Tenants in Massachusetts have a right to organize. It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you by trying to evict you, sending you a rent increase notice, or sending you a notice of any substantial changes in the terms of your lease or tenancy because you have attended a tenants meeting, joined a tenants group, or because you are organizing a tenants group.1
Despite the fact that it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you for organizing, it happens. For this reason, as you take on the work of bringing tenants together, the best way to protect yourself is by knowing your rights, putting all significant communication to the landlord in writing, and documenting what is happening. It is also important to get help. For more information about retaliation, see Chapter 12: Evictions.
Where to Start
1. Know Your Rights
As a tenant, when you organize you need to know what your rights and responsibilities are and what the landlord's rights and responsibilities are. Knowing your rights will always help you determine what options you may have. This book is a starting place.
You can also go online to www.MassLegalHelp.org for answers to frequently asked questions that you can use as handouts.
Because no two situations are the same, it is also important to consult with legal and community advocates who can provide you with more information about the law and help you think through your particular situation.
2. Get Help
If you start to organize tenants, the more help you have, the better off you will be. As you confront specific legal issues, contact a lawyer to educate the group about the law and potential legal strategies. A lawyer familiar with housing law can tell you what your rights are, help you evaluate different legal strategies, advise you about how to protect yourself, help you negotiate agreements with your landlord, and represent you in court. A list of legal services offices and legal referral programs are in the Directory.
To help you bring together a group that can exert the necessary pressure, it is also good to try to get the help of a trained organizer. Organizers can help groups develop strategies, think through different tactics, do door-knocking, call meetings, plan "actions," and develop leadership skills.
Unfortunately, there are only a few organizations that make tenant organizing a priority, so you may need to become creative about how you get this type of help. Local community action programs or community development corporations sometimes have staff who help tenants organize. Towns and cities have money called Community Development Block Grant funds, which can be given to tenant groups to hire an organizer.2 Local religious organizations and labor organizations may be able to offer organizing assistance to tenants. For a list of community development organizations and tenant groups, see the Directory.
At some point, you may also need to do some research to find out what's going on with your building, who your landlord really is, who holds the mortgage on the property, and what the property's ownership history is. Landlords sometimes hide their identities by hiring management companies or by forming trusts, corporations, or partnerships, or by putting the property in a relative's or spouse's name. Local universities and law schools may be able to provide students to help you do research on the ownership of your building. For more information see Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court - Who Owns Your Building.
If your building has been foreclosed, finding out who the owner is can be even more complicated. For information about how to do landlord research in this context, see the section called Chapter 18: Tenants and Foreclosure – Find Out Who the Owner Is.
3. Find the Common Ground
One of the first steps in organizing is to talk with other tenants to find out what problems they have had with the landlord. Talk to people in the hallway, at the mailboxes, wherever you see them. Tell them that you've been having problems and ask them whether they have been having problems, too. Then listen carefully to what people are saying.
You may find that you are not alone. If other tenants have been having similar problems with the landlord, you may want to go door-to-door and talk to more people. An organizer can help you by providing you with support, materials, and tips about how to do door-knocking.
If you live in a small building where there are not many other tenants, consider expanding your outreach efforts to other buildings in your neighborhood owned by the same landlord. Tenants in those buildings may be experiencing problems similar to yours. In some circumstances, you may even consider reaching out to tenants in your neighborhood who live in buildings owned by other landlords. For example, in some towns and cities, tenants and former owners who live in the same foreclosed properties have formed groups that jointly advocate to solve common problems. In addition, tenants and formers owners living in different properties but struggling with the same lenders/new owners, have created “Bank Tenants Associations.” As an example check http://www.springfieldnooneleaves.org/snol-work/springfield-no-one-leaves-campaign-bank-tenant-association/
When you go door-to-door, introduce yourself as a tenant in the building. Let people know why you're out knocking on doors. For example, if you haven't been able to get the landlord to make repairs or you just got a rent increase, ask other tenants whether they have had the same problem.
In your door-to-door campaign, you can use a survey to collect information about what problems people have been having in order to figure out what the common problems are. See the sample survey, which you can adapt to fit your situation Tenant Survey (Form 22).
Talk to as many tenants as possible. Be careful not to avoid talking to tenants who may keep to themselves. If you exclude people from the start, those people may feel left out and resentful and could undermine later organizing efforts. Including people from the get-go is a very important part of organizing.
As you speak with tenants, you may find that people are scared to talk for fear of retaliation. Expect that some people may not open up to you right away. Understanding their fear, educating them about their legal rights, talking about your own personal situation, and giving people hope that together tenants may be able to solve a problem (as described by the examples at the beginning of the chapter or other successful struggles you may hear about) is an important part of helping people feel they can step out and that organizing can work.
As you talk with tenants, give them a handout to read so that when you have gone they will have something in hand that will help them better understand the situation. See Sample Tenant Organizing Flier (Form 27). Also check www.MassLegalHelp.org for free information about tenants' rights.
If people in the building speak different languages try to have your flier translated. People in the building, tenant organizing and advocacy groups may be able to help.
After you have had an initial round of conversations with tenants, review the surveys you collected.
- What have you learned?
- What were the common issues?
- Did people feel strongly enough about problems to want to organize?
- Is there a core group of tenants who are willing to meet to work on the problems?
After you compare the results, hold a meeting or start knocking on doors again. This time, give people the results of what you learned.
4. Bring Tenants Together
If, after talking with and surveying tenants, you find that people have identified common problems and there is a core group that wants to do something about them, the next step is to bring together as many tenants as possible by calling a meeting. When you call this first meeting, here are some things to keep in mind:
- A first meeting should be as informal as possible. Part of the goal of this meeting should be that people get to meet each other.
- Being informal does not mean that a meeting should go on aimlessly with no focus. One or two people should run the meeting. If the meeting is too unfocused or goes on too long, people may get tired and leave.
- In some instances, it may be a good idea to develop a leadership committee before calling the first meeting, and choosing members of the leadership committee to run the first meeting.
- To start the meeting, go around the room and ask people to introduce themselves. Don’t assume everyone knows everyone.
- Whoever is running the meeting should encourage people to speak about the problems they have with the building or the landlord.
- Expect that people may be afraid at first to speak out or get involved. People may be worried that by taking any action they might be evicted or harassed by the landlord.
- Give people information about how the law protects tenants against retaliation and that under the law tenants are allowed to organize.
- As tenants speak and listen to one another, the chair can help people realize that that they face similar problems, and that by working together the group may be able to solve these problems.
- For practical tips about running a meeting, see the section in this chapter called How to Run a Good Meeting.
5. Put Together a Plan
When you bring tenants together, whether you are a group of two or 20, if you want to do something about a problem, you need to clearly define the problem and then identify what you want to change. What are the group's goals?
- Get repairs made?
- Prevent a steep rent increase and keep rents affordable?
- Improve security in the building?
- Improve maintenance and management?
- Protect tenants from being evicted?
- Change the ownership of the property?
It is important to be as specific as possible about what you want. If tenants are not clear about the goals, organizing will be difficult and frustrating. If a group identifies several goals, you may need to pick one that you are going to work on first. You can also identify goals by whether they are long-term, short-term, or immediate, and this can help a group prioritize what work needs to be done first.
Once you have figured out what your goals are, you will need to think about potential solutions and develop a plan of action.
1 . G. L. c. 186, § 18, and G. L. 239, § 2A.