Elizabeth Byrd is a single mother of six and grandmother of four who spent 18 years in and out of the Brooklyn homeless shelter system. She is also now working with other tenants to take action against law-breaking landlords and real estate brokers who refuse to accept tenants who use government housing vouchers to pay rent. “The discrimination they’re doing is illegal, and we can do something about it,” said Byrd, who is 50. “We are too determined to give up.” Byrd pays 80% of her current rent with a FHEPS voucher, administered by the city’s public assistance agency for families with a history of eviction or domestic violence.
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.
In the corner of a Dollar General parking lot on the southwest side of Louisville, across the street from the Nottingham Plaza Drive-Thru Liquor Barrel and an abandoned coin laundry, the Louisville Tenant Union convened for Sunday afternoon canvassing. It was nearly 90 degrees with the June sun beating down from the midday sky, so organizer Josh Poe invited the red-shirted union members to gather beneath the spotty shade provided by a small tree at the corner of the parking lot. Most have canvassed before, but Poe still walked everyone through the process. Today’s goals: have residents of Newberry Parc apartments submit comments online to the Federal Housing Finance Agency about rent hikes and poor housing conditions, and also to invite them to the next tenant union meeting.
By law, the American Hotel in downtown Los Angeles is supposed to be reserved for residents who can’t afford to live anywhere else. For decades, the building was a haven in the city’s sky-high housing market, where artists, musicians and people down on their luck could rent rooms for about $500 a month. At the end of the day, longtime tenants would hang out at Al’s Bar, a legendary punk and alternative rock venue on the ground floor where bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers played long before they sold out stadiums. But amid the largest homelessness crisis in the nation, the American’s owner has turned the building into a boutique hotel where tourists can book rooms for as much as $209 a night.
On June 21, New York City raised the rent for over two million tenants. After a pitched struggle over the last two months, the Rent Guidelines Board voted to increase rents on New York City’s rent-stabilized apartments. The increase for one-year leases will be 3%. For two-year leases, rents will go up by 2.75% in the first year and 3.25% in the second year. This year’s increase follows last year’s increase of stabilized rents by 3.25% for one-year leases and 5% for two-year leases, which was the biggest increase since 2013. After these two increases, tenants are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more in rent over an annual lease term.
Los Angeles, California - When a wealthy donor left four L.A. apartment buildings to his alma mater upon his death, it left the 130 tenants of those buildings wondering if they were going to be evicted or have their rents hiked. But on Jan. 10, tenants of the buildings in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood secured a major win when Boston University agreed to sell all four apartments to the Liberty Community Land Trust, which plans to keep the units permanently affordable. “Boston University accepted our offer because of the collective pressure we put them under as a collective, as a community,” tenants wrote on their Instagram page. “When we fight, we win!!!” The four buildings, World War II-era garden-style apartments, two of which are on Corbin Street and two on Clemson Street, were owned by BU alumnus Frederick Pardee, who left them to the school after his death.
New York City, New York - The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the critical need for affordable housing across the United States. As millions lost their jobs, many Americans were only able to remain housed thanks to the advent of COVID-19 housing policies, including eviction moratoriums and rent freezes. In the last year, as these protections dwindled across the country, tenants in Black neighborhoods have taken up fights to improve housing access and have won significant battles. In Kansas City, Missouri, residents pushed city leaders to codify a right to legal counsel during eviction procedures for low-income residents as rents rose 10% last year. In Oakland, California, following a years-long rent strike against a landlord who wanted to kick out tenants to raise rents, voters made it illegal to evict people without reason, a win against displacement and gentrification.
Oakland, California - Tenants of 180-unit Oakland apartment building Merritt on 3rd are collectively refusing rent Sept. 1 until the landlord meets demands related to chronic habitability issues. The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council and Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) present speakers and banners at a rally at the 1130 3rd Ave. building on Tues., Aug 30, 6pm. The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council formed in June, 2022 to address building deterioration, mismanagement, and high rent imposed by landlord Kennedy Wilson and FPI Management. Habitability issues resulting from the landlord’s neglect include a rat infestation evident up to the 11th floor; hot water and elevator outages; code-deficient fire safety; mold and sewage leaks.
Helping each of us fight eviction and debt as individuals in the court system is crucial. But that is only the first part of what we can do together. Filing an answer to Unlawful Detainer or responding to a small claims lawsuit helps us respond to the system, but how can we change an unfair system? How can we change a system that evicts tenants who cannot file complicated legal papers within 5 days, but gives landlords online tools to evict from home? How can we change a system that allows landlords to ruin our credit over missed rent? With consent, we also want to connect users to tenant organizing across California, and eventually, connect users to others in their situation - neighbors; those who share landlords; those on rent strike. Why? Because if I am facing eviction or debt alone, my landlord has power over me.
Gerardo Vidal, who has lived in the same apartment in Queens, New York, with his family for 9 years, recently received a $900-a-month rent increase this year. “It means having to uproot my entire family, given the fact we’re still having a difficult time earning money due to the pandemic and loss of jobs,” said Vidal. “It’s unfair that we are being basically forced out of places we lived in for nine years and that landlords can get away with this.” Vidal is one of thousands of tenants in New York and countless others around the US who are currently experiencing drastic rent increases—a trend that has been decades in the making but, combined with an inflation squeeze and systemic shortage of affordable housing, is causing havoc for renters. These rent hikes are effectively serving as evictions by landlords who know full well that tenants will likely have to move as a result, enabling the landlords to rent out units to new tenants at greater rates.
Tampa, Florida - The Tampa community has struggled for an end to the housing crisis since the eviction moratoriums ended last year. With this year’s midterm elections approaching, Tampa activists demand a rent control ordinance to stop the rise in rent prices. Enough public support can push the Tampa city council to address the housing emergency. Tampa is among the cities facing the worst of the national housing crisis. Tampa ranks ninth worst in the world for decrease in housing affordability. Renters in the city spend 42% of their income on housing, a 6% increase from 2017 during a time of rising inflation and stagnant wages. In 2022, affordable housing listings decreased by 46% while housing prices increased by 26%. More people in Tampa are at risk of losing their housing.
San Francisco, California - On April 11, tenant representatives from the Veritas Tenants Association gathered at the mailbox at 150 Larkin St. across the lawn from San Francisco City Hall. They dropped 15 letters to their landlord, Veritas Investments, the largest landlord in San Francisco and the subject of lawsuits alleging tenant harassment, into the mailbox. “We will show what it means to unionize the biggest private landlord in S.F.,” tenant Madelyn McMillian said. “We will be bargaining on a full range of issues affecting our lives.” The letters presented majority approval of tenant associations in 15 Veritas buildings and asked that Veritas formally acknowledge the unions under a new San Francisco “Right to Organize” ordinance, which went into effect April 11.
In February, San Francisco officials amended administrative code to “require residential landlords to allow tenant organizing activities to occur in common areas of the building; require certain residential landlords to recognize duly-established tenant associations, confer in good faith with said associations, and attend some of their meetings upon request; and provide that a landlord’s failure to allow organizing activities or comply with their obligations as to tenant associations may support a petition for a rent reduction.” They call it the “right to organize.” While the media and some tenant organizations hailed the legislation as an unprecedented expansion of tenant rights, in key ways the legislation limits its nominal goal and solidifies conditions that undermine mass tenant power.
New York City - “Get Russ out!” public-housing tenants from around the city chanted outside the New York City Housing Authority headquarters in Lower Manhattan June 9, demanding the ouster of Gregory Russ, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to head NYCHA in 2019. Russ, who previously headed public-housing authorities in Minneapolis and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has come under fire from tenants for his advocacy of bringing in private investors and managers to finance and run the city’s public housing, which has been plagued by underfunding and a years-long backlog of repairs. “He’s more considered to us as a hit man,” says Ronald Topping, president of the tenant association at the Adams Houses in the South Bronx. “We saw it coming before he got here.”
Like many cities around the world, rents in the German capital of Berlin have soared in recent years, doubling in the last decade alone. But unlike many other cities, the people of Berlin are actually doing something about it. First residents persuaded the local authorities to bring in a rent cap that instructed landlords to freeze rents at 2019 levels. However, that was overturned by Germany's federal court in April, which ruled the measures unconstitutional. Now local campaigners are planning something even more radical: a bid to nationalize thousands of privately owned apartments in the city. Specifically, campaigners want the government to take apartments from real estate firms that own more than 3,000 apartments, place them into public ownership, and rent them out at more affordable rates.