Militant tenants are organizing and fighting across the US. The Tenant Unionist Column, recurring here in Partisan Magazine, will chronicle these ongoing fights against landlords and other real estate capitalists.
Working-class tenancy has, for some time now, been a neglected site of struggle for analysis and public discussion.. Real tenant fights are often subordinated to shallow PR stunts aimed at convincing elected officials to “do the right thing.” Of course, most elected officials are landlords with competing motivations. Liberal reformers tend to frame tenant struggles as “housing justice” issues. This framing omits the basic fact that the entire system of housing under capitalism is fundamentally unjust. The Tenant Unionist Column will deliver news, analysis, and information on the tenants’ movement that opposes landlords and their political allies.
Commodified housing makes justice impossible. Real estate capitalists always search for ways to raise rents, neglect repairs, and dispossess working-class tenants. Backed by the private property laws of the capitalist state, most landlords are free to enact racist vacancy policies, harass tenants, and refuse to maintain apartments. The list of problems goes on. As long as housing is owned and operated by real estate capitalists, tenants will be exploited and dispossessed. The DSA Communist Caucus has committed itself to helping build a powerful autonomous tenant union movement, and this column gives voice to the effort. Autonomous tenant unions are mass membership organizations with democratic structures. They are not beholden to wealthy Democratic Party funders and political insiders. Luckily, there is now a national organization for the movement—the Autonomous Tenant Union Network. Economically powerful real estate capitalists have dominated our cities, towns, and suburbs for too long. To counter them, we must build our own organization of autonomous tenant unions to finally turn the tables and win. This column will report on the fight wherever it happens.
Our first installment features three unions that were initially constructed by DSA members: Greater Boston Tenant Union in Massachusetts; Lexington Tenant Union in Kentucky; and Tenant And Neighborhood Councils in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. These unions demonstrate that DSA members can build fighting tenant union organizations anywhere. There is now sufficient knowledge and understanding for constructing new autonomous tenant unions wherever we live. The mere existence of these tenant unions in Boston, Lexington and the SF Bay Area has changed the game for local tenants
, who now have access to collective power. In the future, you can expect to hear from comrades engaged in fights happening through dozens of other tenant unions across the US.
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Greater Boston Tenant Union, by Nick W. (Boston DSA member):
The Greater Boston Tenants Union is a collective of renters who believe housing should belong to the people, not landlords. We are committed to building leadership among poor and working people so that they gain the power to confront the landlord class. We formed in October 2020 out of the Boston DSA Housing Working Group as a response to the Massachusetts state eviction ban ending. Since our founding, we have helped form multiple tenants unions, such as the LaCourt Tenants Union, Alpha Tenants Union, Fineberg Tenants Union, as well as supporting tenants unions from previous DSA organizing efforts, like the Stonybrook Tenants Union. We are also engaged in multiple struggles against landlords in various buildings across the Greater Boston Area. We are volunteer-based and dues-funded. Each member pays $1-5 monthly to contribute to printing, communications, and other needs and we do not currently accept donations from outside individuals or organizations. This puts us knowingly at odds with the nonprofit industrial complex because we want to build independent working-class institutions that are not auxiliaries of the local and state Democratic Party apparatus which dominate most NGOs in Massachusetts. Currently, our organization is continuing to grow by creating organizing committees in buildings of some of the most notorious slumlords in the Boston area as well as continuing to support campaigns of our already existing tenants unions.
The Lexington Tenants Union, by Gary Potter (Lexington Kentucky DSA member):
The Lexington Tenants Union (LTU) is led by tenants in a fight for their collective interests and housing rights. In Lexington, as elsewhere, the relationship between landlords and tenants is inherently unequal, exploitative, and unjust. LTU firmly believes that every resident of the city has a fundamental right to housing as a basic resource for survival. But that resource is monopolized by banks and landlords.
Tenants in Lexington have seen the disastrous impacts of gentrification, discrimination, rent hikes, substandard maintenance, and housing instability. In Lexington, an average of 19% of renters face likely eviction. Those evictions are heavily concentrated in non-white communities. Those evictions are also heavily concentrated among a cabal of landlords, each of whom initiated more than 100 evictions a year.
A little less than two years ago LTU began organizing tenants to form an organization of power to confront landlords, land developers, banks, and the politicians who support them. It has been a challenging fight. But, in the last year, the tenants’ union has more than doubled in size. Members have engaged in eviction blockades, organizing buildings, and rallying against government-sponsored gentrification efforts, such as Tax Increment Funding schemes that displace the residents of our poorest neighborhoods.
LTU has organized in a variety of ways. Of course, traditional tactics like canvassing and leafleting are carried out almost every day. But the union has also rallied against evictions, supported our fellow Kentuckians in fighting against the infamous North Fork evictions in Morehead, and joined with other tenants’ unions and fair housing groups in a statewide organizer training program. That organizing campaign has conducted sixteen training modules, over five months, across the state.
LTU has also placed a heavy emphasis on social events to encourage organizers and tenants to fight back. In the summer months, picnics were held in a variety of parks in the city. As the weather gets colder those picnics have been replaced by pot-luck dinners combined with organizer training.
The Lexington Tenants Union is planning for a vigorous escalation of recruiting new members and raising public awareness of continuing issues and crises in local housing. That planning involves base-building, mapping, and direct action training modules. It will also include city-wide campaigns against gentrification, the role of law enforcement in gentrification efforts, and housing discrimination in a heavily segregated city.
Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, by Emily M. and Ines D. (East Bay DSA members)
Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) is a member funded, member led region-wide tenant union in the Bay Area. Inspired by nascent tenant organizing efforts operating outside of the non-profit industrial complex in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, members of East Bay DSA began their first organizing campaign in 2019. Working-class renters organized through TANC fought back against a notorious Oakland landlord, demanding a fairer, more transparent and consistent set of policies for tenants to replace departing housemates with replacement tenants—and won their demands!
Over the 2010s, collaboration between Democrat elected officials in local city governments, real estate capitalists, and the tech industry produced intense gentrification across the Bay Area. Hastening these efforts, housing foreclosures following the 2008 economic crisis transferred a staggering number of properties to landlords bought through cheap bank sales–particularly impacting the landscape in working-class Black and brown neighborhoods in the Bay. Through the last decade, harassment from landlords and slum housing conditions were often taken as acceptable consolations for working-class renters struggling to stay housed, while new luxury sky rises continually displaced rent-controlled housing stock.
As Bay Area rents skyrocket, local wages in the service sector stagnate, and public sector jobs similarly fail to keep pace with drastic increases in the cost of living, the need for a militant, independent tenant union remains clear to residents across the Bay Area. Since 2019, and especially during the pandemic, a massive influx of new members has generated a union with developed, multi-tendency leadership, working across political differences to grow a tenants’ movement towards remaking the places we live as for and of the working class.
TANC organizes tenants of major corporate landlords with hundreds of holdings across the Bay Area, local mom and pop slumlords, privately managed nominally public housing, multi-units, and single family homes. The range of projects the union organizes produces leadership informed by many struggles. At our best, we aid tenants struggling against unacceptable living conditions, develop their skills as organizers in their own fights, and grow the union from a base of members shaped by class struggle.
Over the last year, we’ve adjusted strategy as California state law passed a major bailout for landlords effectively ending mass support and resonance for the rent strike as the tactic of our time. Locals have experimented with a number of strategies as the union reconfigures itself for the next struggle. Members work to organize tenant-employees of the University of California, and other locals are planning outreach to tenants of serial code and rent control violators identified through participatory public records research. In what is an important recent victory, tenants of the Alice Street Tenant Union—who are part of TANC’s Central Oakland Local—won nearly $100,000 in back rent forgiveness from their landlord after waging a 13-month rent strike. Now these tenants are conducting a long-term project of organizing and maintaining the tenant union beyond this first successful campaign.
Throughout the past year, the West-North Oakland & Central Oakland locals of TANC have been working with tenants of the John Stewart Company-managed buildings in downtown Oakland. John Stewart Company is a private company based in California that works with government agencies to supply low income housing. TANC’s West-North Oakland Local previously worked with a building managed by John Stewart Company called Embark, a recently developed building for veterans. TANC came into contact with the tenants at Embark after various tenants received eviction notices and were facing neglect on repairs from management. Union members worked with these tenants to join TANC and to establish a tenant council. A demand letter was sent to John Stewart executives. After some agitation and organization, Embark tenants successfully won rent forgiveness from the company.
Following the Embark tenants’ win, TANC union members canvassed local John Stewart Company buildings and made contact with tenants at the Fox Courts apartments. These tenants were disenchanted with taking legal routes after an unsuccessful rent board petition. Management refused to address uninhabitable conditions and the building manager constantly harassed the tenants. After a few initial meetings, management began posting letters on the tenants’ doors addressing the concerns. Fox Courts tenants recently sent a demand letter, along with a solidarity letter from TANC, to John Stewart Company’s office, the building manager, and the home addresses of the company’s executives. This prompted the executives to arrange a meeting with the tenants. With the support of the union, tenants are now bargaining for a rent decrease to compensate for the past habitability issues.
Another recent development is TANC’s relaunch of the Unhoused Solidarity working group. The working group is focusing on establishing connections with encampments in the area, notably a large encampment based in West Oakland called the Wood Street encampment. This encampment sits on land owned by Caltrans and Gamechanger LLC. These unhoused tenants have faced harassment and evictions at the hands of Caltrans.
These vile efforts are backed by Oakland’s City Council, which recently instituted its “Encampment Management Policy” (EMP) during the pandemic. The EMP dictates where unhoused people are allowed to live by dividing the city into “high sensitivity” and “low sensitivity” areas and evicting unhoused tenants from “high sensitivity areas.” The city says that they will secure the evicted residents with housing, but the housing options on offer are highly-policed lots run by nonprofits and private companies. Tenants are not allowed to live with their partners, they must abide by curfews, and their possessions are arbitrarily regulated. Non-compliance of these cruel rules leads to eviction. These lots are not housing, they are punishment. TANC’s Unhoused Solidarity working group is currently cultivating solidarity between housed and unhoused tenants, and building tenant power with our unhoused neighbors to oppose the city’s ruthless efforts.