WANT TO START A TENANTS UNION?

There is strength in numbers when dealing with a neglectful or difficult landlord.
L.A. TENANTS UNION

FEB19Dec18tenants
Our last column discussed reasons why you should start a tenants association (strength in numbers, a united front for collective bargaining with your landlord). We suggested that you first hold a tenants’ rights workshop with all your neighbors to discuss issues (such as repairs) or crisis (such as unreasonable rent increases).  The gathering would hopefully conclude with all of you deciding to start a tenants association.

The process of formalizing your tenants association can take multiple forms.

For some, that means going through a formal bylaws process. In others, forming an association means simply writing a letter to your landlord announcing your group and listing your grievances. It’s important to remember that you do not need to wait to be in crisis to form an association. In fact, it would be extremely useful to come together beforehand. Having an association already organized will help you prepare to act together and win. Formalizing your tenant association is also a way to deal with smaller issues related to repairs, for instance, issues that the owner could be ignoring because they only come as complaints from individuals.

Your group will need to adapt to the specific situation in your building. Overall, keep in mind that forming an association is part of building community.

Small and large buildings will have different considerations when deciding how to formalize.

In a smaller building, the process can be simpler, based on the fact that you are dealing with fewer people, and neighbors may already know one another. As you begin the process, take stock of the specifics in your building: How many households? What sort of networks (i.e., friends and family) already exist? Is your apartment complex one building or multiple buildings? Does the same owner and/or management company control other buildings nearby? Who is the manager and who is the owner? Is there an onsite residential manager (Required by law for buildings with 16+ units)?  Where and when do tenants interact with each other? Is there a specific crisis that adds urgency to forming an association?

In some cases, long-standing relationships are a strong foundation from which to naturally start a formal bylaws process to spell out the different roles each member will take, and communicate the association’s goals, structure, and how to deal with internal conflicts. Bylaws help avoid confusion by putting this information in writing, articulating responsibilities and explaining an official decision-making process. They work like a contract among the tenants.

For other buildings, and in particular for larger buildings, coming together as a group to discuss your goals can be crucial to forming a tenant association. In these cases, neighbors often do not know each other, and in L.A., likely come from different backgrounds. The bylaws process can be a way to listen to your neighbor, build trust and community, and work through differences while remaining aware of their shared goals, such as the fight against impending displacement.

Key steps to writing bylaws include: a mission statement for your association; determining duties and what titles fit; figuring out who can be a member (ex., can the building manager join?) and what is expected; agreeing on a plan for what constitutes conflict and what steps can be taken to remedy it.

Electing representatives or leaders is important for any group in order to designate responsibility, in particular with regards to communication and meeting coordination. When considering whom to select for what, remember that their role is not to be the decision maker, but instead someone who is skilled in building relationships and encouraging responsibility and leadership in others.

Whether you enter a bylaws process or not, communicating with your landlord is essential. In situations where you have an unfriendly landlord or worse—a landlord who does not do repairs, harasses tenants, or tries to push people out—a letter announcing your association will be a strong statement to the owner that they are not dealing with individuals, but with a unified group. The letter functions as a way to propose a new process to address issues that affect all or multiple members. Make sure the letter includes signatures from everyone in the tenants association.

As you and your neighbors organize, begin to practice your combined power. Whether officially an association or just beginning, you will develop your collective strength by doing things together. Think of it as having built a bicycle: now where do you want it to take you?

If your building is in immediate danger of displacement and/or harassment, then that will likely condition the kinds of activities your group will choose to take. Maintaining connections will create the strong community that people will later rally around to defend in the event of threats from a landlord, developers, or city officials.

There are countless kinds of actions: research together (learn your legal rights); personalize contact (sharing your story about concerns can open doors for others who are keen to talk); share communications (make copies of all meeting notes and distribute); reach out to new tenants (invite them into the association); take collective action (host a potluck, organize a tour of changes in your area or a “honk-in” at a nearby transit stop to hand out information); turn your building into a billboard (even just a simple sign saying that you support the tenants association will help break the isolation that comes from uneven power between landlords and tenants); cultivate a network of allies (tap into the civic groups where your neighbors are active); support your homeless neighbors (understand the vulnerabilities shared, as the removal of homeless neighbors is often a prelude to the displacement of renters); actively pursue media attention (local media attention can serve for gaining legitimacy and allies); and show up for other neighbors at risk (reaching out to the larger neighborhood will introduce you to others facing displacement).

In the next column, we’ll discuss how to deal with a bad landlord, together.

For detailed templates and further examples, contact the L.A. Tenants Union at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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