Tenant unity can be a powerful force. Although tenants in Massachusetts have rights, it can sometimes be difficult to enforce those rights on your own because landlords often have more resources and more power. One way to level that playing field is to join forces with other tenants. By working together, tenants have successfully organized against rent increases, bad conditions, evictions, harassment, and foreclosures and can overcome many different types of housing problems.
Some examples of what tenant groups have accomplished include:
In 2012 and 2013, an investor-landlord bought a series of buildings across Greater Boston, many of which had fallen prey to foreclosure. The investor refused to make needed repairs to many of the units it purchased, and yet demanded rent increases from the tenants, some as high as 50%. A group of tenants (which included some former owners) living in this investor’s buildings formed a tenants association, collectively refusing to accept the rent increase and demanding that needed repairs be performed. When the investor responded by bringing eviction cases against the tenants, the tenants held protests and reached out to their city councilors and state representatives for support. Ultimately the investor dropped the eviction actions, agreed to make repairs, and signed four-year leases with the tenants that capped annual rent increases at 3%.
Between 2014 and 2015, an investor-landlord purchased dozens of buildings in a Boston neighborhood with predominantly working class Latino residents. If a building was not delivered vacant by the former owner, the investor brought eviction actions against the existing tenants. A group of tenants from multiple buildings owned by this one investor began attending weekly community meetings where they learned about their rights, obtained legal counsel, and formed a tenants association. The tenants collectively demanded that the investor dismiss all pending eviction actions against them and reinstate their tenancies. The tenants also made their demand public, bringing their story to the media and to public officials. Shortly after the tenants made their demand, the investor agreed to dismiss the pending eviction actions and to allow the tenants to remain in their homes as tenants.
While working in a group does not always result in such a neat victory wrapped up in a written agreement and while group work takes time and patience, tenants are, increasingly, reaching into their community for support. With organizers, lawyers, and other community advocates, tenants are successfully negotiating new leases and agreements that keep their apartments affordable and improve their housing conditions. In some cases, tenants are even able to negotiate the purchase of their property by a nonprofit developer that will keep it affordable over the long term.
Challenging a landlord, however, can feel frightening. As a tenant, you may be afraid that your landlord will label you a troublemaker. Or you may be afraid of retaliation or losing your home. The best way to protect yourself is to find out your rights, figure out your options, and fight the battle with others, not alone. Imagine if you were a landlord and more than one tenant came to you as a group with a complaint. There is more power in numbers, and organizing changes the power dynamic.
As a group, tenants have the power to define what is happening as a moral issue about a group of people's homes, not just a legal issue about an owner's investment. For example, while the law does not prevent a landlord in the private unsubsidized housing market from doubling rents, organized tenants have taken a stand against excessive rent increases and won fair rent increase schedules.
The key is not to let a landlord discourage you from trying to organize to improve your housing. If you let landlord pressure keep you from moving forward, you are only helping her instead of yourself.
The purpose of this chapter is to pass on the lessons that organizers and tenants have learned about how to organize. Being able to organize is a valuable skill. By working collectively, and not alone and in isolation, tenants can shift the balance of power such that the housing needs of people in a community can compete in a real estate market that continues to drive up the cost of housing.