Tenant organizing has been one of the bright spots of organizing during COVID. With families across the country facing evictions, organizers have shut down eviction courts, engaged in on-the-ground defense of tenants facing evictions, and passed significant tenant protection legislation. This past fall, organizers in Saint Paul, Minnesota, won a campaign to pass the strongest rent control initiative in the country, with annual rent increases capped at three percent. 

To learn more about how tenant organizers are thinking about the challenges and opportunities of this moment, I sat down with Cea Weaver of Housing Justice for All, René Moya of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the Los Angeles Tenants Union, B. Rosas of the Minnesota Youth Collective, and Meg Daly of the Housing Justice Center. We talked about the path to decommodifying housing, the false promise of increasing housing supply, and what the recent victory in Saint Paul, Minnesota, means for the future of tenant organizing in the city — and across the country.  The interview has been edited and condensed. 


Jeff Ordower: Let’s start by talking about what we’re fighting for. Is it housing as a human right? Is it decommodification of housing? 

René Moya: Housing is a basic fundamental need that everyone requires to be able to live a decent and rewarding life. Without the basics of housing — that is permanent, that we control — we are lacking in that element of stability that can allow us to flourish as human beings. The question of how we get there starts to open up the conversations of decommodification. We don't get to housing as a human right without an end to the housing market as we know it.

I grew up in LA, a place that has fairly decent rent control, but nowhere near as good as it could be. It is still limited by state laws that basically say that we cannot cover certain types of units, units built after a certain year. It means that we do not have rent control on the unit itself, but rather on the lease or the tenancy. And so for that reason, I'm supremely jealous of what Saint Paul just achieved. But one of the lessons that I took away was to start thinking about how they organized to win rent control in the 1970s here: who it was, what was the coalition of interests that actually came together to win it? But also, what did they do with it when they won? And the response to that is probably: not that much, right? We basically thought that the reform itself was going to be enough. There was no longstanding rent control-defending organization that was left behind as a result of the passage of the LARSO [the City of L.A.’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance]. There was no major tenant union that was willing to fight beyond rent control. And so the battle for rent stabilization ended up exhausting itself without setting up the conditions for a broader tenants rights movement. 

B. Rosas: That’s where we're at in terms of Housing Equity Now Saint Paul [HENS]. It's obvious that our policy is a very, very strong one. And so, of course, a lot of elected officials are going to try to water it down as much as possible, or at least slow down the implementation of the policy. And so what we're trying to do now is make sure that the implementation process is going in accordance to what the voters voted for and not what elected officials want. My hope is that once we figure out a plan for post-election, we're able to have these deeper conversations as to how to get more people involved and taking leadership in their communities. 

Cea Weaver: In New York, we're really thinking about how we can build a state that is free from evictions, homelessness, and housing insecurity and where residents themselves — and not the real estate industry — are collectively and democratically controlling the housing market. And people have abundant access to housing as something that unlocks all the other things that you need — healthcare, education, and other types of social services. And for us, that really means that we have to move away from using homes as a vehicle for private profit, period. Home ownership is such a drug, right? And the reality is you have to become a homeowner in this country if you don't want to die in poverty. It is synonymous with your end-of-life care. It is synonymous with your healthcare, your ability to send your kid to college. That really has not worked for people of color, and it's also not working for young, downwardly-mobile, white millennials either. That's why I think rent control is having its time in the sun. There's a combination of the older women of color who have led the housing movement for so long joining forces with a more racially diverse, multigenerational movement that's propelling rent control into the top of the discourse.

But in order to really achieve the social housing vision, what we think about is: how are we fighting for policies that could do three things? The first is policies that build the capacity of working-class and poor people to organize collectively. So, the right to a tenant union, the right to renew your lease, policies that actually provide and encourage people to get organized. The second is policies that increase the capacity of the state to serve the needs of our people. So, rent control but also taxing the wealthy, anti-austerity measures, building truly affordable, new low-income housing. And the reason that we want to do that is because we also want to fight for policies that rehabilitate the role that the state plays in our lives. So many of our folks understand the state as a militaristic one or one that is responsible for evictions or the violence of the police department, for example. And so, third, we want to fight for policies that increase the capacity of the state as a site of compassion and reduce the capacity of the state as a site of violence.


Ordower: What's your model of tenant organizing and building tenant power? What's working and what are some challenges?

Meg Daly: Traditionally, HENS has activated people from the bases of coalition member organizations and also by meeting renters while door-knocking apartment buildings across St. Paul. We are now in this moment of transition — from organizing to win a campaign to protecting and building upon that win as part of a broader tenants’ rights movement. We are grappling with this question of, what do we do next? How are we bringing people into defending this incredibly important reform? During the campaign, we had a Ground Game Committee, made up primarily of renters who carried out much of the field work necessary to win. That space has since transformed into HENS’ Renter Power Organizing Committee (RPOC), a group of renters working in our own buildings and across the city to strengthen the tenants’ movement on the ground and organize a base of renters for the implementation of rent stabilization as voters intended. We used to think that HENS was sort of punching above its weight as a coalition — but this campaign really expanded the possibility of what renters believe we can win.  People are talking to their neighbors down the hall, they’re learning more about their landlords. There are tenants who want to start a citywide tenant union. It’s great stuff.

Weaver: One of the reasons I think the coalition is so important for the tenant union is that tenant union organizing can be really, really boring. You often fall into this trap of like, "Okay, everyone was coming to the meeting when we didn't have any good repairs, we put some pressure on our landlord, we got repairs, and then people stopped coming to the tenant union meeting.” Having a citywide space and a statewide space where people can not only use the union to improve their material living conditions but also to improve and strengthen their collective political power [is so important]. Maybe it's kicking a landlord out of the state assembly and electing a tenant activist or passing a rent control ordinance or really having that experience pretty early on of the union organizing, turning its collective political power on the arena of the state or the city. That's really, really important so you don't end up on what Labor Notes calls the grievance treadmill, where the union is activated and then it's not, and then it's activated, then it's not, and you just don't develop leadership. You don't give something inspiring to people. And you're just constantly helping someone address the leak in their roof or what have you. 

In New York City, there are basically two tenant organizing models. In one model, we're building tenant unions at the building level and really politicizing someone against the landlord. You can even do portfolio-wide organizing, where you organize all the buildings in that landlord portfolio and take on that landlord directly. And that's probably the most common type of organizing in New York City. There's a huge drawback, which is that it doesn't transit well to a four-unit apartment building or people who rent in single-family homes. Then there is also what is traditionally thought of as the ACORN community group model: rather than focusing on the landlord or the specific building, you're flyering a whole neighborhood, inviting people to a community group meeting, and we're talking about tenants’ rights there. This model can be a lot better for politicizing people around a particular policy change, but you don't have that same sort of collective experience attacking the landlord together. So there's really pros and cons to each model. And in the coalition, we really try to bring both of them together and create a space where tenants can be in collective action, no matter how they came into the housing movements.

Moya: The LA Tenants Union is very much organizing within the building itself, trying to form a tenants association, though you can now have portfolio-wide organizing. But the traditional LA Tenants Union model is very much like an onion, where you start with a tenants association; that is the nucleus. That [association] could be part of a block association that could be [organizing] around general improvements in the neighborhood. You are then part of a neighborhood local. And then all of them, of course, are brought into the union-wide tenant union, which [works] to create a shared political experience, even, should I say, a shared political subjectivity, deepening people's class consciousness as renters. 


Ordower: Let’s talk about the opposition. 

Weaver: We get totally hammered by people who believe that we can solve the housing crisis through adding supply to the market alone. Rent control proponents really get hammered on that question. Everyone gets told this horror story of the housing crisis in New York. And that has created such a misunderstanding of what the policy really does. In New York, we're trying to say, “Actually, you know what, rent control and social housing construction are the same thing. We do have a supply problem. We do need to build new housing and that housing should be built in the public sector." And rent control helps to create the political conditions to build housing in the public sector. A huge body of evidence shows how inelastic the housing market is and how, if development happens, housing costs really might go up, and we should have something that mitigates for that — and rent control is something that could mitigate for that. Stability is as important for the economy as having robust housing supply.

The need for housing supply and the need for rent control cannot be pitted against each other. We organize with unhoused people and we fight for new housing because there is no housing that's affordable for unhoused people in New York. We've fought to convert hotels into housing for the currently homeless. We've fought to bring deep, affordable new construction into the components of our statewide legislative platform. 

Daly: I vented to Cea during the campaign because we found ourselves tackling different forms of opposition. There is the state landlord lobby and its mouthpieces pushing trickle down housing. “We just need to build, build, build enough market-rate supply that will become affordable in a few decades. Maybe then you'll have a place to live.” Now that rent stabilization has passed, there was a bit of a media frenzy about the threat of a capital strike and these developers pulling out of projects. Most of those claims remain unsubstantiated. It's not true that every developer in the city of Saint Paul is just going to up and walk away because we pass rent stabilization. We have lots of ways that we are able to inoculate against those arguments. Our coalition members have a track record of fighting to preserve affordable housing. So, we've tried to be very clear in our messaging that, "Listen, the landlord lobby is continuing their opposition campaign. They're going to manufacture a crisis around this policy win so that they can deem it a failure before it even goes into effect." 


Ordower: René, you’ve passed some significant statewide legislation in California. Can you talk about implementation?

Moya: One of the things I say whenever I talk to tenants is, "Look, the people who enforce these rights, these protections are you. You, the tenant, are the one who enforces them." We've also kept an element of pressure on elected officials. And the third rail here is, how can we piggyback off of this fight to push for more transformative demands? For me, the key is to remember that policy reforms are meant as a way for us to also focus and grow the movement. And I think that is something that sometimes we get ass backwards. Sometimes, we think that the policy is the thing we're trying to achieve when really we're using this as an organizing component to win bigger things.

If I could just finish off by saying something about coalitions. A number of my mentors have told me that people confuse building coalitions for building a movement. We confuse the coalition for the movement, and we should never make that mistake, partially because we actually end up not strengthening the coalition if we don't have a strong enough movement on the ground. Building a base and constantly expanding that base, I think always has to be at the center of any kind of coalition work that we do. None of us are exactly where we need to be to ensure that we can fight against the power of real estate so that a couple of years down the line, we don't again see the real estate industry spending 40 times as much money as they did for you folks in Saint Paul to try to sink an initiative and us still fearing that that money is going to prevail. If we build a large enough movement, all the money in the world is not going to stop us from not achieving the policy reforms that we need.


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