Making the Case for Tenants’ Unions

ACORN International Affordability Housing Organizing Poverty Unions

            New Orleans       In Scotland, ACORN’s tenant union chants “The rent is bananas.”  Affordable housing is a global issue.  Some cities concoct schemes to maintain affordable housing and block second homes and Airbnbs, but most don’t.  Few actually break ground for affordable apartment complexes or create equitable zoning rules to allow them.  Minnesotans voted for their city to devise a rent control program, but after two years have passed, there’s no action.  There can’t be much doubt that we need more organized tenants to demand change and stick with it until we win.

Several months ago, two US tenant organizers made the case for more tenant unions in the Poverty& Race newsletter.  Tara Raghuveer has gained a lot of attention for her work founding and directing KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri.  John Washington, the co-author of this piece, is a tenant organizer in Buffalo, New York.  Both of them are also involved with the Homes Guarantee campaign.   Their piece was appropriately called “The Case for the Tenant Union:  Housing as the Infrastructure of Racial Capitalism.”

They hit all the marks on the highlight reel that underlies the historic housing crisis and connects it to racial capitalism:  gentrification, redlining, precocity, displacement, evictions, continued discrimination, and more, but that’s only the preface for their argument that much is needed, but the foundation of change to address the toxic mixture of people and housing now is organizing tenant unions.  Where some readers might have been cringing as they prepared to hear more drum beating and flags waving, they make an inarguable and sober case that only tenants organized for power in their own unions can resolve what they call the “landlord-tenant contradiction.”

They offer an appealingly catholic argument for organizing tenant unions.  Many are single building based, but they recognize that some need to be community wide and larger in order to deal with big landlords and upscale gentrification developers.  Their experiences offer cases in point, but they aren’t dogmatic about what it takes to get the job done, which is not to say they don’t have an opinion, but they are writing to recruit for a movement, and want everyone to come aboard.  A good example in their piece involves the infrastructure and governance, when they write:

Some tenant unions raise money and hire staff.  Others function autonom ously and without paid organizers.   The specific structure of the union matters less than whether it is determined by its members.  Preciousness about process can preclude power; tenant organizers must remain diligent about creating structures that allow for democratic decision-making, while also nimble enough to assess, rearrange, discard when something isn’t quite right, or it’s getting in the way of exercising power.

That’s great organizing advice for anyone creating any organization, and especially a tenants’ union, to meet the challenge of these times.  No rhetoric, just down-to-earth practical advice on the nuts and bolts. The rest of their argument isn’t a cookbook of recipes, but an equally solid look at the hard work of building organizations for power.  A random reader stumbling onto this essay and going right to the back end, heart of the case for tenant unions wouldn’t go too wrong if they read this carefully, and then began to chart their path to building a tenant union that could wield some tenant power.