Want to create social change? Form a tenants union! 

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Last week, Hartford tenants rallied in the City Council to pressure local lawmakers to enforce better conditions for renters in the city. Local residents, joined by organizers from the progressive Working Families Party and tenant union members called for an increase in housing inspectors and accountability for landlords who will not make improvements to unsafe apartments that fail to meet basic living standards. The Hartford Courant reported the following chant from the demonstrators and speakers: “‘No more roaches! No more rats! We want you to work for us!’” 

Far from the experience of just one community, the conditions that renters face are declining in cities and towns across the country — and not just because of crappy landlords. The problems with being a tenant are systemic. Paying obscenely high portions of your income — over 30% of average income is consumed by the average cost of rent — to owners who provide practically no productive services of their own; enduring arbitrary and dictatorial changes to the terms and cost of renting; receiving inferior treatment to a legal system that is preferential to landlords; and, of course, often substandard living conditions are inherent to the social position of being a tenant.  

As millennials and older members of Generation Z are increasingly uncertain about their ability to own a home, renting housing is going to be most students’ only option very soon, not to mention that many students rent already. With chaotic and cartel-like fluctuations in the housing market — especially in Connecticut, where the cost of rent has risen 12% since last year and is 35% above the national average already — tenants have little to no safety net in the event of a sudden economic crisis or on the individual whims of their landlord. The latter factors are why the COVID-19 pandemic has been instructive of capitalism’s vulture-like behavior against tenants; in fact, looking to Connecticut once more, the pandemic prompted a two-fold increase in eviction filings without cause in addition to the violent increase in eviction filings for tenants whose economic circumstances were devastated by the concurrent mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.  

Alone, tenants have no power other than the meager rights afforded to them by state law, something that you should nonetheless familiarize yourself with. Together, however, tenants are empowered through their capacity for organizing and collectively bargaining to advance their interests instead of fulfilling the income of a landlord. The slumlords profiting while the Hartford residents lived in unsanitary, unsafe and inaccessible conditions benefit from their tenants being atomized, or not in communication and solidarity with each other. Organizing a tenants union and learning about those that exist already, such as the CT and Crown Heights tenant unions, or the Autonomous Tenant Union, a radical, Chicago-based collective that firmly holds the stance that housing is a human right, not a privilege or conditionality.  

The ATU published a basic toolkit zine outlining the many useful tactics that can be used to organize your neighbors against landlord malfeasance or greed. It offers up strategies such as canvassing your apartment complex or neighborhood to investigate living conditions and community interest, running local city council candidates to expedite the process of appointing housing inspectors, presenting letters of demands to landlords and holding public press conferences to air grievances and engage other members of the community in the struggle for housing justice. If you are a tenant or find this kind of organizing interesting, look up a tenant union near you. In the likely event that one doesn’t exist in your immediate area, reach out to established housing justice or tenant organizations for advice. 

One-third of most Americans’ income is dedicated to housing — something that is nearly impossible to live without. These resources could be dedicated to education, enriching your community or finding new ways to make life on this beautiful planet fulfilling; instead, they are expended on paying landlords who are entitled to the tenant’s income solely because of the act of ownership. While constructing, maintaining and caring for a home is productive, owning one is not — very similar to being a shareholder or CEO of a company who makes 10 to 100 to 1,000 times more than the employees that actually produce for it.  

On a macroscopic scale, the capitalist mode of production and wealth distribution favors those who own the economy rather than those who actually make it valuable. The struggle of tenants for just housing conditions mirror the society in which it takes place, calling for the need to organize more than ever. The exploitive housing regime is not the only problem we face as a country or as a world, and demanding incremental changes in our standard of living is not enough to surmount these challenges lest we risk being satisfied with only a fraction of what workers, marginalized communities and the planet on which we stand are owed — that is to say, everything. Ultimately, though, forming organizations wholly dedicated to changing structures of a deeply unequal society on the basis of solidarity and redressing historic harm is a bold first step to this radical vision of the future.  

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