Kansas City Tenants is one of the most successful Tenant Unions in the country. This interview with their Director, Tara Raghuveer, will give you a glimpse at the analysis and strategy that has powered their growth to over 9,000 members across Kansas City.

KC Tenants was founded in Kansas City, Missouri less than 5 years ago. In that short time they have already built a powerful and active membership and grassroots leadership. KC Tenants members and leaders have strategically campaigned and won an impressive series of victories concretely improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of tenants at the building, neighborhood, and citywide levels. They have also significantly shifted the mainstream power dynamics and political conversation in their city about who the city is for, how safe and affordable housing should be a basic human right, and why the profit-making needs of corporate real estate owners should no longer be treated as a divine right.

These material victories have included stopping hundreds if not thousands of evictions through direct action during the pandemic, passing a strong citywide tenant bill of rights and a right to counsel law ensuring people access to legal counsel in eviction court, and many individual building and landlord level wins on nuts and bolts issues like rent increases and forcing landlords to make and pay for needed repairs.

In 2022, they launched KC Tenants Power, a political sister organization. Just a year later KC Tenants Power played a high profile role in electing or re-electing two champions and two allies to the thirteen-member Kansas City Council. 

I spoke last month with Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants. Tara is an organizer’s organizer. Having visited and shared meals with her a couple of times this year, I could see and feel KC Tenants’ grounding in the neighborhoods of Kansas City. From the coffee shop and the delicious no-frills Vietnamese restaurant where we met, to the local organic wine shop she sent me to when I asked for a recommendation –– the tenants union was clearly a presence. Tara and the leaders are known and trusted. Their track record of showing up for people and for creating the paths from anger to collective power and real wins is keenly felt. (Yes, sometimes my assessments of organizers and organizations are informed by what I experience in good old-fashioned neighborhood coffee and wine shops!)

This interview really took my breath away several times. There is such clarity about power here, and depth of member leadership. I was struck by Tara and the leaders’ deeply practical and pragmatic approach to winning what needs to be won in the lives of tenants today; their simultaneous and sustained focus on a compelling future vision of the social housing that everyone deserves; and their relentless focus on how every step they take needs to build more of the power needed to realize that vision.  

The interview was conducted over video call and has been edited and condensed for clarity.



How do you and the leaders of KC Tenants define what a tenant union is?  How does it become powerful, and what is the power structure against which you measure yourself?


When KC Tenants was started we didn't actually call ourselves a tenant union. At first we were identifying as a community organization led by poor and working class tenants organizing to ensure that everyone in Kansas City had safe, accessible, truly affordable homes. We were founded by people who themselves have been impacted by housing insecurity. One of our founding premises was the idea that we're stronger together than we are as individuals. That's the theory of a union, right?

Over time, we've further defined KC Tenants as the citywide tenant union. Within KC Tenants, we've got 2 neighborhood tenant unions and we've got several building-based and landlord-based tenant unions. We think about those as stacked vehicles for tenants to exercise collective power: sometimes at the building level, sometimes at the level of all the buildings of a given landlord.

A lot of the individual building fights are about housing conditions, and the target is usually the landlord or property manager. At the neighborhood level it's less about building specific conditions and more about the forces of capital that shape the communities in which we live. We've picked fights against developers who are seeking tax incentives from the city that would allow them to develop something. But it would change the character of the neighborhood overall. Sometimes there are building-level fights that bubble up into neighborhood fights.

At the citywide level is where we're focused on structural change. So the fights we're picking are about winning policy or sometimes blocking bad policy. [During the pandemic] we spent a whole year and a half basically putting our bodies on the line [at the eviction courts] to stop evictions from happening.

So to us, what it means to be a tenant union or a power organization is predicated on how we wield that power. That's a really important starting point for understanding KC Tenants’ power analysis. It's not about just building power or holding power. It's about exercising power. One thing we come back to a lot –– that I come back to a lot personally –– is something that Sara Nelson [President of the Association of Flight Attendants (CWA)] says about power. She says, “using power builds power.” It's like strike power, right? The theory of workers on strike or taking some kind of collective action, and there's so much evidence of that within KC Tenants. Every time we've picked a fight we've built power. We've deepened our analysis of our own power. We've sharpened our analysis of the power of the organizations and people around us.


Talk to me about the relationship between that multi-level picture of the organization (building level, landlord level, citywide level) and the base building strategy. How does your power analysis relate to the prioritizing and the choices that I assume have to be made by staff and leaders about where and who to organize. I have in my head the idea in the worker context of hot-shop organizing. You go wherever somebody calls and says, “Hey, we're having a problem and we want to form a union,” which is one way. Another way is having a strategic power analysis and an orientation that asks “What base and breadth and depth is it going to take in the long term to have the real power to achieve your vision?” And then “What’s a systematic plan for who needs to be organized and where to build that?” Is that a tension –– is it part of how you all think about it?


I wouldn't call it a tension, but it's a constant within the organization. We do both at once. Some of our organizing at any given time is with tenants who have found us; who are self-identified as leaders of their property or neighborhood. They have an issue that they want to organize around, and we make a decision to support their organizing. Some of it is strategic base-building –– with our long term theories in mind. I'll try to give you an example of each thing.

It’s summer 2020, there's an apartment building where the air conditioning has gone out during the hottest weeks of the summer. It’s on the east side of Kansas City, the historically Black part of the city. All the people living in this high rise building are seniors, and many are disabled. Almost all of them are Black, and they self-organized in protest in the parking lot. We hear about it. We go to support their organizing within hours. We unionize on the pavement of the parking lot. It’s cooler outside than in the building, so they are all hanging out in the parking lot for the day. The tenants at Gabriel Tower win air conditioning within a couple of days, but then have bigger fights to pick, and we support them, analyzing city boards and seeing where their property owners get their tax dollars to facilitate this bad treatment. It became this year and a half long fight, and some of those leaders are still very active in the citywide union, even though their building level struggle is less high pitched at this time. So that's the “we go when called” approach.

There are also instances where we go seek out a base or a fight because it's in the union’s strategic interest. One example of that from the following summer is that we heard in the news that there was a trailer park the county was planning to buy so they could build their new jail. It was going to displace 120 trailer park residents. We didn't have any connection to them before but we understood this to be a critical issue at the intersection of our struggle around safe and secure homes and our organizational commitment to [prison] abolition. We decided to go see if there were people there who want to organize because this feels like a strategic fight for us to pick; one that will build our base, build our power, and move some important narrative we want to advance in this community. We went there and canvassed. We found a bunch of leaders who were ready to organize. We unionized 111 of the 120 households. We ultimately won $2.7 million in relocation and challenged the idea of  the county using public dollars to facilitate displacement of residents and punitive solutions to problems we know can't be solved through punishment. And again, some of those leaders are still members of our base.

On issue campaigns we do a lot more of the latter type. We're running a campaign now to ban “source-of-income discrimination” [landlords refusing to take public housing vouchers]. We are actively calling through our hotline lists, knocking on doors, and going out of our way to find the base that's the most strategic to advance that campaign. The base building is actually the primary goal of that campaign. We could pass the policy next week if we wanted to, but we'd be missing a huge opportunity to proactively build a base of poor Black mothers who we need in our union, based on the goals we've set around who we want to be and what we want to build within the next 10 years.


Thank you for that picture of the intersection of the base building and the power building theory and how that plays out with the different scenarios how people experience the problems in the real world. 

Now, paint the picture for me of Kansas City: Who lives there? What do the tenant landscape and the real estate market look like? What is the structure and the math of how political power works now? What are the elements of the power that you aspire ultimately to build and wield in order to win the systemic solutions?


One thing we say all the time is there is absolutely nothing exceptional about Kansas City. It's just like every place. For that reason it's actually a critical site of struggle, and the things that we do and test here are easily replicable in other places because our problems look pretty similar. I'm being a little bit hyperbolic in saying that, but it's not far off.

Kansas City is a midsize midwestern city with a history of deindustrialization and racial segregation. There was a big developer here in the early part of the twentieth century, named J.C. Nichols, who invented some of the racist real estate practices that were then distributed across the country like restrictive covenants. In many ways, that history shapes our current conditions.

The population is about 500,000 in the city and about 1.5 million in the metro area. The city is 26% black, 

[and 55% white, 11% Latino/Hispanic, 3% Asian, and less than 1% total among Native Americans, Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders]. There are growing immigrant and refugee populations. It's a big site for refugee resettlement.

The other thing I would say for context setting is real estate capital rules everything around us. Real estate capital funds our city elections. This is another way that Kansas City is similar to any other place. Politicians take oodles and oodles of cash from real estate developers, their attorneys, landlords, realtors.

Similarly and relatedly, the cops have a lot of power in Kansas City and the police union is a staunch opponent, not just of ours, but of any progressive politics in the city. A huge chunk of the city's budget gets spent on the police every year, and our local officials actually don't have control of our police force. We’re [one of the] only cities in the country where the police force is under state control. That's a huge issue.

The last context piece is that Kansas City is not yet too far gone. That is to say the rent is not “too damn high” enough yet that poor and working class people and Black and Brown people have been priced out entirely. But we're very near the brink. We're one of these places that since the pandemic has seen record rent increases. $1,200 is considered affordable by our elected officials in Kansas City. If you ask any average person in Kansas City, they would spit their drink out in your face at that suggestion. 

Then our elected leaders are aspiring for Kansas City to “arrive.” This is related to the role that real estate capital plays in our city. We have winning sports teams. City leaders are desperate to make the city work for those sports teams and, frankly, to make it work for tourists. Many don't really have a vision for what it looks like for the city to work for the people who have been long time residents and who make it what it is.


Let’s take it a step further. What's the form and the scale of power that KC Tenants aspires to build to win your vision? And how does that stack up against that picture that you just painted of Kansas City and how power operates now?


As of today, we have something like 9,467 members in the Tenant Union, and of those I would consider probably 500 to 550 of them to be leaders who hold real roles within the union. They move work week to week. They are activated regularly by the union to do something: whether knocking on doors, coming to a meeting, coming to an action.

To take a step back, we've been developing this framework for goal-setting within the union. It's not new; we're just applying words to something that we've done for a long time. It’s influenced by Gramscian writings. So now for everything we do, whether it's an action or a big campaign or for the union overall, we're defining three types of goals.

  • WIN goals: What materially are we trying to win? 

  • BUILD goals: How do we build our power through this? How do we build the power of our partners? How do we build ecosystemic infrastructure power through this? 

  • SHAPE goals: How is this shaping the story that is understood in this town? How is it shaping the political context, developing political will in our favor? 

So WIN - BUILD - SHAPE has become really critical to how we think. Then, how do we understand what we need to do today? We recently had a retreat of our Strategy Team [body of member leaders that meets weekly]. We've defined the WIN North Star before. We said we want to win municipal social housing. We want full wholesale transformation of housing in the city, off of the private market into community hands, democratically controlled, publicly backed in perpetuity. We defined some of the stepping stones that might take us there.

This was the first moment where we intentionally said building the union is in itself a goal as well. That has everything to do with the question that you're asking which is, “how do we contend against these forces that we're up against and the realities of our city today?” The durability and the scale and the power of the union is critical as a separate thing in addition to the material goal we're going towards. On the BUILD side our leaders defined a goal of 30,000 members by the end of the next 5 years. That needs to be more rigorous like, what does it mean to be a member? How do we actually structure and test that kind of power? One measure, for example, is not only do we have 9,467 members, but we were able to move 19,633 people in Kansas City to vote for the Kansas City Tenants candidate running in an at large race. But that's just one measure. When we think about our actions, the most we've ever really brought out is like 500. So what does it take to get beyond that. And is that a meaningful measure or not?


On the base and power building, are you also asking, “Here are the 5 biggest, worst landlords in the city, and one of our metrics is are we powerful in the context of these landlords in all their buildings?”


There has been over time, in the way you were describing before, the more strategic base building that's directed by the union rather than responsive. For example, we were trying to organize all the properties owned by the owner of Gabriel Tower, the building I was talking about before. And, you know, mixed results. It's not something we should write off as a base building strategy. But there's something we still have to crack around, what is the stuff? What is the bare minimum required for there to be something worth organizing around on a property right? If we can’t identify a single organic leader in a round of canvassing, do we actually have the potential to build a base there? Or are we just asserting our own analysis?

I'd actually be curious –– I haven't spent a lot of time talking with labor organizers about this type of thing, but I imagine there's a really similar struggle. Sometimes, even if you have one person, if they're not the right person who can move people, you don't have anything.

We've tried some of that stuff before and encountered some struggle identifying enough core leadership on-site that can really drive the organizing. So we haven't necessarily stuck to that framework. We've done similar things in neighborhoods. We made a strategic decision to organize in midtown Kansas City because it's on the leading edge of gentrification. There are a couple of key developers and landlords there. We've done that quite successfully. There is a developer named Mac Properties, and the scoreboard is like KC Tenants - 3, Mac Properties - 0. Everything they tried in the last 2 years we've completely shut down, mostly because we have a concentrated base of power in their buildings and in the neighborhood around them. Similarly, on the east side of Kansas City, it's a little bit less of a strategic response to a developer or a landlord, but it's a place where we strategically needed to organize a base in a fight for the Black community of Kansas City and the disproportionate impact of gentrification and displacement of Black families in particular.


You’ve talked about strategies where you build power to force government to regulate and reign in landlords. There has also been the direct genuine disruption you’ve done of government processes for landlords –– for example, you physically shut the eviction courts down for days during the pandemic and prevented evictions from being processed. Are there also examples you can share about building and wielding power that tenants exercise directly in the relationship with the owner or the property manager, not mediated by government?


This is the place where we have to be the most creative, because there’s no actual framework for how we do this. The biggest limitation is that landlords are under no obligation to negotiate with their tenants, regardless of the formation tenants have developed. We've had organizing efforts come to a screeching halt because we simply couldn't get the landlord to engage. And if we can't get the landlord to engage, we can't do anything. We have to get really rigorous about power analysis and then really creative about escalation that's rooted in that power analysis. Does it matter for us to show up on the landlord's lawn in his fancy suburb? We don't know. That sounds like a nice tactic, but strategy needs to be rooted in power analysis.

Let me tell you the story of a very recent struggle between tenants in a building and their landlord. I was organizing in my neighborhood in the northeast of Kansas City. This is a little bit of a combo of “shit’s going down at a building and we need to show up,” and us strategically deciding we need to organize with immigrants and refugees. So with this building it was like, there are leaders here who want to do something, so let's go.

We were organizing with about a dozen families initially. The reason we went in the beginning was that the heat was out during one of the coldest weekends, back in January of this year. The school district called us because they had students in the building. There was a lot of community interest in the neighborhood around this building because it had been neglected for a really long time. So we started organizing about the heat. We got the heat turned back on by Monday which was great. Almost none of the adults on the property spoke English, except for one in the beginning. Then, just days after we got the heat turned back on, the building was sold from a local slum lord to an out of state owner. The new owner almost immediately issued mass eviction notices, notices of “lease non-renewal,” to everyone in the building, and these tenants had literally nowhere to go. They'd been paying $350 a month for like 8 years. Many of them are on fixed incomes. They were like, “we can't go. We won't go. That's our demand. We won't go.”

And we're like, how do we organize that? We sent a set of demands from the tenants. No response. 30 days ran out, and then, on the thirtieth day –– on April 1 –– we knew we had to escalate. The new owner was actually seeking incentives from the city on a different project. We had gotten intel on this from a member of city council. We also had the new owner’s cell phone number from that correspondence with the city. We needed to make sure he knew that we're gonna challenge his ability to get city support if he doesn't come to some resolution with the tenants.

So we put out a call to action for people to text him. Several hundred people ended up texting his personal cell phone, demanding that he engage with the tenants.

He didn't respond to anyone except the vice principal of the school that had initially flagged this issue for us. That opened up a channel of communication. He basically said, “I don't care whether or not these tenants are here. I just need to be making more money than these units are currently worth. So we're going to rehab the units. The minimum that I can accept for these units, it's $850. (We had gotten them down from like $1,200.) The tenants said, “we still can't afford that.”

Then we learned the city manager had a discretionary pot of funding he could use for an emergency like this. So the deal we cut in the end was tenants get to stay in newly rehabilitated units. They pay $400 a month. The city contributes $450. And because there's public money involved, there are all kinds of conditions on the landlord: no rent hikes, no evictions. It's just a 2-year deal, but as of right now these are the most protected tenants in the city.

It's somewhat a case study on the negotiation with the landlord and the messiness that often involves, because there's no formality around negotiation. It's also a case study on forcing public intervention on an issue that the city never would have considered any of their business.


That’s a powerful story, and I see you’re saying that there still was an intervention you won from government at the end. Taking this one step further, is organizing a rent strike or some comparable collective tenant action directly against a building owner or manager an option you and the leaders consider?


Definitely. I will just confess we do not have a rich enough understanding of all the levers that can be pulled. Rent strike is an extreme escalation, and in Missouri it is really risky. People could be brutally and swiftly evicted, right? We actually haven't taken any buildings that we've organized on rent strike. We work with all sorts of escalation strategies. Many of them involve challenging an owner’s relationship to the local government one way or another, because it turns out our government is in business with our slumlords in pretty major ways at the level of the local government, state government, and federal.

So this escalation of conditioning public support is a really important one. We've done other escalations that publicize landlords’ problematic practices. What we’ve found is if it's not a local landlord, it doesn't matter. A local news hit in Kansas City about their slummy business doesn't really impact their lives at all. It might get some initial response, but they learn that they can just ignore us and it goes away, right?

Locally, there's a lot more salience to that kind of polarization and personalization type escalation. But it has a time limit. Or if not a time limit it just doesn't necessarily give us a path to further escalation. The escalation that would be the most effective is the organized withholding of money. And that's exactly the escalation that has the highest level of risk.


Let's shift to the opposition forces. What's that picture? Who are the actors? How do they do what they do and with what forms of power? Has that landscape already shifted since the birth and the growth of the power of the Tenants Union these last few years?


Yeah, there's a really interesting trend around this. So in the beginning, when we did that power analysis chart –– that I'm sure you had some hand in creating back in the day –– the trend line was very clear. We and our friends had very little power. Our opponents had concentrated power in the top right quadrant of that chart. Over time there have been some substantial shifts. We've picked fights with some of the power players in the top right quadrant that have decreased their power in a measurable way.

There's a landlord attorney who had a very powerful position on a local board who is no longer on that board because we helped to seed questions about the conflicts of interest in her being there. There's a development attorney who puts forward a lot of these big tax incentive deals that we've defeated outright in public in City Hall many times over. We took on the cops and the establishment political organizations in this most recent city council election. Four of our candidates won.

Let me talk about the middle of the power analysis chart. Media institutions, individual members of council, some local advocacy groups are in that middle section. We're not some fringe radical group. We've been relationally ambitious with power players. We don't agree with them on everything, but we're clear we have to be in relationship with them.

We have moved a lot of these center players to our side of the chart. One way we've moved them is by asking them to do stuff. In the campaign I told you about at the building in my neighborhood, it was an opportunity during the election to ask people to do the right thing. Don’t you want to look good by doing the right thing?


It’s exciting to hear you describe how you all really use the SCOPE Power Analysis tool in your ongoing work.  Can you describe more about how members and leaders are engaged in that analysis and strategizing?


We do the chart exercise at least once a year –– if not twice a year –– with our strategy team, which is a group of 25 to 30 leaders across the Union who have leadership roles in building-level tenant unions, neighborhood-level tenant unions, etc. The full base still makes most of the decisions that have implications for the citywide union. But the Strategy Team are the facilitators of those full base conversations and decisions, and it is empowered to make quick-turn decisions when needed. We just did the power analysis chart in September, so leaders are deeply confident and they hold the information that goes onto the chart.


How do you and the leaders think about the relationship of the national political and power landscape to the local work and to your path to winning your vision?


I have more questions than answers on that front. The national landscape is important to us. There is a hard ceiling on what we can win locally because of state preemption. We know that we have to build power with tenants across the country to win federal level structural change, some of which we can't win locally, and much of which is straight-up impossible at the state level. More and more the conditions of our lives are shaped by real estate capital that flows not only across state lines but also internationally. More of us than ever have landlords that are corporate private equity funded international institutions. Those institutions are really only regulatable at the federal level. That's a key premise of our federal campaign. That's on the WIN front. 

On the BUILD front, there's also this theory and practice of tenant union organizing: we see ourselves as aligned with a set of tenant organizations that have cropped up across the country. There's a bunch of sharpening that needs to happen among us, and a handful of us share a theory of change and have been training one another over the last couple of years.

As with every level of government, the federal government is in business with our landlords. Not all of them, but a lot of the big ones get financing from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Some get loans or tax credits from HUD or the Department of Treasury or USDA or whatever. Our argument is simply that as a starting point the federal government could condition every dollar of federal financing, subsidy, or tax credit on a set of tenant protections. Even though that is just a starting point, that's a massive slice of the market. It's 12 million units that could be impacted by that kind of regulation next year.


So, always the final questions: what have you learned in the last few years since KC Tenants started? What have you learned that you didn't know about power? Or what have you changed your mind about on how power works?


What have I learned? There are so many things. One thing I'm sitting with recently is that there's no point at which things get easier. When you're trying to build a political project like the one we are here, every day is hard for different reasons. Sometimes it's hard because you're in an active fight with the enemy. Sometimes it's hard because there's conflict among tenants in a building that you're organizing. Sometimes it's hard because we don't have consistent terminology or people haven't been trained in the right ways on the right thing. There is a groundedness we need if we're going to build durable organization over time.

The first step is actually recognizing that we are trying to build something that is durable. It's not flash in the pan shit. It is long term infrastructure for the people, and that requires patience.

Another thing is I feel, on net, so much more hopeful having spent the last 5 years engaging with people across race, class, political ideology, and our mutual interests in this fight for our city and for our homes. It's not a talking point. We actually have more in common than we might have expected. I've learned to trust the collective more and more. As we've encountered big issues within our union and big problems in the world. We've organized Trump voters and anarchists, old Black people and young people, and everyone in between. 

We say all the time in KC Tenants that we are building something that none of us has experienced but all of us deserve. The role that KC Tenants plays in people's lives is something that we have to take seriously. There's a church-like basis of community and meaning that KC Tenants now provides for a lot of people. That's not to be taken for granted or taken lightly. There's joy in that. There's community in that. It's not just about the struggle.


That note on joy and community is so powerful. You talked earlier about how Kansas City is not that different from lots of places in the country. I think that is such an essential orientation you and KC Tenants leaders are exemplifying. I hear you saying “Ours is not some unique set of circumstances that has called for some particular narrow brilliance of our own. This is life in this political economy. We're gonna go act collectively to change the terms of all of this, and you can, too. You should. We can do it together.” With that in mind, what are some of the things from KC Tenants’ experience and organizing approach that others could learn from?


Who leads? That has a lot to do with where we started and for whom we started. We were founded by three women, all of whom have been deeply and directly impacted by housing insecurity. Our collective ethos has always been about centering the people with the deepest impact in our organizing. And it's more than a buzzword. It's an active part of our base-building practice.

Relatedly, we have organizers on staff, and organizers do not drive strategy. Of course this has been a work in progress, but we want to be a union where our leaders actually lead.  We have work to do still on establishing structures to ensure that's the case. If our capacity as a union is limited to the capacity of our staff, we've lost the plot. So there's a lot of stuff to learn about the role of staff. 

That is not to say the organizer erases themselves. First of all, all of our organizers came up through our base, and this is for most of them their first paid organizing work ever. Secondly, our organizers have relationships and information that are actually critical to moving the union forward. Withholding that is irresponsible, right? So there's the responsibility of the organizer, the role of the organizer. But there are also checks on that which are critical to the union building the kind of power that it needs. 

The third thing is nerdy. But I feel like you'll appreciate this. There are some real lessons from KC Tenants about management practice among organizers. I wish this was something that people asked me about more. The pain point in so many organizations is when organizers are promoted and pulled out of the work of organizing and, before they know how to do it, are asked to manage other organizers. Also activists hired as organizers instead of organizers hired as organizers. Then there's a level of coaching and support that people just need to learn things. It's really hard. It's a lot of work. That's another piece of the management practice. 

I see so much unnecessary rigidity at organizations. I think maybe they need the rigidity because they've hired the wrong people. But at KC Tenants the difference is our organizers were all first leaders in our base. They are clear about why they're here and who they're accountable to and what they need to do. So that allows me the freedom to say, “You have unlimited time off. Tell me when you're taking the day, but take whatever time you need.” There's this level of flexibility that fosters more accountability among the team.  



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