Effective tenant organizing requires thinking strategically about how to solve a problem. It takes time and information to develop an initial plan of action or strategy. Strategies or campaigns (we use these words to mean the same thing) also evolve, change, and are refined over time.
For example, your goal may be to keep rents affordable and get repairs made. Your strategy may be to try to negotiate new lease agreements and a repair schedule with the landlord. If the landlord refuses to negotiate, you may have to develop a campaign using other tactics in order to achieve your goal. Or the group may decide that the strategy should be to try and interest a local nonprofit housing organization in taking over the property in order to keep it affordable.
There is no one strategy that fits all situations. A strategy will depend on many different factors, including the existing relationships between the landlord and the tenants—which are as varied as the people themselves. If the relationships are bad, how does the strategy address this? If the relationships are worth saving, how does a strategy accomplish this?
When a group maps out a strategy, it is helpful to ask a series of questions to sort through what leverage or power a group has, and what points of pressure may be applied to bring about the group's desired goals.
What follows are some questions to help your group look at different options in order to shape a strategy—along with some sample answers. Bring these questions to your meeting and figure out which ones make sense for the group to answer. Write the group's answers on sheets of paper posted up on the wall so people can see that their ideas are being recorded. When you write these ideas up on the wall, people will begin to see connections and you will begin to sort through the information in order to develop a strategy.
Questions to Ask
What is the problem?
Repairs not getting made.
What is causing the problem?
Landlord refuses to make repairs.
Landlord cannot manage property.
Landlord is financially in trouble.
Landlord cannot afford to pay high mortgage and make repairs.
Who has a direct interest in solving the problem?
What is the solution?
Landlord makes the following repairs:
Are there any "legal handles" (violations of law) that will give a group leverage?
Serious violations of the state Sanitary Code.
Illegal retaliation by the landlord.
Landlord has interfered with utilities.
Who has the power to help bring about the solution?
Landlord—can agree to a repair schedule.
Housing inspector—can issue a repair order.
Court—can order a landlord to make repairs.
Who are potential supporters that can help you?
Local elected officials
Local city or town health and safety officials
Nonprofit housing developers
After a group decides on a strategy, the group should map out the specific tactics to carry out a plan. The tactics a group uses will also depend on many factors.
Some specific ideas for developing strategies and tactics related to bad conditions, rent increases, and landlord harassment are in the next section of this chapter.
In addition to materials that tenant organizing groups have developed based on their local experiences, some good resources on developing strategy that are available online are:
- Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing by Lee Staples (3rd Edition 2016)
- Organizing for Social Change, by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max (4th Edition 2010)
- Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, by Eric Mann (2011)
1. Possible Tactics
Tactics are the steps you can take to accomplish your goals. They are the moves made to gain more leverage, more bargaining power, more public support.
As a general rule, the tactical goal that every group should have is to try to negotiate a solution directly with the landlord. By negotiating your own solution, you may have more control over what the terms of an agreement are—as opposed to having a judge control the decision. For example, tenants in Massachusetts are achieving substantial victories by negotiating collective bargaining agreements (agreements for all the named tenants) directly with landlords that establish fair rent increases for a set period of years, see Sample Collective Bargaining Agreement (Form 23).
Half the battle, however, is getting a landlord to the table to negotiate. A landlord may refuse to negotiate with your group, insisting that they will deal only with each tenant individually.4 To succeed in your struggle, you will have to stay unified and resist such efforts to divide and conquer. If your landlord refuses to negotiate directly with your group, you may have to use other tactics that put pressure on the landlord to negotiate. These other tactics will, if successful, bring your landlord to the negotiating table willing to work through a fair agreement.
Many factors will influence what tactics a group chooses to use and when to use them. Different tactics will have different effects in terms of escalating pressure. Some tactics change the struggle—from being tenant vs. landlord to community vs. landlord.
New information may surface that offers tenants unexpected opportunities and new ideas for tactics. Likewise, unexpected opposition may also rear up in response to organizing. It is important for a group to constantly evaluate its tactics and retool according to the situation.
When deciding what tactics to use, brainstorm about all the possibilities. Then evaluate the pros and cons of each. For example:
- Do tenants feel comfortable with the tactic?
- What are the possible gains?
- What are the possible risks of a tactic?
- Do you have the people, time, and resources to carry out the tactic?
- Will the tactic build the group's power?
- How will the tactic be perceived by the community and the media? Positively? Negatively?
There are many different types of tactics tenant groups have used to achieve their goals. Different tactics can also be woven together to achieve the desired goal. Below is a list of possible tactics to consider at different stages of a struggle.
a. Letter Writing
One of the most important first steps in negotiating with a landlord is letting your landlord know—in writing—what the group's concerns and demands are. Letter writing is fundamental to any negotiation between a tenant group and a landlord. Letters provide a "paper trail" or documentation of the dialogue between both parties as it unfolds and can by themselves lead to a negotiated solution.
Figuring out what to include in a letter is what takes time. Putting a group's demands in writing, however, forces tenants to be clear about what they are trying to convince a landlord to do.
A group can also use letters to a landlord to establish more accountability between the tenants and the landlord by sending them to other people. This is done by putting "cc:" followed by the names of the other people at the bottom of your letter. The "cc" (which stands for the now old-fashioned "carbon copy") tells the landlord that a copy of the letter has been sent to the people who are listed after the "cc."
For example, you may want to "cc" your lawyer (if you have one), local elected officials for your area, the Board of Health (or Inspectional Services Department), religious institutions, or other community and political leaders. When you do this, the landlord will know that the people who have been "cc'ed" know what is happening and are watching. To whom the letter is "cc'ed" is a strategic decision that needs to be thought through by the group. See Sample Letter from Tenant Group to a Landlord (Form 28).
A petition is a statement that people sign because they support that statement. Petitions are a great way for tenants to build support on an issue. They are a way to communicate with the landlord that a lot of people are concerned about an issue. You can take a petition door-to-door and get it signed. You can use a petition as a way to let elected officials and the media know that a lot of tenants are concerned about an issue and are making a demand for change.
Never give away an original petition. Although you can always show an original petition to the landlord or the press, if you want them to have a copy, make them a photocopy. See Sample Organizing Petition (Form 25).
c. Board of Health Inspections
Inspections of more than one apartment by a local Board of Health (or Inspectional Services Department) may put enough pressure on a landlord to make repairs. Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made tells you more about how to get an inspector. When you contact the Board of Health, be sure to let them know how many apartments need to be inspected before they come out to the property. Also, a tenant should be with the inspector from the beginning of the visit to the end. If several apartments are being inspected, it is valuable for several tenants to be with the inspector as the inspector goes from apartment to apartment. If you are working with an organizer, ask the organizer to be present to take notes and to document what is happening. After the inspections, you must make sure you get from the inspector copies of all reports.
Tenants may have to put pressure on a local Board of Health to do inspections. For example, tenants in Lynn, with the help of legal services, requested a hearing before the Commissioners of the Board of Health to report that inspectors were not giving the tenants timely inspections and failed, once they did, to report obvious violations. As a result of the organizing, the Commissioners demanded that the inspectors improve their services and meet state requirements for timely and complete inspections.
d. Rallies, Pickets, and Demonstrations
Rallies, pickets, and demonstrations are very effective tactics to put public pressure on your landlord if she fails to negotiate or fails to negotiate in good faith. The success of a rally or demonstration depends on how well it is organized. What is needed are people, signs, and coverage by the media.
Care should be taken to choose an appropriate location, preferably one that is highly visible to the public and relevant to the issue, such as your apartment building or your landlord's office. If you decide to picket, you should choose several people to act as leaders to discuss with the police the manner and location of your picketing.
Generally, you have a right to picket on public land as long as you do not physically block access to the place you are picketing. Your picket line must keep moving in a circle; otherwise you may be accused of "obstructing access." Your picket line should be vocal and spirited. Be prepared with chants. (For example: "Two, four, six, eight. Don't evict, negotiate!]
Tenant spokespeople should also be prepared to speak with the press about the group's demands. Bring leaflets to give to the media and people passing by that will tell them why you are picketing.5 Some tenant groups have also used civil disobedience as a form of protest. For example, to protest rent increases, tenants and their supporters held a sit-in at an owner's office, resulting in 14 people being arrested and subsequently that landlord did agree to sit down with the tenant group and negotiate. For more tips on how to plan and conduct a demonstration, see the section of this chapter called Organizing Actions.
e. Window Signs and Banners
Signs and banners proclaiming tenants' goals hanging from a building and taped on the insides of people's windows can be an effective way to make a public declaration that tenants are pressing the landlord for improvements or fighting displacement. (For example: "Anti-Displacement Zone: We Will Not Be Moved!") Make sure the letters on the signs are large and readable. Banners and signs can stay up for awhile and they provide a good opportunity for the media to take pictures.6
Landlords who refuse to maintain their properties, who seek steep and unreasonable rent increases, or who try to displace responsible tenants for higher profits are vulnerable to bad press. So are city officials and code departments that refuse to do inspections or to cite landlords for serious violations.
The media can be a powerful tool. Through press conferences, media events, opinion pieces, letter-writing campaigns, and social media, tenants can put increased public pressure on the landlord. For more about how to do media work, see the section in this chapter called Accessing the Media.
Tenants have used resolutions passed by a local town or city governing board as a way to develop support for their campaign. For example, some tenants have brought resolutions that urge the landlord to negotiate fair rents. Resolutions are a way to put increased public pressure on a landlord who refuses to negotiate. They are often covered by the local press. They can also build support among local officials. See Sample Resolution (Form 24).
h. Rent Strike
A rent strike occurs when the majority or all of the tenants in a building withhold their rent or refuse to pay a proposed rent increase. Solidarity in refusing to pay a proposed rent increase (while still paying the rent) is a necessary part of a struggle against a landlord's effort to increase your rent. Withholding rent is a tactic that can be used to pressure a landlord to make repairs.
Before undertaking a rent strike, tenants should clearly understand that, although a rent strike is perfectly legal, it may lead a landlord to attempt to evict tenants. It is essential to get legal advice before embarking on a rent strike. For example, it is important to understand that withholding all your rent can lead to a “non-payment” eviction case, in contrast continuing to pay your old rent and refusing to pay the increased rent can lead to a “no fault” case which is easier to fight in court. For more about proposed rent increases and the options available to tenants, see Chapter 5: Rent. For more about how to withhold your rent, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.
i. Community Reinvestment Act Complaints
Tenants have used the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) as a way to get the attention of local lenders who may hold mortgages on properties where landlords refuse to make repairs or who are displacing tenants with steep rent increases. CRA is both a federal and state law that requires banks and savings institutions to take affirmative steps to help meet the credit needs of the entire community they are chartered to serve, including low- and moderate- income areas.7
For example, a number of years ago, one tenant group in Lynn, with the help of legal services, sent a CRA complaint letter to the landlord's lender concerning the owner's plan to displace dozens of low-income and minority tenants because of rent increases of 60-70%. The tactic, in conjunction with media and other advocacy, led to pressure that resulted in a negotiated agreement between the landlord and the tenants that lowered the rent increase, set a repair schedule, and drew up a one-year lease, which facilitated accessing local rental assistance funds for the tenants.
j. Court Action
Legal action may be one tactic among many that may be available to address a particular problem. Before you decide to go to court, you should carefully evaluate the following:
- What you want,
- Whether you have a good case,
- Whether there are other ways to resolve your problem, and
- Whether you need and can get an attorney.
If your landlord violates the law, there are a number of ways that a court may be able to help you. These are called remedies. For more about different types of remedies that a court can provide, see Chapter 14: Using the Court System.
While courts can be helpful, it is always important to keep a perspective on the legal process. Any court action that leads you back to the negotiating table, where you have a better chance of controlling the outcome, can be considered a victory. If you do go to court, try to pack the courtroom with lots of tenants. Some tenant groups have everyone wear stickers or t-shirts expressing their support. Judges may act differently if they see a number of tenants who are interested in the outcome of the case. Try, when possible, to do some research about a judge’s attitude towards this type of action because it could hurt your campaign.
2. Bad Conditions
Landlords who neglect maintenance and repairs may do so as a strategic business decision. If they spend less of your rent on repairs, they make more money. Other landlords may neglect maintenance because they are not capable of managing the property or they are low-income and cannot afford to pay for a major repair as well as the mortgage. In either case, if your group has notified your landlord about bad conditions and the landlord refuses to make adequate repairs, there are a number of ways to begin to organize tenants around a solution. Here are ideas about what steps to take to organize to get repairs made.
- Distribute information or a flier to all tenants about what conditions violate the state Sanitary Code and what their rights are.
- The Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2) is a good place to start. Tell tenants to make a list of all of the problems in their apartment and common areas of the building, such as entrances, hallways, and basements.
- Compile this information and write a group letter to the landlord asking that repairs be made.
- There are some government programs that make grants and loans to help eligible owners make repairs at a lower cost. Money for lead paint removal is one example (see Chapter 9: Lead Poisoning). Such programs may also restrict the amount of rents for a period of time after the loan or grant, so they can help tenants achieve the goals of repairs and affordability.
- If the landlord does not respond to your letter about the bad conditions, you can call the local Board of Health (or Inspectional Services Department) to inspect tenants' apartments. Inspections of more than one apartment by the Board of Health may put enough pressure on your landlord to make repairs. Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made tells you more about how to get an inspector.
- As an alternative to the Board of Health (or Inspectional Services Department), you can hire a private inspector to inspect tenants' apartments. Although such inspections are not free, they are often more comprehensive and can usually be scheduled at times more convenient to tenants.
- When an inspector, public or private, comes to the property, one or more people should be with the inspector from the beginning of the visit to the end. Someone needs to be sure that all the apartments that requested inspections are in fact inspected. Immediately after the inspection, you should receive copies of the inspector's reports for all of the apartments.
- Call a meeting with tenants to develop a list of common problems based on the inspector's reports.
- Write a second letter to your landlord demanding that she make repairs and propose a specific schedule to make them. Get as many tenants as possible to attach their inspection reports and sign the letter to the landlord.
- If, after receiving written notice, the landlord fails to make repairs within a reasonable time, you have the right to use tactics such as rent withholding and repair and deduct—although those tactics should be used sparingly and only after getting legal advice from an attorney familiar with housing law. See Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.
- A group may also want to ask a court for an injunction ordering the landlord to make repairs or for an order appointing a temporary receiver to manage repairs. See Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made - Receivership. Both tactics significantly increase the pressure on the landlord and the negotiating leverage of the tenant group.
- You should periodically hold meetings to discuss the tactics used and other tactics the group may want to consider. Evaluate the pros and cons and get legal advice about each. You may, for example, consider other tactics that make the struggle and your demands more public, such as holding an "action" (organizing event) or contacting the media.
3. Unfair Rent Increases and Displacement
Landlords, especially those who have recently bought rental buildings, sometimes try to impose large rent increases on tenants. In some cases, this is done in an effort to drive low- and moderate-income tenants out so they can rent to higher-income tenants. In other cases, landlords simply fail to renew leases or bring eviction cases so that they can convert rental units to condominiums. These tactics are part of landlords' roles in the process known as gentrification. In other words, real estate investors and landlords are using rent increases and evictions to displace the existing residents. In these situations, tenants have successfully organized and negotiated agreements to remain in their homes and establish a schedule of fair rents over a period of years. See Sample Collective Bargaining Agreement (Form 23).
Organizing a tenant group to negotiate with a landlord may, in fact, be the best and only way to protect tenants against unfair rent increases or gentrification-driven mass evictions. A group of tenants, as opposed to one individual, may be able to force a landlord to weigh the benefits of steep rent increases or condominium conversions against the costs of bad publicity, tenant resentment, evicting lots of tenants who are unified, or a potential lawsuit. There are a number of steps that you can take to begin to organize tenants to defeat or lower a rent increase.
- Tenants who are successfully organizing against high rent increases or gentrification-driven mass evictions have found that it is important to challenge certain real estate assumptions that are widespread in our culture. These tenant associations put forward alternative principles in their letters and fliers, including that:
- There must be a balance between the drive for profit and the human need for housing.
- The market rent is not necessarily the fair rent.
- Landlords' buildings are more valuable because of work tenants have done to improve the neighborhood, reduce crime, and make schools better. Or, properties are more valuable because of public investments such as public transportation stops and new parks. Because of these improvements, tenants should not be displaced.
- When you receive a no-fault eviction notice or a notice of a rent increase, try to figure out whether other tenants also received similar notices. If you want to conduct a quick survey, you can adapt the survey. See Tenant Survey (Form 22).
- When you survey people to find out about the rent increase or eviction notices, give them information about how a landlord can legally raise the rent or convert to condominiums and what your rights are, including your right to organize. See Chapter 5: Rent and Chapter 17: Condominium Control for more information.
- Call a meeting of tenants to figure out how to respond. Invite an attorney or an organizer to the meeting. For example, in response to a notice of a proposed rent increase, one option is not to agree to the increase, as a group. If you do not pay the increase and you pay the old rent, your landlord will have to go through all of the steps of a summary process action in order to try to evict you. This tactic gives your group time to plan other tactics and also puts pressure on the landlord to negotiate because of the cost of evicting all of the tenants and the risk that the landlord will lose the eviction cases because of tenant defenses and counterclaims. However, there are risks to tenants in using this strategy—that is, you could be evicted at the end of the process. Also your case will be listed on the court’s online database that landlords are using as a tenant screening tool and that private companies access to provide landlords with information. You should discuss the strategy with an attorney before deploying it. For more see Chapter 12: Evictions and Chapter 2: Tenant Screening – Eviction History.
- You may also want to investigate the landlord's business practices and try to estimate her expenses and profit margin. If the owner can cover expenses, grant tenants' requests to refrain from large rent increases, and still make a profit, that's very important to know. How much are the landlord's property taxes? Has she paid them? How much is the mortgage payment? Who is the lender that holds the landlord's mortgage? Has the landlord defaulted on the mortgage? During negotiations you can present what you estimate are the owner's expenses; if she says you are wrong, ask what the correct figures are. Knowing this type of information may also help you develop other strategies and allies.
- You can find information about landlord’s mortgage, the purchase price of the building (as reflected on the deed) and other buildings owned by the landlord at www.masslandrecords.com
- You can find information about property taxes for your building online. Most cities and towns have their own Property Assessment webpages where you can search by address. For example in Boston, you can put in the property address at www.cityofboston.gov/assessing/search
- If the landlord has raised people's rents or is evicting in retaliation for tenants' organizing, reporting violations of the Sanitary Code, or taking other legal action, this is illegal and you may want to take the landlord to court. If a judge finds that a landlord has retaliated against you, the landlord should not be able to evict you and tenants may be entitled to money damages. See Chapter 12: Evictions and Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court and get legal advice.
- If your landlord has not made repairs, you can use that fact to gain leverage in your struggle against unfair rent increases or mass evictions. You should have your building inspected by the Board of Health or Inspectional Services Department or by a private inspector. Once you have an inspection report that documents bad conditions, you can put even more pressure on the landlord by communicating your intent to pursue enforcement of the state Sanitary Code through a public agency or a lawsuit. This is often enough to get a landlord to the negotiating table and, once there, to get her to agree to a reasonable deal.
- If you are facing rent increases and there are serious conditions of disrepair in your home, you may need to make your struggle more public. You can picket your landlord's office and publicize what is happening. Stress the unfairness of the rent increase given the conditions in which you are living and the hardship that a rent increase will have on tenants living in the building. For example, if there are tenants who have lower incomes, who are working, or who are single parents, a $100 increase may cause them to become homeless. Invite reporters into apartments with bad conditions. Have tenants facing hardships talk about how the rent increase will hurt them and how the landlord has refused to negotiate fair rent increases. Some landlords fear bad publicity, embarrassment, and negative public exposure.
- Evictions by their nature are individual procedures; each tenant against whom a case is brought should read Chapter 12: Evictions to learn how to defend herself in court. However, a well-organized tenant group can turn evictions into a political battle as well, using the tactics described in this chapter: media campaigns, letter writing, resolutions, demonstrations, actions, and beyond. One particularly dramatic and effective type of action is eviction blockades, where members of the tenant organization and other supporters physically prevent the landlord's constable from evicting a tenant after a judge has already ordered her out. This tactic has been successful in many instances in getting landlords to back off evictions. For example, in Massachusetts former owners and tenants used blockades hundreds of times to prevent an eviction after a foreclosure. However, because there is a chance that people participating in a blockade may be arrested, you should consult with a lawyer experienced in civil disobedience prior to planning one.
You may find that the main problem you and other tenants are having is harassment by your landlord or people who work for your landlord. There are many kinds of harassment and intimidation, including illegal evictions, utility shut-offs, and illegal entry into apartments without permission. Here are some steps to take to deal with harassment.
- You need to document whatever is being done. Keep records of eviction threats, verbal abuse, or any other threats. Specific stories of what happens and when it happens are important.
- Tenants' fears and isolation from one another allow a landlord or employee to continue the harassment. If things are going to change, people need to come together and recognize that they are not alone. Some tenants may be willing to meet and share what has happened to them.
- You should educate yourselves about your rights. Knowing your rights is your best defense. You then need to discuss how you can break the cycle of harassment and what tactics to use. One specific tactic may be to get a court to order the landlord to stop the illegal behavior. This type of order is called a temporary restraining order. See Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court.
- Your landlord may try to break up your group by going after one tenant or favoring another to create fights amongst the group. Tenants should work to protect and support those whom a landlord is targeting. You may warn other tenants about how the landlord is harassing people so they won't be caught unaware if the landlord comes after them. They will then know who to turn to for support. Also, prepare ahead of time for the possibility that the landlord might try to settle with one tenant at the expense of the group.
If the building in which you live has been foreclosed, you may encounter simultaneously with your new landlord a number of the problems discussed above. In many cases, the bank or other entity that has taken over the property after foreclosure will fail to make repairs or maintain it properly. They may also fail to take responsibility for utilities, leading to shutoffs. Brokers or others working for the bank may also harass you in an effort to get you to leave your home. Evictions of all occupants are also routinely undertaken by banks and other lenders after foreclosures.
In these circumstances, you should take all of the appropriate steps laid out in the sections above on Bad Conditions, Unfair Rent Increases and Displacement, and Harassment. You should also read Chapter 18: Tenants and Foreclosure, which gives you specific tips on additional steps to take in dealing with banks and other foreclosing lenders. The key for tenants to overcome problems in foreclosed buildings is to come together and jointly resist strong pressures from often very powerful institutions.
Another helpful strategy to fight the foreclosing bank or lender has been for tenants to join forces with their former landlord who are often living in the building and are now facing eviction as well. In numerous cases where tenants and former owners in foreclosed buildings have joined forces, they have been successful in getting lenders to make necessary repairs, restore utility service, stop harassment and evictions, and even repurchase the home from the foreclosing entity.
6. Negotiating a Solution with the Landlord
When you negotiate a solution to a problem with your landlord, it is very important to prepare for this meeting or what may be a series of meetings. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Prepare your demands.
Call a meeting for all tenants to discuss what demands the group wants to make. Try to organize these demands. One way to do that is to divide demands into three categories: long-term demands, short-term demands, and immediate demands. Or, the group can list demands in order of importance or priority.
Choose a strong team.
A group can have as many negotiators as it wants. It should be very clear, before the meeting who will take the lead and who will raise specific demands. Those who are negotiators on behalf of the group should have the confidence of the group and the time and energy for what may be a long process. It must also be clear that you are negotiating as a group. If anyone other than the negotiating team receives a call from the landlord, they should politely refer the landlord to members of the negotiating team.
Wait until all negotiators are present.
Resist any attempts by the landlord or her representative to begin negotiations without all tenant representatives present.
Don't let the other side outnumber you.
Before sitting down with the owner and her representatives, have a joint understanding of who is allowed to come to the negotiating session. The tenant team may outnumber the owner and her assistants. That's fine, but the owner's team should not outnumber the tenants.
Know the facts thoroughly.
If you don't know the facts, your landlord may back you into a corner and force you to compromise. Tenants should be prepared to talk about different problems.
Hold negotiations at a location where you feel comfortable.
Try to hold the meetings in a place where tenants feel comfortable. At the very least, negotiate at a neutral place, such as a local church or meeting hall.
It may help to use mediators.
Sometimes it is helpful to have a neutral third-party or mediator who is familiar with housing issues help tenants and the landlord work through their concerns in order to shape an agreement that is satisfactory to all parties. See the Directory for a list of mediation services.
Make sure that the owner will be present.
If the landlord is not coming to the negotiating session, make sure her representative has the authority to negotiate on her behalf.
Keep negotiations focused on the group.
Tenants should not voice their own personal complaints to the landlord. The negotiating committee should represent the interests of the entire group.
Ask questions and gather information.
Take advantage of the negotiating session to find out as much about the landlord's situation and finances as possible. New information may surface that informs the negotiations. For instance, if the owner says she cannot afford tenants' requests, ask why. What is the budget for the building? For example, how much does she spend on maintenance, taxes, insurance and mortgage payments every month?
Never appear to be divided or disagree. If at any time your negotiating becomes confused or communications break down between members of your team, don't hesitate to call for a recess and meet outside to discuss your strategy. In fact, before going into negotiations, the negotiating team should recognize that you may need to do this and that it's OK.
Refer to any planned demonstrations, lawsuits or media coverage. If you know what your tenant group will do if the landlord refuses to cooperate, you can refer to these tactics specifically or generally. If you do, make sure that you are prepared to carry these actions out. This is a judgment call and you need to think through the pros and cons of anything you say. But remember—most landlords fear bad press, legal action, and demonstrations.
Claim no authority to compromise.
Remind the landlord that the group will agree only to a collective settlement that is just, fair, and agreeable to all tenants involved. Make sure everything you agree to is approved by the group. If you are unable to come to an agreement, negotiators should go back to the group and discuss what position the group wants to take or how to make trade-offs.
Put your agreement in writing.
If you reach an agreement, volunteer to put the agreement in writing so that you can make sure all of the tenants' demands are included. Having the assistance of a lawyer is very helpful at this stage. It is always better to draft the agreement yourself—or have your lawyer do it—than to let the landlord or her lawyer do the drafting. If the landlord puts the agreement in writing, read it very carefully, show it to a lawyer, and insist on any necessary changes before signing it.
Stick together and stay organized.
This is how you got to the bargaining table in the first place and it's the only way to make sure the landlord sticks to her agreement.
4 . An effort by tenant advocacy groups to get the Boston City Council to enact an ordinance that would have required certain landlords to engage in collective bargaining with duly formed tenant associations was defeated in the summer of 2007 by a vote of 8 to 5. No such law exists anywhere in Massachusetts—although a landlord's refusal to collectively bargain might be seen as an unfair business practice and thus a violation of the state's consumer protection statute. See G. L. c. 93A.
5 . You can distribute leaflets on public property, such as sidewalks and in the landlord's neighborhood. The First Amendment protection extends to the peaceful distribution of literature on public streets and peaceful picketing. For example, you can picket any office as long as you stay on the public sidewalk, aren't obstructing access or acting violently, and aren't pursuing an illegal objective. In Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415 (1971), the Supreme Court removed an injunction against a citizens' group that was distributing leaflets against a realtor who made his living from blockbusting (the illegal practice of inducing homeowners to sell their properties by making representations regarding the entry or prospective entry of persons of a particular race or national origin into the neighborhood). (Keefe, at 420.) They left the leaflets at the doors of his neighbors and gave them to people coming out of his church and at shopping centers. (Keefe, at 417.) The court said that this activity was legal. (Keefe, at 419-20.) However, you may not distribute leaflets on private property if the owner or tenant has forbidden you to come onto the property. See G. L. c. 266, § 120.
6 . There is no legal basis for a landlord to demand that you take down a sign hanging on the inside of your window— although he may try.
7 . The Federal Community Reinvestment Act (“CRA”) is 12 U.S.C. § 2901 and regulations 12 C.F.R. parts 25, 228, 345, and 563e. For more about federal CRA history, regulations, and how to access CRA lending information, see the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council website at www.ffiec.gov/cra/default.htm. The state Community Reinvestment Act is G. L. c. 167, § 14. Regulations for the Massachusetts CRA can be found at 209 C.M.R. § 46.00. See the Commonwealth’s website at www.mass.gov/ocabr/banking-and-finance/banks-and-credit-unions/community-reinvestment-act/.