Having a Structure

Produced by Eloise Lawrence
Last Updated May 2017

Often, it is a small number of tenants who come together that lays the foundation for a tenant group. In some organizations, this core group may be called the "steering committee" because it is beginning to steer the group's direction. Never underestimate what a small group of people can do.

As tenants come together, you need to decide how formal or informal a group will be. This decision depends on the issue and the number of tenants involved. The structure of a tenants group is something that evolves over time.

1. What Is a Tenant Association

A tenant association is a group of tenants
who have agreed to work together. A tenant association does not have to file any official papers or become incorporated. Tenants can simply decide to call themselves a tenant association.

All kinds of tenant associations exist and are successful. See examples in the section of this chapter called “Why Organize.” Tenant associations do not need to consist of only tenants or people in the same building or complex. Different examples include:

  • Bank Tenant Associations which consist of owners and tenants fighting banks.
  • Neighborhood tenant associations which consist of tenants living in different buildings across an entire neighborhood and who have decided to work together to stay in their homes.
  • Section 8 or “mobile vouchers” in different buildings, but all have vouchers and are collectively demanding that landlords not raise rents above the government set “payment standard.”
  • Public housing tenant association and public housing resident advisory organizations.
  • Resident organizations with both public and privately owned tenants.

There is no one way to structure a tenant association. Where a structure is more formal, a tenant association can create by-laws and elect officers. By-laws set out how decisions are made, who makes them, what the purpose of the association is, how it will elect a governing board, and other issues. What is critical, no matter how informal or formal the tenant association, is to:

  • Be clear about how a group makes decisions. Is there a core group or "executive committee" that makes decisions? Is it all tenants? Is it by consensus or majority vote? What happens if there is a tie vote?

    Consensus decision-making stresses collective development of a decision. It does not mean that everyone always agrees. But the decision must be acceptable enough that all will agree to support it. A good resource about how to build consensus is:

    Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making, published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981, available for purchase online at: archive.org/stream/BuildingUnitedJudgmentAHandbookForConsensusDecisionMaking/Building_United_Judgment_-_A_Handbook_for_Consensus_Decision_Making#page/n45/mode/2up

  • Develop a system to keep all tenants informed about what is happening. See above for different methods such as group text messages.
  • Keep records or minutes of what decisions are being made and what issues are being discussed.
  • Make sure that one person is always responsible for keeping all the minutes and correspondence and paperwork that the group generates.

For more about tenant associations see: Forming a Tenant Association at www.metcouncilonhousing.org/help_and_answers/tenants_associations

2. Setting Up Committees

Committees are teams of people who share responsibility for tasks. Most tenant groups, no matter how big, usually have a core group of people who are the "worker bees," the people who do things together and accept the major responsibility of keeping the group functioning.

Groups form committees to focus special attention on a particular task or problem. It is a way to divide up work without spreading people too thin. It is also a way to get people involved. Common committees include:

Negotiating Committee:
Tenants who are responsible for
negotiating with the landlord.

Outreach Committee:
Reaches out to new tenants.

Education Committee:
Can teach tenants about what
their rights are.

Fundraising Committee:
Raises money to pay the costs of photocopying, mailing, and other expenses.

3. Working with a Lawyer

Having a lawyer who works for your group can be a major asset. The legal system can be very confusing and technical. A good lawyer will take the time to clarify what the legal language means in plain and simple terms, answer and research your questions, and offer advice and recommendations for your group to consider.

It's very common, however, for people to accept a lawyer as their leader. A lawyer is not a tenant leader, but a professional who serves a group. Your group is the client. Final decisions belong to you. A good lawyer will respect your decision-making role.

Effective tenant organizations use the legal system strategically as one way to make change. But many times there is more than one way to accomplish the goal, and it is when legal strategies are woven into other strategies that pressure can be brought to bear to create a solution. For example, in some cases, meeting with a public official may lead to a quicker and more long-term solution than a court case, which may take more time to work its way to completion.

If you rely on legal action and lawsuits alone,
you may also find that your group will begin to weaken. Legal action, when used alone, can lead to a very passive attitude among residents. People can't really participate in a lawsuit other than simply following the news, signing papers, and perhaps testifying. The strength of organizing is the strength of your people and their participation in organizing actions. People can participate in letter-writing campaigns, in public meetings with government officials and landlords, and in press conferences and protest actions.

Tenant organizations that have formed successful partnerships with attorneys sometimes refer to their respective roles as that of the "sword" and the "shield." The tenant organization makes all the key moves to effect change, and the attorney takes the legal steps necessary to protect the organization and its members and thus permit them to do their work.

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