In our last blog post, tenant organizer Linda Soderstrom explained how she and 36 other tenants at her Minnesota housing complex fought back against an attempt by a new owner to evict tenants who were recipients of Section 8 vouchers. Soderstrom writes that her tenant group “stood up for the 2,500 of us and alleged ‘disparate impact upon protected classes’. Our power was in our voices. Our voices work in concert with each other. We kicked off an ongoing statewide campaign of community organizing.” In the end, Soderstrom’s group managed to persuade a court to deny the landlord’s motion to dismiss and negotiated a settlement with the landlord for an amount that was “the greatest of its type in the nation to date.”
Tenant organizing of this kind has led to numerous triumphs around the country in the last few years, from rent stabilization, to ensuring tenants’ rights, to enacting a right to counsel for tenants. In New York City, renters living in Manhattan’s massive Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper apartment complex filed and recently won a lawsuit aiming to prevent rent-stabilized apartments from being converted to market rate after the 11,000-unit property was purchased by the private equity firm Blackstone. After acquiring the complex in 2015, Blackstone planned to convert approximately 6,000 rent-stabilized units to market rate beginning in July 2020. In March of that year, however, a group of the complex’s tenants sued Blackstone, arguing that its plan to raise rents violated the state’s “Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act,” a law passed in 2019 requiring that all units with regulated rents at the time of the law’s passage remain rent-regulated in the future. Ultimately, New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert Reed sided with the tenants and nixed Blackstone’s plan to deregulate the 6,000 units. “Now thousands of our neighbors can plan on staying in their homes, protected by rent regulation,” said Susan Steinberg, president of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenant’s Association.
In Kansas City, Missouri, meanwhile, a coalition of tenant advocacy groups led by KC Tenants, Stand Up KC, Missouri Workers Center, and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom sought to combat rising evictions by pushing their city to pass an ordinance guaranteeing access to legal representation for tenants facing eviction. In fewer than three months, the coalition had succeeded, having found a champion for the measure in City Councilor Andrea Bough. When the ordinance finally took effect in June 2022, it registered immediate impacts. In the previous decade – before the measure was passed – tenants facing eviction had representation in only 3% of cases, while landlords were represented in more than 85% of cases. Tenants required to appear in eviction court would “walk in, lose their case, [and] get evicted,” according to Gina Chiala, an attorney with the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. Following passage of the ordinance, which ensures legal representation for all tenants regardless of income or family structure, “we’re seeing counter-claims on uninhabitable conditions…Now, cases are being dismissed or delayed because landlords are being required to follow the rules. When you walk into a courtroom now, it’s just a different day…”
In Miami-Dade County, finally, the Miami Workers Center (MWC) – an organization comprising mostly Black and immigrant women renters from Caribbean, Latin American, and African American communities – launched a campaign to persuade local officials to pass an entire suite of tenant protections to ensure the rights of the more than 500,000 tenant households in the area, many of whom were grappling with the effects of a supercharged housing market and rapidly rising rents. After a year of advocacy, MWC succeeded in persuading the Miami-Dade Board Commissioners to enshrine a raft of protections in a new Tenant’s Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights includes provisions preventing landlords from requiring disclosures of previous evictions on initial applications and mandating that landlords provide tenants with a “Notice of Tenant Rights” within 10 days of beginning a tenancy. It also requires that tenants receive 60 days’ notice when their buildings come under new ownership and allows tenants to deduct the costs of repairs they make to their units from rent if landlords don’t respond to requests for repairs within seven days. Especially notable is a provision prohibiting retaliation by landlords against tenants who make complaints or exercise the rights covered in the bill. Advocates were excited to learn that advocating for many provisions at once turned out to be strategically successful. “The organizers really pushed us and the commission on going after multiple policies – a whole package at once,” said Alana Greer, the director and co-founder of the Community Justice Project. “Prior to this, organizers tended to work on issues on a piecemeal basis. Miami Workers Center was bold, saying ‘let’s go for a bigger platform’. And they were right.”
NLIHC works to support tenant-led organizing efforts in numerous ways. For example, NLIHC leads the Tenant Leader Cohort, which is a group of tenant advocates and community leaders with lived experience of housing insecurity who work towards housing justice and racial equity in their neighborhoods and communities. The group helps shape NLIHC’s policy priorities, ensuring that these priorities mirror the needs of low-income renters, and it frequently participates in advocacy efforts. In November 2022, members of the Cohort attended a meeting at the White House focused on tenant protections and shared with administration officials their thoughts regarding how protections should be formulated and implemented.
NLIHC also hosts a monthly webinar, Tenant Talk Live, for renters and resident leaders to come together and share their experiences and expertise in wide-ranging discussions about issues facing renters around the country. NLIHC staff join the meetings to moderate and offer helpful updates on federal policy developments and advocacy ideas. (The next webinar will be held on February 6 – register to attend here!)
NLIHC also relies on consultation with a Policy Advisory Committee made up of renters and other NLIHC members for ideas about the formulation, direction, and application of our policy positions. The committee meets regularly to weigh in on key developments in federal housing policy and NLIHC’s policy priorities. Policy Advisory Committee meetings are only open to NLIHC members. If you are not already a member, you can join online. (The next meeting will be held on March 1 – register to attend here!)
Finally, NLIHC publishes a tenant-centered publication twice a year called Tenant Talk. The next issue, which will be released on February 9, will discuss various tenant protections and tenant organizing efforts to build power and advance renter equity. Past issues of Tenant Talk,along with new issues, are available here. To receive a free paper copy of the upcoming issue, sign up here.