Real Estate

The Rise of Tenants’ Unions: A Game-Changer for Renters Everywhere

There’s strength in numbers for home and apartment renters.
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Along with rising home prices, the state of renting has changed dramatically over the last few years. Changes including rising rental costs and greater numbers of evictions are prompting more and more renters across the country to seek outside help to resolve housing challenges. One way to make progress where they might be hitting a dead end is to organize and join a tenants’ union. These organizations are gaining more support from frustrated renters who want to advocate for their rights and housing reform.

What Is a Tenant Union?

A tenant union, sometimes called a tenant association, is a group of tenants who collectively organize to improve their housing conditions and educate others about their rights as tenants.

“I​t is universally hard for tenants to enforce their protections against those landlords who act unfairly or don’t follow the law. Tenant unions can help tenants know and assert their rights,” says Shanti Singh, legislative and communications director of California organization, Tenants Together.

Tenants’ unions can organize within a specific building or geographic area to support renters who also live in that space. Tenants’ unions work to empower others to fight for rights or reform, such as rent control.

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How Tenants’ Unions Work

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A tenant union is formed by a group of renters who all share some commonalities about where they live, whether it be the same building, neighborhood, city, or even the same state. Cities such as Denver, Los Angeles, and Kansas City have local unions that serve the metropolitan areas. The purpose of a tenant union is to advocate for the collective rights of renters.

Once a tenant union forms, members designate spokespeople to represent them and negotiate with landlords for more favorable terms for renters. Like labor unions, tenants’ unions may use various methods to advocate and negotiate, such as filing complaints to city officials, negotiating new lease terms, or calling for a rent strike.

Membership in a tenant union is optional, and members might have to pay dues to be part of the union and benefit from its advocacy efforts. The more members a union has, the more power it can wield to influence landlords and housing corporations.

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What Rights Can a Tenant Union Help With?

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Tenants’ unions advocate for any issues that benefit the membership as a whole. Often, tenants’ associations will hold landlords accountable to the terms of the lease agreement or negotiate specific terms to be added to that contract.

Tenant unions also keep renters’ protections top of mind, according to Singh. “Larger tenant unions are also able to educate tenants on their rights and, by extension, educate landlords on their obligations,” Singh says.

Some common issues tenant unions advocate for are:

  • Rent control: Rent prices have significantly increased year over year and are pricing renters out of their homes.
  • Poor management: The management company has exhibited abusive or retaliatory behavior, violated renters’ privacy, or demonstrated discrimination.
  • Emergency repairs: Essential services such as running water, electricity, or sanitary facilities have not worked properly or at all.
  • Eviction policies: Management is threatening eviction without legal cause or unfairly targeting households for eviction.
  • Habitability issues: Addressing problems that affect a building livability, such as black mold or bedbugs, Singh says.

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Are Tenants’ Unions Effective?

Tenants’ unions can be more effective since a group’s voice is louder than any lone individual.

“There is always strength in numbers,” Singh says. “It feels scary to act alone when you are a tenant concerned about retaliation from your landlord for asserting your legal rights, especially when you can face the risk of losing your home.”

If one renter is having a problem with the landlord, the support of a union and its members can incentivize the landlord to make changes. For example, one renter refusing to pay rent is easily dismissed, but a landlord can hardly ignore an entire building of renters refusing to pay rent.

Tenants’ associations are also more likely to go to court if they aren’t satisfied with the landlord’s response. Since there are dedicated leaders in charge of the union and members pay dues for the union’s operations, there are more resources for a union to lobby and go to court to advocate for renters’ rights.

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How to Find a Local Tenant Union

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If you’re unsure if your building or neighborhood has a tenant union, check with your local city or county office to see if there are any active organizations. You also can check tenant rights for your state with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to see what laws are in place and what organizations work to advocate for these rights.

You can also form your own tenant union if there are no active tenants’ associations in your area and you’re interested in joining one. Renters Rising is a national organization that provides resources for renters, including how to organize and form a tenant union.

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Bottom Line

Tenants’ unions can be an effective way for renters to gain more power when dealing with landlords, and especially when dealing with large housing corporations. If there are issues hurting renters that the landlord is ignoring, renters who advocate as a group are often more convincing than a single renter.

However, forming a tenant union is a lot of work and the union needs to be organized and have a solid membership base to obtain negotiating power. That’s why a tenant union needs to stay aligned on its goals and recruit members to build strength in numbers. If you are on good terms with your landlord and find the lease agreement and response to concerns acceptable, forming or joining a tenant union might not be necessary.

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