How do you get “street cred” as a tenant organizer? Plant your feet firmly in the ground, muster your harsh tone of voice, and watch as landlords squirm closer toward hysteria. In my short time as a tenant organizer, I’ve come (in part) to measure my learning curve by the extent to which I can hold my own in a testy conversation with an infuriated landlord. The parts of my job spent engaged in one-sided yelling matches with landlords never cease to bewilder and simultaneously invigorate me. The most frequent scenario plays out something like this: my co-worker and I start organizing in a new building, we do research about the building’s history (finances, ownership, etc), and then decide to call the landlord to gather more information. After calmly introducing ourselves and our intentions (which are simply to work with tenants to preserve affordability and good conditions), the landlord will almost immediately go mad and shout out any combination of the following questions/statements in rapid succession:
- “WHO ARE YOU?!”
- “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”
- “I’M GONNA SUE YOU!”
- “YOU ARE CRAZY!”
- “I’M JUST TRYING TO DO WHAT’S BEST FOR THE BUILDING!”
- “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE IN THE BUILDING!”
- “WHERE DO YOU LIVE?”
- “YOU CAN’T TELL TENANTS TO STOP PAYING RENT!”
And on and on it goes, as the organizers remain calm and confident to contrast the landlord’s tirade. We try to get a word in about the law which gives tenants the right to organize, and we ask smart questions that let landlords know that they can’t get away with short-changing the tenants. Sometimes, I’ve even had the pleasure of confronting these landlords face to face as they barge into tenant meetings making threats and false promises.
As entertaining as this banter can be, it is also a dizzying reminder of the necessity of our work as tenant organizers. These conversations continually prove to us that the prevalence of such landlords means that tenants are not likely to get the respect and good service they deserve in their homes. Forming a strong tenants’ association that will hold landlords accountable, and take collective action if necessary, is critical to the outcome of a building.
As for my part, the more I can expose the ill-will of landlords and/or convince them of the benefits of honest behavior and communication, the more I can be an effective ally to tenants. Oftentimes I reach out to landlords with a request that they attend a meeting with tenants to answer their questions and present transparent plans for the building. But in some cases, landlords lack even the common decency to face the tenant association and hear their collective concerns. When we encounter such unresponsive landlords, the decision is often made to ignore them, sometimes only to meet again later in a court room.
By now I’ve had a fair amount of run-ins with landlords from across the sanity spectrum. So when landlords charge me with spreading lies or refer to me as an annoyance, I continue to speak truth to power as I fondly stroke my metaphorical tenant organizer “street cred” badge.