Organizing a Tenants Union

There really is power in numbers! Organized tenants can address building-wide or complex-wide problems more effectively than individual tenants.

The most effective power tenants have is people
. The thought of trying to fight a big landlord can be overwhelming.  Not only does the landlord have the economic advantage, but also the support, in most cases, of government officials, the law and the courts.  Strength in numbers is the only way tenants can build the political and economic power needed to win decent housing.  To use our numbers effectively, tenants must be able to organize and act collectively.  One tenant withholding the rent can make a difference; one hundred tenants going on rent strike can make things change.

If there are things wrong with your apartment, most likely other tenants in your building or complex have similar problems.  When tenants join together to demand solutions to these problems, the landlord is confronted with a greater economic threat and will probably be more willing to reach a quick settlement.  There is also less chance for retaliation, since there is a greater threat to the landlord's power and income.  To form a tenant's association, all you really need is the desire to do it and basic information found in places like this article.  The key is setting clear, reasonable, and well-defined goals.

Communications: Tenants should hold an initial meeting to talk about common problems. The next step should be a general meeting in which all tenants are invited to attend and discuss the major issues that brought them out.  Leaflets are often a good means of communication -- to announce meetings, discuss the issues involved, educate other tenants and keep everyone posted on what's happening.  Personal contact is essential.

Collective Leadership:  Broad-based, collective leadership is essential for maintaining a strong tenant association.  Some groups have fallen apart because too much power was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.  Most tenant groups revolve around a core of individuals who have the trust of the larger group. This core must be able to draw on larger numbers at appropriate times.  Don't be discouraged if only a small group shows up to key meetings.  The important thing is not to exclude anyone from the core group and to learn when and how to involve your less committed allies.

Choosing issues: One of the most important steps is finding the right issue, one that will motivate people to act.  In most buildings, issues arise which could provide the catalyst needed to start a tenant organization. The best kind of organizing issues are ones that affect lots of people, and are seen as a general problem that can't be avoided.  Usually rent increases and poor conditions are the most successful issues that tenants have organized around. People may also be interested in issues such as security, parking policies, groundskeeping, etc.  The group's goals should be considered as part of a longer-term plan for the tenant association.  A tenant association can be a good means of developing a community within what was once just a row of houses.

Dues and funding
:  Money will be needed to keep the group going. Expenses may include printing or photocopying leaflets, postage, telephone calls, and legal fees.  Monthly or annual dues, raffles, and interest on withheld rent money can all be sources of funds.

Publicity and support
:  Make efforts to present your case to the larger community through the media.  Contact newspapers and TV and radio stations to announce the formation of your tenant association and why you have decided to organize.  Media contacts and coverage are especially useful when you're about to launch a specific campaign, such as a rent strike.  It's a good idea to write your own press releases for these events and not rely on the media's interpretations.  Also, select one or two spokespersons for the group to whom you can direct reporters for statements.

Aside from publicly embarrassing your own landlord, your story in the media may inspire other groups of tenants to join together in a similar struggle. You may also find other people to support your efforts.  A citywide tenant  organization can help you organize, devise strategies, understand local housing laws and bureaucracies, or even provide direct support for your organizing campaign.

Direct Action: Use your imagination to plan direct actions as part of an organizing campaign.  These can range from circulating a petition demanding better conditions to be presented to the landlord, to picketing the landlord's downtown office to bring her or him negative publicity.  In planning direct actions, consider how concerned the general tenant population is with particular issues, how many people are likely to participate, etc.  Is your action intended to demonstrate your strength, or to persuade or do economic harm to the landlord?  It is important to have clear goals.

Other forms of direct action include building-wide rent strikes, payment of the whole building's rent in pennies to demonstrate the unity and potential economic impact of the group, stopping an eviction by putting a tenant's belongings back in the apartment as quickly as the bailiff can remove them, etc.

Collective Bargaining: Similar to collective bargaining agreements of organized labor, a landlord may agree to bargain with a group of tenants through a master contract. The bargaining unit may be a group of tenants in one building, tenants from several buildings owned by one landlord, or a union of tenants of a number of landlords.  Such agreements can include distribution of unpaid rent, provisions for repairs, alteration of lease provisions and negotiations on new leases.

To learn more about housing rights in Michigan and where to get help:    

Consult the website for local housing resources and tenant counseling services. 

Consult the website for legal education articles and local service information.

If you received court papers or otherwise need free or low cost legal advice:

This information was taken in part from an article adapted from TENANTS FIRST: A Research and Organizing Guide to FHA Housing, based on the experiences of over 1,800 tenants from eight tenants' unions in the Tenants First Coalition in Boston. The article originally appeared in SHELTERFORCE, Volume 2, Number 3.

This article appears courtesy of the Michigan Tenant Counseling Program.