The Craft of Campaigns podcast highlights stories and lessons from issue-based action campaigns, beyond one-off mobilizations and single election cycles. Campaigns channel grassroots energy to win concrete victories, build winning coalitions, and topple pillars of power standing in the way of justice.  In each episode, we interview organizers about how a campaign unfolded, the strategy decisions they made, and the lessons we can draw for our current moment. You can read the writeup below or check out the full podcast here


Election Day brought mixed results for community organizers. But in Kansas City, Missouri, voters approved a $50 million housing bond — the largest infusion of affordable housing funding in the city’s history — that tenant organizers had forced the City Council to add to the ballot just weeks before. The measure also redefines affordable housing as units charging less than $750/month from the existing $1,200/month standard. This was KC Tenants’s sixth citywide issue campaign victory since the group’s launch in 2019. 

How did they do it? 

In the fall of 2018, longtime housing policy organizer and People’s Action campaign director Tara Raghuveer moved from Chicago to her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. She began working with three women, all tenants who wanted to make it possible for renters like them to stay in their homes during a time when the cost of renting was going up much faster than incomes. As Raghuveer recounts: "I asked them, 'Where do you see yourself in four years after the new mayor and council are elected [in 2019],' and all of them said, 'I won't be in Kansas City anymore. I just won't be able to make it here. I won't survive in this city that I love and where I want to live and die.'" 

Tara says Kansas City's local elected leaders at the time were mostly Democrats, but "the dominant political force in town is the development community and the Chamber of Commerce. They're all in cahoots with one another and every politician, regardless of party, is in some kind of relationship with them." None were eager to take aggressive action to make it more possible for tenants to continue living in the city limits. 

Tara says the choice to found KC Tenants "was a simple one.... The people closest to the problem were the closest to the solutions. So what we needed to build was an organization that expressed both the power and the expertise of people whose lives had actually been impacted by housing insecurity." Their long-term goal was to build a powerful organization of working-class tenants that could reshape the balance of power between renters and the for-profit housing lobby.

To do that, they knew they needed to engage with the rapidly approaching 2019 municipal elections. "The first project became making housing — not potholes, not trash, but housing  — the center of the municipal election that spring, and we did that successfully. But goal number one was actually to build a base. The intervention in the election was primarily to serve the first goal of building the base of our organization, not the other way around."

As an example of how that calculus shaped their day-to-day organizing, she points to the dozens of hours invested each week in preparing for the weekly citywide tenant organizing committee meeting. "Starting on February 17th," Tara recalls, "we had a two-hour tenant meeting every weekend for, well, the next three-and-a-half years; we still have a two-hour tenant meeting every Saturday. And that was a huge expenditure of time and energy in the beginning, to get more people there every week. It required the canvassers who were working with us at the time and the leaders who we had recruited in early and me to be doing dozens of one-on-ones with potential leaders every week. And that's time that, if we had been confused about our priorities, we might have been spending engaging candidates or writing policy documents or something."

Instead, they incorporated their base building and tenant campaigns into their election work. The weekly call to action, for instance, oriented members to the task of building citywide power: "They'd come to a meeting and then the next week, we'd be like, 'Well, there's three [candidate] town halls next week. Our plan is to show up and disrupt all of them and ask questions about housing. Are you in? Cool, sign up here. Here's a yellow shirt. See you on Tuesday at the public library."

Those meetings grew larger over the summer of 2019 due to KC Tenants’s building-level campaign work, which led to immediate changes in tenants' housing conditions. "A few weeks into our base building, we heard from some of our tenant leaders that a property manager, Landmark Properties, had illegally charged a fee to every one of their tenants to help them subsidize the cost of this new healthy homes ordinance in town... retaliatory behavior that was not supposed to be allowed," Tara recalls. "We put all this information on social media and did a public call to action for all of our followers to call the city's health department, the Mayor, City Council, call Landmark Properties, and demand that they retract this fee. And within 24 hours, they retracted the fee, put a letter under everyone's door saying, 'Our bad, we didn't realize this was illegal.' So little things like that demonstrated in a material way to the leaders why this thing was worth their time."


Elections as "Organizing Opportunities"

They also used the upcoming council elections as an organizing opportunity. "We did a forum for City Council candidates. We wrote a questionnaire and put out a voter guide. We did house meetings with each of the mayoral candidates in the general election where they had to actually go to the home of one of our leaders and sit in the conditions in which they lived, and do a really intense meeting with about fifteen folks from our crew that informed the voter guide."

The winners of the June 2019 election — including the Mayor — largely endorsed KC Tenants's "People's Housing Platform." Tara remembers: "The first night that the mayor was the mayor, he slept in the home of one of our leaders in a property owned by the biggest evictor in Kansas City."

After the new City Council was inaugurated that fall, the group's member leaders dove into translating their electoral power into policy. "We got to work drafting a Tenants Bill of Rights internally first. The Mayor's team was like, 'We can write it for you, our lawyers can draft it.’ And our leaders were like, 'Nah, we're good on that. The people closest to the problem are the closest to the solutions.' So we spent countless hours drafting our wishlist, working through some questions with legal partners, drafting the actual legislation ourselves, workshopping it with the Mayor's team and with members at the Council introducing that ordinance."

They quickly faced three big hurdles, two of them unexpected. "The real estate lobby came out against us, which we knew would happen. And this was back in the day when the landlords were, they weren't exactly well organized, but they were more willing to oppose us publicly than they are now." But KC Tenants hadn't realized many councilmembers wouldn't even read the bill they were being asked to vote on, instead listening to what the landlord lobbyists said was in it. They also hadn't communicated what they needed from the Mayor so that he could serve as the group's champion. As the real estate lobby’s lies gained traction with fence-sitting councilmembers, a pivotal November 2019 committee vote loomed.

What we needed most was our champion to be out front and say the truth about what was in this policy that he was the sponsor of, but he wasn't taking any sort of public position. And then, 24 hours before this next committee meeting, he delayed it another two weeks, which basically bought the opposition another two weeks to spread their lies. And we were like, 'Oh, hell no.' But the day that he made that decision, we were in a City Hall meeting with a different council member. So we went up to his [office] and demanded a meeting with him then and there; we already had 200 people organized to be at the committee meeting the next day. And most of our leaders had sacrificed to hold that time on their calendar. And we said, 'If you're not gonna do the committee meeting with us tomorrow, you have to do a press conference with us where you speak directly to the cameras and tell the truth about what's in this ordinance before they get another two weeks to lie.' And he was surrounded by twenty [of us]. And we knew his self-interest as our target: we knew he was deeply motivated by an opportunity to look good in front of the press and deeply scared of looking bad or looking like he was lying in front of the media. So we orchestrated this opportunity for him to look good and for us to get the truth told about what was in the ordinance. We showed up the next day [to that press conference] with the 200 people that we had already organized to be there. The opposition wasn't even there because the committee meeting had been canceled. And we got this beautiful moment where the Mayor is just speaking directly to the cameras about what's actually in the ordinance.

The Tenants Bill of Rights — which passed a month later — establishes a new municipal Office of the Tenant Advocate, protects tenants' right to organize, limits fees and security deposits, and makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants who have been evicted in the past. The group had also learned an important organizing lesson: “We had to get ruthless about our power analysis of our targets and especially our champion when he stepped out of line.” 

The group integrated some of those lessons into their campaign work early in the pandemic. After an eviction moratorium lapsed in May 2020, KC Tenants repeatedly interrupted virtual and in-person eviction hearings, including by chaining themselves to the doors of the county courthouse. Their efforts culminated in their "Zero Eviction January” campaign, during which they disrupted 919 evictions. (On the first day of the campaign, eighty tenant leaders blockaded two sets of doors outside the courthouse, nine leaders created a disruption inside, and fifty people disrupted online evictions.) As a result, many cases were delayed for months or eventually dismissed. 

That spring, the group launched the first part of a campaign for what Tara calls "our North Star": municipal social housing. That means “housing that's deeply and permanently affordable. It's off of the private market, it's publicly backed, it is not available for speculation." In 2021, they won a housing trust fund with an inaugural board that includes two KC Tenants members and is funded by $50 million in municipal bonds. The group’s next campaign win, a new tenant legal defense program, has supported over 400 tenants facing eviction in its three months in operation.


Building-Level Campaigns

The most important source of KC Tenants’s growing citywide power is the group’s ability to rapidly change conditions through building-level tenant unions, like the one they built at Gabriel Tower in the summer of 2020, after tenants at the 113-unit building had been without air conditioning for three weeks.

Tara tells the story, which is worth sharing in full:

They were in their parking lot on a Monday morning with a bunch of signs that Pappy, who would become the leader of the union, he had wheeled himself to the corner store and bought poster board and markers and handed them out to his neighbors. And they were out in the parking lot to protest, but also because frankly it was cooler in the parking lot than it was in their homes in this kind of big building where the air conditioning had been off for three weeks. Their neighbors were getting sick and dying. Right? This is a building of mostly elderly folks, mostly Black and a lot of folks with disabilities. And so people were getting sick. [KC Tenants] got a phone call that Monday morning as people drove by and saw all these folks outside with signs. And so we ended up there within a couple minutes. Gabriel Tower is like five minutes from my house, so I drove over there, got out, met the folks for a couple hours on the pavement of the parking lot. We wrote out their demands. I ran home, typed them up, brought them back, and then a team of KC Tenants helped them canvass the whole building and the whole parking lot to get people signed onto these demands. So by the end of that first day on Monday, they had a tenant union and the union had organized a bunch of press to be there. And had also [organized] hundreds of phone calls from supporters across Kansas City into Millennia Company's corporate office. So by Tuesday, Millennia put a corporate representative on a plane — in the middle of a pandemic — from Ohio to Kansas City. In the middle of that day, we, the union, did a meeting with that corporate rep and got several commitments, including to get the air conditioning turned on that [day]. We also did a little party in the parking lot cause it was still cooler in the parking lot than it was inside... It was a good time and in the midst of that, the leaders put on this amazing meeting and, by Wednesday, the air conditioning was turned on.

Afraid of further pressure from the tenants, the company purchased 114 window A/C units as a stopgap measure, and the group eventually pressured the new secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate the company.

These building-level fights have directly contributed to the group's citywide victories. The Midtown Tenant Union, for example, successfully blocked local landlord MAC Properties from receiving a promised $10.5 million tax incentive from the city in January 2022. The money was allocated to the city's new housing trust fund. The group plans to continue expanding its regional footprint into a citywide union, with the goal of recruiting five percent of the city's 228,000 tenants as dues-paying members. (As of August, the group had 4,500 dues-paying members, counting 450 member leaders with specific roles.) Along with flexing its collective bargaining power to win better living conditions, KC Tenants has also experimented with offering other membership benefits; like many traditional unions, they've negotiated discounts at local coffee shops, a yoga studio, and other small businesses.

But, Tara says, their primary organizational growth edge is figuring out not just how to build up to their recruitment goal but "how to build at scale without sacrificing depth and be really thoughtful about wielding power. What does thousands more members in our union actually get us if we don't know how to wield that power? So a lot of this year has been asking those questions and experimenting with our ideas about what the answers might be." To help answer that question, the group launched a 501c4 sibling organization in Fall 2022. "Part of a much bigger game of chess," she says. "If we're ever to win that 'North Star,' [we'll need] real champions who are our own people calling the shots... people who are thinking of the city's budget as the moral document that it is and wielding that budget to house the people rather than harm the people, which is kind of how our budget is currently wielded."


Lessons for Campaigners: Be "Ruthless” About Base Building

When asked about why she thinks Kansas City's tenants have won so many protections in the last three years, Tara points to the group's base building work. "It's important for me to say, I don't think there was a secret sauce. I don't think there was really a magic to it. It was just good organizing."

As to how the group’s style of base building might set it apart from organizational peers, she points to their willingness to be "ruthless." She explains: "I see a lot of organizers hesitate to invite people into this work, and I actually find that to be...patronizing. I see a lot of organizers making choices for people about how they are going to spend their time on a path to their own liberation instead of inviting them to make a choice for themselves, which is a choice to build power with their neighbors and to win shit that's gonna change their lives for the better. So I do think there's just like a ruthlessness around base building that is part of our organizational DNA now.” 

She also identifies the group's culture of learning as another core ingredient to their success and one reason they've been able to recruit so many members into the organization. "Every time we set out to run one of those campaigns, one of the first things that we do is write out all of our desired outcomes. Desired outcome number one is the material win; maybe desired outcome number two is like, 'This is the number of leaders we want plugged into this number of roles. This is the number of new leaders we want to recruit into the organization through this campaign.' At the end of the campaign, at the end of every meeting, we evaluate everything. We actually look back on that and say: Did we have 13 new leaders in these stretch roles? Did we recruit 50 tenants who had never interacted with KC Tenants yet into our organization? If not, why not? Were we relying too much on the people that we already have? Was it too staff-driven? That's another big pitfall, right? Basically this is all to say, I think we're very clear on power. Power equals organized people plus organized money. We have a lot of people to organize."


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