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Tenants Unions: how to form them, how to use them, and how they’ve won

by | Aug 7, 2021 | Featured, Housing, Organizing, Spotlight

The CARES Act eviction moratorium has expired, but the CDC has issued an extension for counties where there are high transmission rates of COVID-19 under pressure from Congresswomen Corey Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet as the emergency rent relief funds continue to flow, evictions have and will occur.

No matter if you have children or a disability, are elderly or ill, you can be evicted, even in the winter months. Unless you have specifically lost income due to circumstances related to COVID-19, have properly corresponded with your landlord and applied for rent relief, you can be evicted. If you’ve been an exceptional tenant, once your lease expires, you can be evicted.

At a time where the housing market is booming but affordable rentals are difficult to come by, it seems that now is a perfect time to learn how to fight back.

Have you noticed that your landlord is slow to respond to your maintenance requests? Maybe the building you live in is falling apart. Are you about to snap because of a pest infestation? Do you go extended periods of time without heat or hot water? Or maybe it’s more serious: your landlord is sexually harassing you. You’re finding mold everywhere. They’ve threatened to change your locks. Maybe they’re entering your home without proper notice.

You may be surprised to know that you’re not the only one. That acknowledgement alone can snowball into an astonishing act of collective power that, together, you can use to fight back! It’s time for renters to claim housing as a human right. One significant way to do so is by forming a tenant’s union.

Organization can seem intimidating. However, harnessing your collective power to fight for what you deserve can be broken down into digestible processes.

STEP ONE – KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

You want to get familiar with your rights as a tenant in Maine. One non-profit that has made accessible legal education a priority is Pine Tree Legal, a low-income legal advocacy group specific to Maine. Their website has a PDF booklet outlining your rights, as well as several FAQ pages regarding specific aspects of your rights, for example: unsafe or unfit housing, types of rental agreements, evictions and COVID-19 specific rights.

For some tenants, understanding your rights may uncover violations that may have flown under the radar otherwise.

Now that you’re familiar with your legal rights as a tenant…

STEP TWO – KNOW THY NEIGHBOR

Find out if your neighbors are dealing with the same issues as you.

Knock on doors, send out letters or emails, post a form in common areas with your contact information — communicating can be creative, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all process. You may need interpreters, translation tools, or a middle man if you have interpersonal conflicts with fellow tenants. It may not be a perfect process, but perfection is not needed. Your intentions are simple: finding out what issues other tenants have and if they’ve been addressed, communicating your intentions to potentially form a union, and seeing if your neighbors will attend an initial meeting.

If you find that your neighbors would rather not get involved, whether it be due to time constraints, fear of retaliation, accessibility or language barriers, don’t lose hope. You don’t need every single tenant on board to form a union. Your goal is the majority, but you may start as a small group. Depending on the size of the building, you can opt to have representatives of certain tenants or entire floors. Don’t discount the complaints of a fellow tenant because they don’t want to get involved or are weary of the process. Try to make accommodations for those who are willing, but otherwise unable. For example, meeting in a place that is accessible to people with disabilities, contacting an interpreter, or requesting a translator.

STEP THREE: MEET AND GREET

Set up a time and place that is convenient for the majority, if not all, of those willing to attend. Communicate the location and date of the meeting via email, text, fliers, door-to-door, or a carrier pigeon. If it’s accessible to people, you can even host an online meeting: a Skype chat, a Zoom call, or a livestream. If you have no available common areas or adequate space, it’s possible to contact a local library, school, church, or rec center. Or you can meet in a public park.

The purpose of the initial meeting includes: introductions, taking notes, filling out a sign-up sheet with contact information (if those attending are willing), and a brief explanation of your purpose. You want to find out what issues are not being addressed, and hear out all of those with grievances, questions, and concerns. You might find some potential leading voices or representatives in the mix. It’s helpful to assign a note taker so you can share the meeting’s ideas with everyone.

You’ll also want to set up a time for the next gathering. Depending on the urgency of the issues you’re facing, this may be sooner than later. Overall, you’ll want to make sure that it’s clear what issues are up for readdressing and prioritizing. In the space between this meeting and the next one, you’re going to want to request any documentation of interactions between the landlord and tenants to substantiate your grievances.

STEP FOUR: RECEIPTS

Has your neighbor repeatedly contacted the landlord to have them or a maintenance crew fix a leak without a sufficient response? Ask if you can get copies of texts or emails that have been sent out, including dates and times. It may be helpful to suggest, from this point onward, making a point to document interactions with the landlord, no matter how small. Any documentation that fellow tenants are willing to provide, even if it does not seem initially useful, will make it easier to address what you’ve prioritized later on. If physical copies cannot be provided, or the technology to do so is not accessible, photographs of documents can be uploaded to a shared drive, a dropbox, or in an email chain. You can also utilize a local public library, if photocopying is available and you have sufficient funds, or ask one of the tenants if their employer has a printer that could be used at work.

STEP FIVE: PRIORITIZING DEMANDS

So, you got acquainted with each other on common grounds. You have documentation of common grievances that you want addressed and goals you want met. What do you want to address first? Is the priority based on the urgency of the issue — like preventing an eviction, fixing a leak, or getting the boiler repaired before the temperature drops? Is the priority based on commonality — the landlord ignores everyone (except to collect rent or threaten evictions), you’re sick of waking up with bed bug bites, or the locks need to be fixed? Have a discussion and take a vote – and be sure to take notes! At this point, you may have a person offering to facilitate the meeting. Facilitators ensure things run efficiently and help to avoid awkward silences or missing parts of the planned agenda. Note taking, shared leadership roles, active listening, and taking turns speaking are the small beginnings of a force to be reckoned with. The majority of your decisions on how to proceed may be wrapped up in the second meeting. However, that may not be the case. Be sure to take the time needed to effectively communicate to tenants, whether they’re participating or not. You may want to continue your conversations with other tenants outside of meetings to get a feel on what they think should be prioritized. You may have a third, fourth, and fifth meeting. If time allows for it, you may want to wait for further input from other tenants who are unable or initially unwilling to participate in active meetings. This is where note taking and mass communication become integral to pushing along your organization.

STEP SIX – TO BE OR NOT TO BE

When you’re at a point where enough people are on board to take some kind of collective action, ask the group: Yea or Nay? Unionize or no? Are there people who would rather address their grievances individually or in smaller groups, or are there enough people to make it official? Vote on it, record it, and then get out your crispy parchment and sharp quill pen.

STEP SEVEN – SIGNED, THE TENANTS’ UNION

You’ve formed a union, the atmosphere is filled with the sense of your newfound power, and now it’s time to pen a letter. In your letter to the landlord, you can include the announcement of your unionization, the reason for writing your letter, and outline your demands. You’ll want to cite any applicable laws and what steps will be taken if you do not receive a timely response. Here’s a great letter template page from the Autonomous Tenants Union of Chicago, IL. The possibilities are only limited to what your union is willing to do.

Other tactics to get the attention of landlords, housing associations, the press, and politicians are all in your wheelhouse. Your union may find that letter writing is not sufficient to meet your demands. Public pressure like letters to the editor, contacting the press, attending rallies, and holding public meetings are all useful to force demands for accountability. If evictions are looming with little recourse in sight, your union can form an eviction blockade to physically prevent them from occurring, whether it’s on the tenant’s property or in the courthouse. Some tenants unions have taken direct action like picketing at the landlord’s home. Finally, one of the easiest and most powerful tools to utilize is a rent strike. Oh, look, I found a letter template here!

Image from mainerentersunited.org

VICTORIES

Besides preventing evictions, increasing solidarity between tenants, and holding landlords accountable, tenants unions have successfully fought for and won relocation assistance, bans on one-way leases for month-to-month tenants, a formerly “non-negotiable” lease, and carrying out a rent strike. This list is not exhaustive and only outlines the world of possibilities once you and your fellow tenants decide enough is enough.

We can not sit idly by while people are pushed out of their homes with no direction. People have suffered too long with unsafe housing conditions, bad-faith landlords, infestations, black mold, and increasingly expensive rents. The power of a tenants union proves that, even when the cards are stacked against us, it only takes a little momentum to topple over the whole deck. Unifying under a common goal inevitably tips the scales of power. It all starts with a knock on your neighbor’s door.

Coral Howe is a member of the Pine and Roses Editorial collective.

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