Civil Rights

Feel like a stranger in America after this election? Join a tenants union.

Tenant union
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Tenant union

Now that the election has passed and Americans begin to protest and reel, I wanted to offer up a piece of unsolicited advice to help advance their cause — join a tenants union.

If there isn’t one for you to join and you feel like you should form one, then go right ahead — form a tenants union. You have the right to a place that you can call home.
 
{mosads}When we read stories wondering why there’s no “landlord blacklist” for the sake of prospective tenants; or when we gawk in disbelief at an apartment complex evicting low-income tenants to explicitly make way for Facebook employees; or when a landlord literally rips the roof off from over a tenant’s head; or trailer parks are unceremoniously closed to make way for townhouses; or worry enough about ‘evictions by arson’ to level an accusation, we’re eliding over the fact that this is exactly where tenants unions can step in and help. 

After all, they often do step in at frequent locations across the country. Tenants unions fight rezoning, target district supervisors, and pursue rent strikes.

If there was a more progressive housing policy in place, which could be partially achieved through the agitation of a tenants union, we could perhaps have a world similar to the one in Hamburg, Germany, where — as Andy Wightman notes — “the owner of flats in Hamburg can sell them to another owner but the idea that the tenants would be evicted would be regarded as ridiculous. If you sell rented property, tenants stay put in their homes.”

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If we want to find a way to try and stop 30,000 evictions filed in Chicago every year, 22,000 households evicted in New York City every year, and countless others from happening across the country; if we find ourselves asking a question like, “How do you define the economic value of a place for a single person in an economically globalized world,” and find it horrifying to see others answer it by voting for white nativism and individualism; when we read Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” and note how “In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed (fuel and utility) payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company,” we can see a tangible reason why someone might want to call a rent strike, which is something a tenants union is capable of doing.

Tenants unions have been organizing to prevent prevent Airbnb undermining communities in Los Angeles, which is important, given that several people have been fleeing San Francisco for Los Angeles.
 
Tenants unions are preventing discrimination against those who hold vouchers in Seattle.
 
 
They call out individuals who have a history of demolishing affordable housing and displacing tenants with short notice in Texas and write editorials agitating for the fact that “the eviction of more than 300 low-income families by HMK Ltd. (in West Dallas) must be stopped.”
 
This December in Pittsburgh, tenants unions are holding a meeting about advocating for better quality homes.
 
Each piece of action undertaken by a tenants union contributes to a greater part and each part contributes to a greater whole.
 
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A good apartment — a good relationship between a tenant and a landlord — can make for a good building. A good building can make for a good street. A good street can make for a good neighborhood. A good neighborhood can make for a good city.
 
The country may have just elected an allegedly racist landlord who was himself the son of an allegedly racist landlord, but here is a path of resistance that seems to check a lot of figurative boxes.
 
To join a tenants union is to join a community and actively engage with where you live, not just passively live in it; it’s about defending someone’s economic place in a globalized world.
 
Part of being in a tenants union is about trying to slow down gentrification and fight forced economic displacement from cities; and it’s about bringing together groups to help them understand the potential of their political power. After all, one of the reasons we have the current political landscape that we do is that one ethnic group voted as a group.
 
In other words: To join a tenants union is to live — and to resist. You can do both.
 
Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to The Hill, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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