by Christina Rosales, Housing and Land Justice Director
Whether we live in big cities or small towns, we all need a safe, affordable place to live. But right now, corporate landlords have outsized power over our homes — to increase profits they jack up rents, cut back on maintenance, and spend millions to block pro-renter legislation.
That’s why a key priority for our network is growing the power of renters to rein in abusive corporate landlords and collectively steward our homes. Our affiliates are helping renters join together, realize their power in numbers, and advocate for change. Here are some of the exciting wins from this year:
Organizing tenant unions: Contra Costa, CA
As housing costs in core Bay Area cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and San José have skyrocketed, landlords in the smaller surrounding cities have taken advantage. In the East Bay city of Concord, Betty Gabaldon’s landlord suddenly announced he was raising her rent by $400 a month. When Betty talked to her neighbors, she learned that their landlord was demanding higher rents from everyone — while ignoring urgently needed repairs and habitability issues.
Concord had no policies to protect against big rent hikes or unfair evictions, so Betty and her neighbors started a rent strike until the repairs were made. They won, and for two years had adequate repairs and no rent increases. But then a new landlord bought their building and evicted one of the tenants without giving any reason. After Betty organized her neighbors to question him, he handed her an eviction notice as well.
That didn’t stop Betty from continuing to fight for strong tenant protections. She connected with our affiliate the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), and soon came on board as a staff organizer. Betty and other leaders have been organizing renters building by building, establishing a tenant union throughout Contra Costa County.
This year, we’re really starting to see the power of this tenant organizing. In Concord, EBASE and the Todos Santos Tenants Union pushed the City Council to enact a strong anti-harassment ordinance to prevent the kind of abusive treatment Betty and her neighbors experienced. And in nearby Antioch, they won the strongest rent stabilization ordinance in the county, limiting how much landlords can raise rents each year.
Addressing local situations: Colorado
Deep organizing also helps surface and address specific local needs — while building the tenant power to take on tougher fights. In Colorado, as organizers with our affiliate United for a New Economy (UNE) spoke with renters, they heard over and over again about people’s cars being towed. Renters like Mayra Perez, a Commerce City mom, shared how she lost her car after it was towed and she had to choose between paying the predatory towing company or making rent. Landlords and towing companies were harassing, intimidating, and profiting off renters. Tenants organizing with UNE took the issue to the statehouse, winning a Car Owner’s Bill of Rights to rein in the abusive practices of towing companies, and keep landlords from using unfair tows to harass renters.
And through organizing to win protections like these, renters are stepping into their leadership. Tenant leaders like Christina Morales brought their neighbors together, met with city council members and state lawmakers for the first time, and joined us in Washington DC to disrupt a corporate landlord conference — taking over the stage to share their stories. They’re building the grassroots power to take on bigger fights for housing justice in the coming years.
Winning outside urban centers: Oxnard and Santa Ana, CA
Tenant organizing is most commonly associated with big urban centers like New York City or the Bay Area. But this year, our affiliates have been showing it’s possible to build tenant power and win real change in smaller, more rural and suburban communities as well. Oxnard is a community of 200,000 mostly Latine residents an hour’s drive northwest of LA, surrounded by agriculture. While corporate interests have historically dominated local politics, organizers with our affiliate Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) brought together a powerful group of renters to pass just cause eviction and rent stabilization ordinances, limiting rent hikes to 4% each year.
Similarly in Santa Ana — a predominantly Latine city of 300,000 in Orange County, CA — Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) has been organizing with community members for housing equity. They supported in fighting back against corporate landlords who were trying to undermine resident's efforts, and provided community members with education around rent control and support with sharing public testimony. As a result, tenants and housing advocates were able to push the city council to adopt a rent control ordinance, the first of its kind in the county.
Setting up future wins
These stories are just some of the tenant organizing wins from across our network this year — renters in Detroit, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania also have stronger protections against big rent hikes and unfair evictions. And perhaps as important as the policy wins is how this organizing sets up communities to collectively steward our housing and land.
Tenant unions and renter coalitions provide spaces in which everyday people can unite in shared struggle, build and wield tremendous power, and change the conditions in which they live. Working alongside your neighbors to negotiate with your landlord for better living conditions and fair treatment provides real-life experience with governing and shared decision-making. Campaigns for rent control and eviction protections bring together renters who might otherwise never meet, forging lasting relationships and training new leaders.
Reining in corporate landlords and winning community control of our homes are huge, long-term endeavors. But wins like these are laying the path, building the organized renter power to shape a future where housing is truly a guaranteed human right.