Renters have had a hard few years. With skyrocketing rent prices, and COVID-related tenant protections coming to an end, housing has become a source of anxiety for many Americans.
Some renters recently have been trying to gain leverage against landlords by forming so-called tenant unions. Three made headlines in Sacramento this year as renters used the platform of a tenants’ union to draw public attention to their living conditions and rent hikes.
The organizations don’t have formal power to negotiate in the manner of labor unions, but advocates say the groups can help renters make a stronger case by working together.
“What happens when tenants connect with their neighbors and organize and connect with other tenants, whether or not they’re from the same complex is they understand that it’s not something that they’re doing wrong,” said Jovana Fajardo, the Sacramento director for the tenant advocacy group the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
Another renter advocacy group, the Sacramento Tenants Union, urges renters to communicate as a group and pressure landlords with tools like rent strikes and publicity. The group has an informal structure and no paid staff.
“We try to build power within communities that’s independent of the way city politics dictates,” said Thomas Murray of the Sacramento Tenants Union. “Just because something is written in law doesn’t make it right, so we operate on the premise that housing is a social relationship rather than a market one. We are fighting against the market understanding of housing.”
Critics of the tenant unions contend people who want to help renters might have more success by supporting structured nonprofits and advocacy organizations that can influence policy.
For instance, Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio has criticized the Sacramento Tenants Union over what he considers its lack of transparency. The group has not registered as a nonprofit and it has not registered with the state’s registry of charitable trusts.
“They’re raising money that’s registering with the IRS or state to raise money. They’re nothing more than a Twitter handle,” said Maviglio, who has worked for campaigns opposing California rent control measures. “They can say whatever they want, but they haven’t even done the basic paperwork so that people who donate money to them know it’s going in the right place.”
ACEE helped renters organize in Sacramento’s Harlow Apartment Complex earlier this year, after the apartment was bought by out-of-town investor Trion Properties. That union has since grown to include several Trion properties in Sacramento — becoming the Trion Tenants Union —after tenants connected with each other and recognized similar issues.
“It’s such a beautiful thing — organizing of people, helping one another coming out to press events, or sharing things with other tenants,” Fajardo said. “It’s beautiful seeing the community support each other and seeing the work that we’re trying to do.”
According to her, organizing helps educate tenants on how to counteract what he described as landlord hostility.
“Putting the request in writing and keeping the records — versus ‘I’ve told my landlord 10 times over the last six months that there’s a rat infestation’ when nothing’s been done — and understanding there are some system and some tools that they can use that are already acceptable to try to assert their rights is a huge first step,” Fajardo said.
How do they work?
Political advocacy is important for renter unions, Murray said. Both the Sacramento Tenants Union and the ACEE were involved with rent control measures that have failed.
The Sacramento Tenants Union takes donations from its members, but it does not require dues from people seeking their help. Murray said that members and those who are working or willing to donate time and money have self-accountability.
The association does not believe it has register as a charity with the state.
Maviglio, who campaigned against rent control and is a landlord himself, says that the union’s structure does injustice to other advocacy organizations that are working within governmental structures.
He generally agrees with organizing against injustices by specific corporate landlords, but he doesn’t believe that they are sympathetic to small landlords.
“They can rail against big corporations that own massive apartment buildings and that’s fine. And I think very many instances concerns are legitimate, Maviglio said. “But to make expectations for property owners that depend on rental income for their livelihood, and their family’s livelihood? It doesn’t make sense.”
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