Spotlight On: Tenants Unions and the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy!

A conversation with Betty Gabaldon and Kristi Laughlin about fighting for our homes

By Kathy Hoang, Senior California Campaign Manager with PowerSwitch Action, Betty Gabaldon, Tenant Organizer with EBASE, and Kristi Laughlin, Senior Campaign Director with EBASE. Images sourced from EBASE and Raise the Roof Concord.

Kathy: Thanks for chatting with us, Betty and Kristi! The tenant organizing you’ve been spearheading with EBASE is inspiring. For folks who aren’t familiar with them, can you explain what tenant unions are?

Betty: Tenant unions are a group of residents who get together to amplify their voices and build power to get their needs met. The tenants can be in one building, or they can be a group of residents that live across a city.

We fight for things like essential repairs, pushing back against harassment by landlords, and stopping unfair rent hikes.

Kristi: Often tenant unions begin with a group of neighbors in a building coming together because they’re facing the same issues. They learn to unite and find power in that process. And then we’re connecting these building-wide associations, inviting members to monthly meetings of a citywide tenant union. That’s a space to grow solidarity with folks in other buildings and a greater sense of their potential power.

Betty: A lot of times, tenants think we’re the only ones not getting our repairs done or facing a huge rent increase. And we feel isolated. Especially right now with the pandemic. So once tenants start talking to other people, they realize they’re not alone.

Kathy: Betty, can you tell us a bit about how you came to this work?

Betty: I’m a tenant, and five years ago when I was living in Concord my landlord told me he was raising my rent by $400 a month. I really thought this was illegal, but I found out that there’s no rent control in Concord. That’s when I got in contact with Tenants Together, who helped me think about organizing my building.

I started asking around my neighbors, and I found out that all of us were getting the rent increase. We were all having a lot of problems with habitability issues too. We had bed bugs and my neighbors downstairs had rats and some refrigerators were not working. We asked for repairs, but the building manager didn’t pay attention to us. So that got us all upset: you’re just ignoring us, but you want more money. We decided to do a partial rent strike, to not pay the increased amount.

We told the landlord why we’re not paying the rent increase, we just wanted to have our repairs done. And it was really scary. We thought that we were going to get kicked out because it was something that nobody ever had done before. The newspaper and I think even Telemundo came. I had never imagined I’d be talking with the news.

I was scared, but I did it. And my neighbors did too. And we won, after a month of the partial rent strike.

The following month, the landlord told us he’d let the manager go. We got a new management company and we started seeing repairs. So I was like, oh my God, this really worked! The power of all of us working together.

We decided to form a tenant’s union, and for two years we didn’t have a rent increase. We got the repairs we needed.

But sadly, then the building was sold to a different landlord. Right away he came and gave my neighbor a 60 day notice. I went into his office with my neighbors to ask him about it. In retaliation, he gave me a 60 day notice as well.

He just straight up told us that there are no just cause protections for tenants in Concord. That he could just give us a 60 day notice and didn’t have to give us a reason why. So that got me more involved in this type of work.

I want those protections for tenants, so they don’t have to go through the same thing I went through. Getting evicted is worse than losing your job, because you’re losing your security. It’s so hard to find another place. You spend so many days trying to find a place, they ask for so many things. You have to make three times the amount of rent. You have to pay the first month, last month, and then moving costs. It’s really tough.

My daughter grew up in that apartment. She was nine years old and that’s all she knew. That was her home, and losing that was very traumatizing. For her, it was like, “I’m going to move from school. I’m not going to see my friends anymore. Where are we going to go? My mom can’t find a place to live.” Seeing her think we were going to be homeless — that was very hard.

So that’s how I got involved. I share my experience with other tenants, and I think we connect in that way, when we’re going through this type of trauma together.

Kathy: Betty, thank you so much for sharing that story, and for all the work you’re doing in Concord and all across the state to protect renters. I’m so curious to hear more about how EBASE first got involved in tenant unions, and how you’ve been helping folks organize and build them?

Kristi: Over five years ago, we formed the Raise the Roof Coalition to fight for tenant protections in Concord. At the time, EBASE was realizing the magnitude of the housing crisis for working people.

It wasn’t enough for us to just focus on workplace issues. An extra dollar an hour just isn’t enough if your rent is going up $400 a month!

We were seeing so much distress — renters would show up at City Council meetings and tell stories of multiple rent hikes in a year, bed bugs, terrible habitability issues. Betty was one of those folks, and I really credit her with grounding our coalition around these issues of housing justice and renter protections.

Still, it took us a couple years before we at EBASE decided to dive directly into tenant organizing. We’re used to hosting a coalition, doing research, developing policy, while others in the coalition do the direct organizing. But in this case there was a clear gap, so we decided to fill it — with initial guidance and training from Tenants Together who remain a great resource to us.

Luckily we had leaders like Betty. So we first brought Betty on part-time, and then full-time in 2020, to do the direct organizing. And there’s been no turning back.

Kathy: Committing those resources to organizing is so important. So if someone wants to get involved in a tenant union, how do they start?

Betty: Right now, everybody that is a renter in Concord can come to our meetings. As we’ve been doing outreach work for COVID vaccines, we’re knocking on doors and inviting tenants to come to the meetings, come learn about their rights and how to organize.

Kristi: Given all the challenges of the pandemic, we are trying to have the easiest on-ramp for people.

We’ve had to rebuild some of these unions building by building, and the formality of having elected presidents and vice presidents and such in the midst of everything is not workable yet. It’s challenging enough to get folks on Zoom, to meet with people in-person when it’s safe. So at this point, we’re focused on keeping our invitation open.

Kathy: What shifts have you seen when renters join together in tenant unions?

Betty: Getting repairs done is a big one. And when we say repairs it’s not cosmetic stuff like “Oh, I don’t like this paint, can you change it?” We’re talking about big repairs — like maybe not having working plumbing or a refrigerator.

For example, this lady, her toilet was not working and she asked the landlord to fix it. She was trying to get a porta potty to use while it was being fixed. And the landlord refused to get that and actually told her to use a bucket and dispose of the feces outside in the backyard. These are the types of stories that we keep hearing from tenants.

We’re also fighting harassment. Many tenants are experiencing landlords who just show up and enter homes without any advance notice, coming in anytime during the day. Some turn off tenants’ electricity, or their water. Some tenants don’t have hot water, especially during the wintertime.

There’s so many things that tenants are fighting for. It seems like every day is different.

Often when we talk to tenants, they really don’t understand how widespread the harassment is. They’re almost ashamed to share their experience because they think that it’s only happening to them for some reason and another. Or it’s okay for the landlord to treat them this way because they don’t have a lot of money. But it’s not.

Kristi: The gravity of some of the issues is shocking. It’s really abusive. One thing we’ve been able to do is raise the visibility of the issue of harassment over this past year and help tenants believe this is something they can fight.

For instance, we’re working to win a local anti-harassment policy. It went to the Concord City Council in December, but it was very weak.

And so the tenants stood up and pushed back and said, “No, we want a real one. We’re not going to set a precedent for a bad policy.”

So we will be continuing the fight and bringing it back to Council in the next couple of months.

And this is where the victories of these campaigns go beyond just policy. It’s about tenants’ deciding that they don’t have to put up with the abuse. And overcoming fear to push back and fight back.

I think that’s really been the power of the work, to bring people along and overcome the fear of their landlord, of retaliation, of getting kicked out. Those are all formidable realities, and that does happen. But it’s really powerful to see people push through that and stand up.

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