A Non-Exhaustive List of Tenant Organizing Strategies

As tenant organizers at UHAB, we work with tenants on campaigns of all sorts.  Those campaigns can be as small as an individual 6 unit building fight, or as large as a multi-building, multi-borough struggle against a multi-billion dollar bank to change its underwriting practices.  Whatever the fight, we think strategically about which methods would be the most effective for reaching our larger goals of building tenant power and ultimately preserving affordable housing in New York City.  We want to devote this blog post to laying out some basic strategies that we regularly use to give more insight into what tenant organizing looks like on the ground.  Once we have developed a campaign idea, we determine who our target is, and then focus our attention on which strategies would apply the necessary pressure on the target to change its behavior.

The following is a list of some strategies we encourage tenant associations to use to leverage their power:

  • Dialogue with the target, when productive: Throughout the campaign process, it is important to continue to be open to conversation with the target or about changing the target’s behavior in some way.  When UHAB organizers work with tenants to pressure a landlord into making repairs, we first invite the landlord to a tenant meeting, and continue to keep the door open for conversation.  Similarly, when we run a campaign against a bank, we attempt to set up meetings with the bank to allow for negotiation and change.
  • Coalition Building: Creating a coalition of tenants in several buildings facing similar situations or of tenant advocate groups can be useful for a campaign.  The more people there are putting pressure on a target, the more victorious the campaign will be.
  • Elected Officials: Tenant associations have the power to ask their City Council members or Borough President’s office for a meeting and (depending on the councilmember) that meeting can be really fruitful! We have also brought tenants to their State Senator, State Assembly-person, and even their U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator. Elected officials are there to work for their constituents and have the status to pressure landlords, banks, and generally raise the profile of a building.  Building relationships is what organizing is all about!
  • HPD: There are several venues for tenants to work with the city agency for Housing Preservation and Development to improve conditions in their building.  Through calling311 and recording violations, tenants officially document conditions which can then be used in housing court or in further actions.   HPD’s Proactive Preservation Initiative allows tenants or advocates to refer a building to the Department of Neighborhood Preservation for investigation.  This can be an easy way to determine if the violation count accurately reflects building conditions.  The higher the violation count, the higher profile the building has with HPD and housing advocates.
  • Press: It might seem obvious, but pitching a good story to the press could make a world of difference for a campaign.  Whether the story is about tarnishing a landlord’s name, reporting on an action, or a larger story about foreclosure and the bank, press stories bring issues into the public realm.  A good public shaming might be just what someone needs to come to the negotiating table.
  • Legal: Tenants can work with lawyers from nonprofit law groups like Legal Services New Yorkthe Legal Aid Society, or the Urban Justice Center to file lawsuits that work for them.  Tenants can file a collective HP Action against their landlord or receiver to push them to make repairs.  They can advocate for a 7A administrator to be placed in the building, or file a Milbank lawsuit. The Milbank strategy was developed by Bronx Legal Services for our fight against the Predatory Equity group of the same name, and has been used across the city to force the lender to put money into repairing the building. Each of these lawsuits empowers tenants financially and emotionally and holds the landlord, the lender, or the city more accountable for making repairs in the building.

As stated, this is a non-exhaustive list! We work alongside tenants and are always open to suggestions and ideas for how to move a campaign forward. What thoughts do you have?

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