Building a tenant group

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David Grossman

This section has tips and strategies for building an effective tenant organizing group.

Developing leadership

Tenants who are leaders take on the extra responsibility of being a leader. Leaders often take on the responsibility of managing the group, chairing meetings, speaking out on behalf of a group, turning people out to actions, and running negotiations. Leaders help a group define and keep a clear vision of what it wants.

A good leader is one who invites people to participate at every turn and is constantly building the group. She recognizes people for their efforts and contributions, however large or small. Leaders see the importance of teaching others to become leaders. Leaders share their leadership and are not threatened by others becoming leaders.

Leaders need to be careful, however, not to make decisions for the group. Leaders need to be accountable to the group. Leaders also have to be careful not to always put themselves in the center of every event or action, but need to spread the work, the responsibility, and the credit for success.

One way to guard against a leader who is too dominant is to develop collective leadership, to rotate responsibilities (such as chairing meetings or speaking out at media events), and to develop working groups and committees. Asking people to do door-knocking is also a way to develop leadership. Ultimately, it is collective leadership that makes a group strong.

Many leadership development and training programs are available. Contact a local tenant or advocacy group to find out what resources may exist in your area.

Keeping tenants informed

An essential task of building a tenant group is keeping tenants informed. This requires constant reaching out to people. Tenants need to understand what's going on, what action a group is taking, and what the outcomes of these actions are. If only a small group of tenants knows what's going on, others will feel excluded and disrespected. Here are some ways to reach out to people and communicate.


Regular Meetings
Regular meetings are an important way to share information, make decisions, develop strategies, plan events, and evaluate work. Meetings can give a group a sense of power, build relationships, and develop mutual trust. Don't meet more often than is necessary, but be consistent and regular with your meeting schedule.

Point People
Well-organized tenant groups have "point people" who are responsible for distributing information to and from tenants. Depending on the size and design of your building, you could have building, block, or floor captains who are responsible for keeping tenants informed. Tenants also can divide up responsibility. For example, if there are 25 tenants in a building, a tenant group could have five tenants, each of whom is responsible for keeping five other tenants informed. This kind of clarity creates a very tight and well-coordinated tenant group.

Knocking on Doors
Going door-to-door is probably one of the best ways to give tenants information. It is a good way to survey tenants about what they want. Door-knocking also helps recruit new people to join your organizing efforts because it is a chance to communicate one-on-one.

Fliers, Updates and Newsletters
Fliers, updates, and newsletters are very useful ways to get different types of information out to people. A flier is a good way to announce a meeting or publicize a demonstration. An update or newsletter can provide tenants with more detailed information about decisions and progress that the tenant group has made, proposed plans, and meeting dates. It can be several pages or just one page. The more regular it is, the better, because it establishes your credibility and your public presence in your building or neighborhood. Remember to have materials translated if tenants speak different languages.

Phone and Text Messages
When you hold meetings, use a sign-in sheet and get people's phone numbers so you can develop a database and a quick way to call a group of people for actions Most of the phone numbers will be cell phones which can be used for text messaging. Depending on the size of your group, you can put all your numbers into one text and send from one member’s phone or use a group text messaging service. These services cost some money. If you use such a service, get tenants at meetings to sign up so that phone plans do not reject the bulk text message.

For free trial tools to create simple databases see:

Zoho Creater at

Sales Force at

For a group text messaging service see:

EZTexting at

Social Media
You can also use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about actions, events and meetings. Facebook has the most users of all the social media sites and is often recommended if you are going to use only one site. If you are going to use the site as a way to communicate to your members you should discuss with your group what tools people already use and feel comfortable with. You should also remember that sites, like Facebook and Twitter, can be seen by a larger audience so you do not want to use these tools if the information is intended just for the group.

A good resource is:
The Movement Will Be Social: How Social Media Can be Used to Organized People by Mike Leyba, a chapter in Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, Lee Staples (3rd Ed. 2016)

Social Events
Do not underestimate the value of social events in building a strong tenant group. In between struggles, it is important to have a good time. Neighborhood picnics, block parties, children's events, and voter registration drives are all events that bring people together.

A good resource about basic principles of organizing is:

Basics of Organizing: You Can't Build a Machine Without Nuts and Bolts by Shel Trapp.

It is available online at:

Evaluating what you are doing

As part of any good organizing effort, the group should take time to evaluate its work. The purpose of evaluation is to take stock of what people have learned, to improve how the group does its work, and ultimately to be able to think and act more strategically.

How long a group spends on evaluation varies depending on the situation. Some groups build evaluation and reflection into all of their meetings either as part of a specific discussion or at the end of a meeting. Some groups refer to this process as “the plus/delta” part of the meeting. “Plus” (+) meaning what worked, and “delta” (s) meaning what could be changed.

For example, at the end of a meeting, the chair can ask the group to spend five minutes evaluating the meeting by asking two simple questions:

  • What worked well in running the meeting?
  • What could be improved?

It is helpful to have another person write on a flip chart with 2 columns (plus (+) and delta(s) so that the whole group can visualize and have a written record of the evaluation. Groups also set aside special time to "retreat" to reflect on the work more deeply. A retreat can be as long or as short as a group determines—for instance, a half-day or a full day. Its purpose is to create a concentrated period of time and the space that allows for everyone in the group to more carefully think about the direction of the group.

What is important during any evaluation process is that everyone feels comfortable offering suggestions and that no one is personally attacked or made to feel bad. Here are some different types of questions to ask when evaluating your efforts:

  • What strategies are working? What are not? Why?
  • Who is not participating? Why? What is preventing them from participating?
  • Do people feel informed about what's happening?
  • Are there ways to improve how information is distributed and meetings are run?
  • Is the decision-making process working? Are decisions made in a democratic way?
  • Is there good follow-up to the meetings?
Getting new people involved

Few people instantly decide to get involved in a group. In some cases, people may be wary or afraid of groups. They may be reluctant to give up their spare time. They may be afraid that the landlord will retaliate and evict them if they are part of a tenant group.

It takes time and patience to bring new people into a tenant group. Most people need to be asked directly to join the group. For people to work successfully with one another, everyone needs to value one another's contribution—however large or small it may be. Some people may have more time to do certain things than other people do. Certain people may take more responsibility than others. A person who takes a back seat at meetings may play a critical role in getting an article in the local paper. Everyone's contribution must be valued.

A great resource about how to build a group is:

How to Recruit People to Your Organization by Michael J. Brown. It is available at:

Dealing with internal conflicts

Disagreements among tenants fighting for the same goal sometimes happen. Learning how to disagree with one another is part of the process of evolving into a strong tenant group. Out of disagreements can come powerful strategies that unite people. It is when disagreements take on a more personal tone or become an attack or outright conflict that a group can be weakened. The question is: Is the group able to deal with internal conflicts?

One way to deal with conflict at meetings is to establish some "ground rules." Most meetings have some kind of operating rules. Some groups use Robert's Rules of Order to run their meetings, while others have rules they've adopted over time. Common ground rules are:

  • One person speaks at a time.
  • People must listen to what other people are saying without interruption.
  • People are not allowed to attack other people's ideas.

In some situations, when there is conflict it may be better to deal with it outside of the meeting process. For example, if there is a problem about how someone in the group is acting, it may be best to discuss this with that person privately, or have someone who is close to that person discuss the issue with her.

Not overdoing it

In order to establish credibility, it is important not to take on more than you can handle. Do not expect to immediately win all of your demands. Organizing people takes time. There is a lot to learn. A group should move carefully so it does not lose people. If you rush a decision, a group may not be ready to really carry it out. If you sense that someone is not comfortable with a decision, talk to that person one-on-one to find out more about what he is thinking.

Organizing takes time

Organizing people takes time and achieving your organizing goals can take longer than you think it should. You should expect that there will be up’s and down’s along the way, and it may feel that you are at a dead end with the landlord. Do not give up or agree to landlord’s demands because she refuses to negotiate. Continue to send follow-up letters and copy local officials and other influential members of the community to expose the landlord’s refusal to sit down and talk with you. Also, once you are at the negotiating table, do not be afraid to walk out of a negotiation without a deal. Always remember organizing takes time.

Keeping communications open

Working together as a group can produce friction among the participants. There are a million ways that communication can go wrong among people.

Active leaders, who feel that they are doing almost all of the work and that other tenants should get more involved, may not be reaching out to others. While a leader might feel unsupported and alone, others might feel that they are being deprived of opportunities to help. Or they may feel intimidated by stronger personalities. Frank, honest communication is the best way to prevent problems. Good communication, as time-consuming and challenging as it is, is what ultimately keeps people together. For example, to minimize confusion over who will do what and what each person's role is, during a meeting post a piece of paper on the wall and write down who is volunteering to do what and by when.

Being inclusive

Differences in race, sex, class, and ability have divided people in tenant organizations, just as these differences have divided people elsewhere. Any kind of resentment or prejudice in working with others must be confronted early in order to maintain a trusting, cohesive organization. Take time out to communicate with people when differences and misunderstandings come up. Successful groups treat everyone fairly and with respect. Tenant groups that are most successful in creating unity out of diversity also address other issues, such as special concerns of immigrants. Whenever possible have a translator for meetings if tenants speak different languages.

Watching out for landlord tactics

Once you start organizing, it is important to prepare for how the landlord may act. Here are some of the tactics that landlords often try to use against tenants.

a. The Good Guy Victim Routine

The landlord may try to play on your sympathies by arguing that she is a good guy and that the actions of the group are hurting her personally or financially. Whether or not a landlord or an investor is a “good guy” is irrelevant to your negotiation. Don't fall for the routine. Be persistent and tough. No matter how much the landlord might be harmed by your actions, it is her actions that were harming you and that brought you to the point of organizing against her. Moreover, most landlords have more resources than the tenants and thus are in a better position to withstand whatever financial effects the group's actions have on them.

All landlords, however, are not the same. An owner who lives in your building who may have lived there for a long time and contributed to the neighborhood may have legitimate reasons for increasing rent such as higher taxes on the property. Or an investor trying to make the highest profit may want to raise the rents in order to evict all current tenants and sell the property empty. But again, whether or not a landlord is a “good guy” is irrelevant to your negotiation.

b. Divide and Conquer

Landlords will try to divide tenants not only by telling individuals present how good they are, but by accusing other tenants who are not there of being the "real problem." If there are people of different ethnic groups, classes, or backgrounds, expect the landlord to play on these differences. A landlord will consider it a victory if she gets tenants to fight among themselves. One way landlords sometimes do this is by using language differences to divide. This makes translation of materials and meetings all the more important.

c. The Expert Routine

The landlord may try to confuse matters by talking about statistics, numbers, and figures to prove that she knows the real situation at the building and the tenants do not. Whatever the landlord says is just her side of the story and her "spin;" the tenants' version is no less valid. A landlord may also claim that she is not making enough money because of the economy or taxes. Remember, your rent is paying off the landlord's mortgage and other operating expenses. If it is not, it is probably going into the landlord's pocket.

d. Intimidation and Retaliation

Tenants generally think that what the landlord says goes. Tenants sometimes fear that if they rock the boat, the landlord will retaliate against them and has the power to do this. Some tenants even fear their landlord may use physical violence. Landlords sometimes play on tenants' fear, abuse tenants verbally, and try to intimidate them in the hope that tenants will submit to bad conditions or other mistreatment. A landlord may try to evict one tenant in order to make an example of that tenant. The landlord may also try to intimidate you by refusing to provide services. The most effective way to deal with landlord harassment is to treat each instance as a problem that the entire group should address. If one person is facing an eviction, others should rally to support her.

e. Blaming the Organizer or the Lawyer

If an organizer or attorney is helping you, the landlord may label them "outside agitators" and blame them for causing trouble. Don't fall for this routine either. The organizers and lawyers you've chosen are on your side. As long as tenants are in the driver's seat and making the decisions, there is no truth in the landlord's accusations.

Connecting to a larger movement

Tenant groups that connect to city or neighborhood tenant organizing groups gain the advantage of being linked to a larger movement. There are many examples of tenant associations supporting each other in rallies and campaigns. Successful tenant associations often stimulate nearby buildings to organize, as well.

For example, City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston has been holding monthly meetings of tenant leaders from around the city since 2001. City Life/Vida Urbana now holds 3 weekly meetings including in Brockton and coordinates with tenant organizing groups from Springfield to Lynn. These meetings connect tenant leaders, help them avoid the feeling of isolation, help generate ideas and strategies, and link tenant associations to important policy issues. Even where the goals of your tenant association are not identical to another tenant association, collaboration with other groups can help you learn new strategies such as how best to use traditional and social media or identify common concerns or goals. For more see Access the Media in this chapter.


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