

Poe: It’s a huge piece of what we’re doing. We’ve been organizing in a public housing site. Our goal there is to form a resident management corporation and then eventually move that into collective ownership. We have several buildings where we’ve organized and honestly, if we could get the funding and could get an apparatus around, we could move those buildings into collective ownership. One of the things we’re really clear with when we talk to power holders and politicians is that we are giving away money and land to developers constantly.

The money and land that we give away could go to a senior apartment building, it could go to an apartment building, and then the rents that people pay would be put back into the maintenance of that building rather than to a corporate landlord in Boston. That’s something that’s on our radar. Also, the historically Black neighborhood assembly is really focused on Black land repossession. There’s actually a mechanism within the ordinance that they wrote that would allow families who can prove that they lost their land through discriminatory practices to then get land back from local government.

Garcia: I think it’s so important to try to decommodify land and we definitely need more and we need investment. That’s not just like in order to be able to purchase the land or the bill or whatever that is, but to keep supporting it after that. There’s a mobile home park that we have been working with for years, and they were able to successfully buy their mobile home park in the middle of the pandemic. They got a loan through ROC USA.

The problem is that they’re having a difficult time right now because there wasn’t good technical assistance. People don’t know how to run a mobile home park and so the management companies that they hired, they’re still management companies. Even though they are the owners, the [management companies] treat them like they’re tenants and don’t get things done. Without having the technical support to be able to run the mobile home park correctly, [there’s a] feeling [that] ownership [is] still lacking.

I think that we have to find a way to be able to do both, if we can get tenants to a place where they have a community land trust, or a co-op, or whatever it is, making sure that there’s ongoing support to be able to run it in a way that they do have dignified housing and it’s not just on paper that they’re owners.

Steve: Anneke, I know you wrote a bit about Baltimore and some of the efforts there, could you add a little bit on that?

AnnekeDunbar-Gronke: In Baltimore, TOPA and COPA (tenant [and community] opportunity to purchase acts) laws have been passed that give tenants the first opportunity to purchase if a property is being transferred over to another owner.

I think that those are great and that those kinds of laws have been used, alongside creative financing and cooperative funds, to transition some public housing that might otherwise have been privatized. I think in places like Washington, D.C., that’s been done, I think it’s happened in the San Francisco Bay area as well. One thing that is also helpful is organizing for laws or mechanisms, policies that get money moved out of cooperative funds, or land trust funds quickly.

The Baltimore Affordable Housing Trust Fund was organized around and got created and led to the creation of a fund that has millions of dollars that go towards community land trusts, and cooperatives, and affordable housing. The holdup has been that it’s really difficult to get the money out very quickly. Folks will have the financing, they’ll have it all together, they can have a great plan but people, folks who have all the capital ready end up having more power in negotiations around land and housing than folks who are waiting for a check from the city government or whatever.

I think that that’s one nuance I would add to the policies that might be helpful to organize for the purpose of ultimately getting to the decommodification of housing and land.

I think that the South Baltimore community land trust in Baltimore City is a really incredible example of a community land trust that is doing a lot of technical assistance for folks who will be first-time homeowners.

They’re working primarily with the folks who are in the area. We’re organizing with young people a lot as well but they’re also moving very slowly. I think that that’s also a thing that I would have done: know-your-rights trainings for tenants who aspire to have a home in the future so that they can have everything that they need, and be as stable as possible. [And so that they can] keep their stuff and make sure that they don’t end up in a place where a landlord will exploit them, or how they can hold on to their security deposit or get their security deposit back from a landlord that might try to keep it otherwise, because that can help with a downpayment on a house, for example.

There are lots of little different pieces that can assist in the pathway of getting folks from being a tenant to being an owner, like a homeowner in a community land trust. I know that housing cooperatives are a little tough because it’s one thing to have a cooperative and it’s another thing to have a bunch of folks who own something together and are now landlords. We’re trying to figure out a new relationship to property and that’s tough because we don’t have a lot of other models.

I think that those are some examples of things that are happening in Baltimore that are really cool and really powerful.

One other thing that I would add—and this is just a cockamamie idea that I’ve been thinking about a lot that is really interesting—is that there’s, of course, eminent domain, and we don’t always love the way that eminent domain works out.

There’s really cool organizing it in Baltimore City in a historically Black neighborhood of Poppleton. They have been fighting, tenants and homeowners together, have been organizing to hold on to that neighborhood, and fighting eminent domain. Cities have the power to use eminent domain to take all kinds of other things like sewer plants or incinerators that are poisoning a community and also, vacant homes that are being held onto by speculators or private equity that’s not being kept up and destroying the neighborhood.

In Baltimore City, there was recently a judicial docket that was created at the court for the city to bring cases against properties where the owner of that property has let the place go and there are so many violations and citations with fines attached that those violations and citations exceed the amount that the property is worth. Because of those citations and violations, they can just take the property rather than offering money to the property owner. It is just compensation because they owe the city the money for the citations and violations.

I think interventions like that could be really interesting because we don’t have enough money to get all of the land and all of the housing. No city does, no one person does and private equity has a lot of money but if there is a friendly city council, a land bank that could be taking property in that way, then handing it over to communities for their own development.

Axel-Lute: We have a question from the audience about how state and local government could empower or even encourage the formation of tenant unions. I’m going to fold in another question here on the government level, which is, does it make sense to try to get the kind of executive orders and resolutions that the Homes Guarantee campaign was looking for at the federal level, at the state level as part of a scaffolding up?

Pelletier: I’m very curious to hear what the other answers are. I know that one thing we struggled with on a municipal level is as an organizer, a lot of people ask me how to start a tenant union and it’s like, “Well, you really just need an email address but ideally, you’re talking to your neighbors.” Coming around and like, “Here’s what a definition is and then we’re trying to figure out, should you write that into policy.” I reached out to the autonomous tenants union and they very resoundingly said, “Do not have that defined in law, because then they can change the law.”

Like in [San Francisco] California recently, they’ve made it much more of almost like a card check situation, much more almost like a labor organizing thing where people have to almost have to do an election to become a tenant union. That kind of stuff is going to stand in the way of organizing. For me, it’s all about tenant rights, get rid of no-cause evictions and then other stuff like right to first refusal would be so cool, that kind of stuff, and just create more tools and more fallbacks for people that are organizing and more protections to make it harder for them to get evicted for no reason and let them grow and maybe have their own property.

Poe: I really totally agree with everything Wes just said. I’ll add, in terms of what makes sense at the state level, that’s really determined by the base of people. Our base has determined that our top two policy priorities are rent control and good cause eviction. We live in a GOP-dominated state. Several of our largest cities have the uniform residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which actually prevents rent control and preempts a lot of the policies that we want passed.

There’s no way that we could build out a statewide base that that would win the type of policies that our base is asking for in the next couple of years, but our long-term strategy is to build out a statewide base and run those kind of campaigns when we have enough power to do that. I think that really depends on the state, the context, and what the base is asking for.

I’ve been on listening sessions with tenant unions for years, and the policies that are proportionate to those experiences tend to be rent control, tend to be good cause eviction, which are the exact policies that the landlord lobby fights against the most. Like I said, any policy question really comes down to power. I know as an organizer, it would be irresponsible for me to drag the base of people that I work for into a five-year fight that they’re not going to win.

Garcia: BASTA has funding restrictions that don’t allow us to really engage in policy work, but I can tell you, in general, what’s happened here in Austin and Texas, being the wacky place that it is. Because of all of the work that’s going on citywide, just tenant associations, our city council decided to make a local ordinance that protected the right to organize, and it passed through our city council. Then now, in the legislature, they’ve become so much more hostile. You all may have heard on the news that there was HB 2127, it was nicknamed the Death Star bill, which preemptively took away local [control], like localities couldn’t make laws like this.

It was on the news a lot because one of the things that it impacted was rest breaks for construction workers and y’all have seen the heat wave, you know how hot it is out here, and something so simple as being able to take a 15-minute break. It impacted a lot of other things, and so we’re trying to see how this stuff plays out. Yes, it’s really messy and again, working in the South… it made me think of something that Wes brought it up. I think what you said was like, “It’s like a forever war.” Like we won this small thing locally just to get it repealed, and the consequences [are so harsh] for that small win.

That’s something that’s really difficult not only on a larger level but even just the specific campaigns that are going on at each complex. Like the tenants might win one of their campaigns and things are going fine for a little while and then a few months later, management changes and you have to start all over again. I think that’s a really hard thing because tenants, they want this to be over, they want to be able to move on with their lives.

Part of our jobs as organizers is to make tenant association something that doesn’t just spring up when there is an emergency, but something that’s always there, ready to jump into action, and that’s a hard thing to sell. It’s hard for organizers too. It’s exhausting to think that you’re fighting that forever war.

Dubb: There’s a question from the audience about a lobbying coalition, I guess in Georgia, that’s basically trying to preemptively say that the state can’t regulate private equity rentals. Of course, there’s a history of landlord organizations doing things like prohibiting local regulation of rents and so forth. This is not new, but Josh, you were talking a little bit earlier about some of the organizing you’ve done against private equity landlords.

There’s just been this huge increase in private equity ownership of property tied partially, facilitated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after the great recession. With federal backing, this was hundreds of thousands of units. How has that changed the terrain of tenant organizing and what are the tools that can organize against this and some of the legislative efforts that are being made to keep policy, out in a way?

Poe: I don’t know that I have a really good answer to that, but I can tell you what we’re seeing on the ground in Louisville. Like I said, Blackstone’s the largest landlord in Louisville. What we find when we look at corporate landlords is that behind those large corporate landlords, there’s some form of subsidy somewhere, almost in every case. Even when there’s not a clear subsidy, when you dig into it a little bit deeper— I’ll just give an example—there’s a corporate landlord here in Louisville from Austin, Texas. They bought up over 1,300 properties, mostly in Louisville’s West End, which is predominantly Black.

When we knock on the doors of tenants in those properties, we find people in crisis. We find eviction notices, we find moving boxes, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the 10 years I’ve been organizing. When we look into where those properties came from, they were sold to a local landlord for a dollar from our local land bank.

The land bank and our local governments are often in the business of repurposing land for the market, and so they’re putting it back out into the market at very low cost. Then that land is being used to displace and gentrify neighborhoods. I think the key in battling corporate landlords is to build enough power to stop the subsidies from coming in. That’s a real strong pull in our local state and national work, and that’s a real key in building a national tenant movement, working against how landlords are subsidized.

Axel-Lute: Josh mentioned this a little bit, but I wanted to throw it open to other folks. There was a question about working on in coalition or partnership with homeowners or small business owners or good property owners. I just wanted to throw that out specifically and see if there were any other stories to add to what Josh had shared.

Pelletier: I can say that in Portland, one thing we are low-key trying to figure out is how to get commercial rent control to happen because we do want to create more division among your ruling class. Landlords seem to think that they are the only people whose investments have been made lockdown proof, I mean a lot of businesses around town have closed. The Chamber of Commerce is our mortal foe, so we don’t really work with them, but trying to figure out how can we start to build this consciousness and come together and find allies, because at the end of the day, people need to pay rent.

Definitely working with smaller landlords has come up, but also a lot of smaller landlords are just as bad as the big ones.

Dubb: Josh, you were speaking about some of the similarities between tenant organizing and labor organizing. Anneke, I thought you were very persuasive in terms of the impact of mass incarceration and the need for abolition to actually address housing justice. So how do we make some of those connections more explicit and organized across sectors?

Poe: I like that question. I think this is really key and I’ll just give an example of where I’m from in Eastern Kentucky. I mean, Eastern Kentucky, people think of it as a red area now, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was as strong a Democratic base as anywhere in the country. That’s because there were labor unions there in the coal industry, and there were also subsidies for tobacco, and now that those things are gone, the GOP has been able to really exploit the contradictions in the Democratic Party and turn those states over. It’s important to realize that the GOP hasn’t taken over Kentucky because people where I’m from are necessarily racist or homophobic.

They’ve been able to take over because they are organizing and no one else is. If one group of people is organizing and no one else is organizing, then that group of people is going to win. They’ve been able to organize a very, very small minority, and take over the whole state. We really can’t go into places like Eastern Kentucky where you have 40 percent unemployment and do labor organizing anymore. We simply don’t have the numbers to do that. I think that’s where tenant organizing can really step in in the South and create a new power structure that’s very far to the left of the traditional Democratic Party in the state.

Keep in mind, it’s not as if the Democratic Party is not very much tied to real estate also. The way we turn red states around is through tenant organizing. We live in a world right now dominated by, completely designed, and controlled by real estate capital. We live in a world designed by Donald Trump’s father and so we have to organize against that power structure. Tenant organizing is the way to do that. It’s really about controlling the rent and creating a critical mass in this country of people that can, one day, decide not to pay their rent and then dictate our demands.

Axel-Lute: We have a question about how tenant organizing is funded currently, and how should it be funded.

Dunbar-Gronke: Something that we’ve talked about in Baltimore a good amount is organizing a homeowner solidarity coalition that contributes to fund the tenant organizing. I think that something like that could be really impactful if there are folks on this call who are interested in engaging homeowners handing over all of that unearned equity that you’re getting as a homeowner.

I say this as a homeowner myself, and what I try to do is pass that on in solidarity with the folks who are tenants, because if we want to be investing in our neighborhoods, everybody who was in our neighborhoods, not just other people who are homeowners … we always have so much more power in these political conversations locally and at the state level, and it’s absolutely unreasonable. The least we can do is fork some of that equity over.

Dubb: Two years ago, Shelterforce and NPQ did a webinar on social housing. There’s been a lot of movement in some places. There are literally three bills in California trying—who knows if any of them will pass, but they’re certainly being debated in the state legislature there—to create a sector of housing that is more tied to public and community ownership. I didn’t know if that was reaching any of your communities or if that’s even part of the conversation, but I was wondering how you’ve thought of that as an approach.

Garcia: There’s a tenant association that we have been working with that was owned by a county entity, and it was really, really bad shape. For a minute, there was a proposal . . . they were going to do mixed-income housing. Really, there was an apartment side and they were going to build up and make it more dense. I know for that community, it ended up not happening, they were really opposed to having their community changed in that way.

As far as social housing, I think it’s the way that it’s implemented.

If it was something new being built and people were choosing to go into that but in this situation, it was happening to them and they were very, very against it and they decided that they did not want that developer to come and work with them. It was just interesting for me because in theory, it sounds like it could work. It was such a strong reaction from the tenants who were living there that they did not want this.

Poe: I think funders should be really clear on what organizing is and the difference between a member-led org and the larger nonprofits. We have a lot of really large nonprofits in Kentucky and they have $5 million budgets and they were designed when the Democrats were in power to show up and stop bad deals by the GOP. They’re still doing that, and they’re getting a lot of funding. One of the things we’ve seen in Kentucky is that now that tenant organizing is a thing, a lot of larger non-profits that may not actually be member-led are co-opting tenant organizing, co-opting tenant power and getting a lot of funding on the back of that.

I think it’s real clear [we need to] to ask people if they say they’re doing tenant organizers, How many leaders do you have in your base? What’s your leadership development strategy? What training are you offering? How do you make strategic decisions?

If I go into a courtroom and pretend to be a lawyer, I’m going to get charged with a felony, but if a lawyer claims to be a tenant organizer, they get foundation money. We really need to get clear on what we’re talking about when we say tenant organizing.

Dubb: I want to thank Miriam for helping organize this session, and of course, our panelists Anneke Dunbar-Gronke, Gabriela Garcia, Josh Poe, and Wes Pelletier.

Related Articles

  • A sign on a brick wall advising drivers of a steep hill. The sign is all-caps black lettering on a white background.

    How ‘Tenant Stewards’ Are Using TOPA to Form a Co-op

    January 26, 2024

    Organized by a pandemic-era mutual aid group, this housing cooperative is taking advantage of D.C.’s pioneering Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. But the pressure of paying back a loan with mounting interest could stymie the group's plans to provide affordable housing.

  • A streetscape of a town on a partly cloudy day. Cars travel the main road toward and away from the camera. In the middle distance is a tall radio tower. Identifiable businesses include a laundromat and beauty supply store.

    A Fifth of This Town’s Homes Were Saved from Demolition—And Kept Affordable

    January 18, 2024

    The decision to demolish Wellston's public housing had already been made when residents and the mayor decided to fight for it, but persistence, luck, and a financing structure with some unusual twists brought them back from the brink.

  • Aerial shot of a huge hotel, 12 or 13 stories high, surrounded by mature trees, other apartment buildings or hotels, with a roadway in front of it. The building is shaped vaguely like a stick figure of a person, but with a C-shaped head.

    The Unfulfilled Potential of D.C.’s TOPA Law

    December 14, 2023

    Tenant Opportunity to Purchase laws empower renters to get control when their buildings go up for sale. But in D.C., the hurdles to becoming owners are many, and often insurmountable.