Disgruntled Tenants Form Renters' Unions to Bargain with Landlords

by LegalFix
Posted: February 22, 2022

Since the onset of the pandemic, the job market has been in turmoil, and staying at home has become a necessity for many people — especially those who are “at-risk” and extra vulnerable to illness. However, rising rent prices, stringent move-in requirements, and the end of eviction bans are leaving renters across the country in precarious situations. In response to the demands of landlords, tenant unions (also referred to as renters’ unions) are forming in large and small cities throughout the nation.

While each renters’ union has its own unique goals, the general sentiment is similar. Renters feel landlords are mistreating them by raising rent prices and neglecting to resolve frequent complaints. Yet, despite their efforts, a government strategy that favors renters is not currently in existence.

With this in mind, how much leverage do tenant unions really possess, and what progress are they seeing on their goals? To understand each union’s definition of success, we must first understand how and why these groups came together.

Why Are Tenants Forming Renters’ Unions?

Tenant unions aren’t necessarily a new idea, but they have gained new attention in the current housing pinch. In 2021, landlords raised their rents to record-high rates across the nation. In addition, move-in fees have increased, and the requirements to rent a property are more stringent than ever before. Currently, about half of American workers cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment, which would require the average American to earn at least $20.40 an hour.

To complicate matters further, the eviction bans enacted at the beginning of the pandemic have been lifted, creating huge potential for renters to be forced out of homes they can no longer afford. In response, apartment tenants are organizing and forming renters’ unions to assert their rights and effectively negotiate with landlords.

Although tenant unions have existed for over a hundred years, they primarily operated in cities with a high cost of living. However, tenant unions are now popping up even in low-cost areas like Ohio and Maryland. The director of housing campaigns for the Center for Popular Democracy, Katie Goldstein, states that hundreds of tenant unions are appearing throughout the entire country. While these organizations remain relatively small, they are steadily growing.

We can attribute the rapid growth of tenant unions to deep dissatisfaction that landlords are increasing their rental prices while failing to maintain or improve their properties. Tenant unions also often begin when renters receive an eviction notice, spurring them to assert their rights by contacting government officials, enacting rent strikes, and publicly protesting.

The Fight Against Unsafe Living Conditions

Tenants’ unions are gaining strength and organizing like industrial trade unions. While most exist at individual properties, organizers are also directing their focus towards renters who reside in different areas with the same landlord.

In low-income apartment complexes, the issues are often even worse. The low-income areas in Akron, Ohio, are a prime example of what can occur when renters are at the mercy of negligent landlords. At Ericsson Apartments in East Akron, tenants complained of rampant black mold within their apartments, without landlords’ response. The detrimental effects of the black mold are believed to have led to the death of Christina Moore’s 3-month old son, whose autopsy listed pneumonia and bronchitis as the cause of death. Although her landlord moved her to another apartment building, they couldn’t help but notice more black mold spreading over the fresh coat of white paint.

When tenants complained, they were told they could sign new leases for a different unit in the complex or face eviction and lose any federal assistance. Tenants at Ericsson Apartments state that they also lived with urine leaking through the walls, shoddy locks, no air conditioning, rodent infestations, and the sound of gunshots ringing throughout the night.

Another apartment complex in Akron, by the name of Wilbeth Arlington Homes, faced similar issues. Even when a new company purchased the apartment complex, residents experienced water damage, mold, and rodent infestations. As a result, Wilbeth Arlington tenant LaTanya Tyes created the apartment complex’s tenant union and has since recruited almost half of her neighbors. Shortly following the formation of the tenant’s union, the building owner created an improvement plan and shared it with the local city council.

How Much Power Do Renters’ Unions Have?

Unlike labor unions, tenant unions lack the legal recognition of organized labor, which significantly decreases their bargaining power. However, some cities are responding favorably. In San Francisco, lawmakers are proposing a meeting between landlords and tenant unions. As per the proposal, landlords who do not meet with tenant unions will face reprimand in temporary rent reductions.

As landlords face increased scrutiny for their practices, many are concerned that when tenant unions have the support of lawmakers, it will encourage renters to overstep their boundaries. “We’re wary that legislation will bring up some misconceptions about things that are on the table and up for negotiation that aren’t,” said Charley Goss, manager of government and community affairs at the San Francisco Apartment Association, a landlord trade group. For instance, many tenant unions are requesting landlords to forgive unpaid rent, which Mr. Goss said was “not something that’s productive.”

Still, it seems that some landlords may be willing to work with unions to enact real change. Nick Boehm, the landlord’s director at Redwood Housing, stated, “The tenant union has helped shed light on the lack of open lines of communication between property management and tenants, which we believe has now been addressed and progress is being made.”

Tenant Unions Seeing Success

While the movement behind tenant unions is still gaining steam, some have already seen success in their efforts to advocate for renters’ rights. In 2021, Alicia Roberts had been living at Paradise Apartments in St. Petersburg, Florida, for several years until the complex was sold to another landlord. Expecting her apartment to undergo much-needed upgrades, Roberts instead received an eviction notice upon missing a rent payment.

Shortly after receiving the eviction notice, Roberts decided to join the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, which had formed in 2020, a few months after the start of the pandemic. The organization is currently working for rent control, restrictions on Airbnbs, and to support the fight against unjust evictions.

When the St. Petersburg Tenants Union heard about Roberts’ situation, they pushed for the new owner to let her stay in the apartment. Furthermore, the union also stated their case to local media outlets during a press conference. Soon, Roberts’ eviction was dropped, she received her requested upgrades, and she renewed her lease for another year. Although the landlord refused to comment on Roberts’ case, she stated that without the support of the tenants’ union, “I’d probably be gone.”

Successes like these may be a positive sign for the potential impact of unions on behalf of renters’ rights. Still, while tenant unions have experienced success in some areas, it seems that there is a long way to go until most tenants and landlords can come to an agreement that suits both parties.