As the COVID-19 pandemic forces mass unemployment and work hour reductions causing over a million Californians to file unemployment insurance claims, Bay Area Tenants and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) is helping tenants to form tenant unions to protect their housing.
“If you’re organized in some kind of tenant union like TANC, you have a lot more leverage. Landlords are a lot less likely to take 10 tenants to eviction court than one,” said Angel Haza-García,* who is forming a tenant union with TANC’s help and is considering going on a rent strike on May 1.
Haza-García’s union includes the people living in her house as well as neighbors who have the same landlord, more than 10 people in total. The tenants at Haza-García’s home are unsure whether they will be able to afford May’s rent and worry they will eventually be evicted. But by organizing with other neighbors who will, as Haza-García puts it, “have their back” by agreeing not to pay rent in solidarity with them, they feel they’re more protected.
“The eviction process is really expensive to go through. A landlord could evict one person and that would be a cost of process. But if they were looking to evict 10 units, the cost would multiply by 10. It would then make more financial sense to give in to [tenant] demands,” said TANC member Sam Walker.*
Walker saw this process work to help tenants get their demands about two years ago during TANC’s inception and their first landlord/tenant power struggle.
The struggle involved more than 15 tenants who all lived in shared houses and had the same landlord. When roommates moved out of the shared homes, leaving empty rooms, the remaining tenants wanted to fill rooms with new roommates so the total rent cost would be less for each individual. But they found it impossible to fill the empty rooms because they say their landlord would ignore or deny applications for new roommates to move in.
After the tenants organized a few meetings and barbecues with each other and unionized, they wrote a collective statement demanding that their landlord allow new roommates to move into their shared housing or they would collectively withhold rent. When the landlord learned of their tenant’s demands and that they had organized together, the tenants got what they asked for without having to go on a rent strike.
“The landlord totally caved and let all tenants know they could decide who lived in their houses,” said Walker, who specified that the landlord then accepted all the then-current applications to move into empty rooms.
TANC’s current collective demand is total rent suspension for the Bay Area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We demand rent suspensions from every landlord effective immediately. The fact that anybody has to fear being evicted because of their inability to pay rent during a global health pandemic illustrates the utter wickedness of this system,” reads a collective statement called Rent Suspension Now! that TANC recently posted on its website.
The statement, which also appears in Spanish, emphasizes that there should also be no expectation that tenants pay back rent money they didn’t pay during the COVID19 pandemic.
While The City of Oakland has recently passed an emergency ordinance that prevents evictions for non-payment until May 31, the ordinance still requires tenants to pay their back rent eventually. Although there is language in the ordinance that stops landlords from evicting tenants for rent money due from now until May 31 if the tenant can prove the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented them from paying rent, TANC members feel that rent debt still burdens tenants and makes their housing more precarious.
TANC wants tenants to organize to set the groundwork for future tenant demands and to prevent landlords from evicting people who can’t pay rent in the future and may have difficulty proving their income loss was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’ve recently hosted online trainings and know your rights workshops that have each had between 20 and 90 attendees. Their membership has grown from 40 to 200 during March.
Tenants can visit baytanc.com to join TANC or learn more and can learn about future TANC events, which are open to non-members as long as they are not landlords, by visiting the baytanc calendar. They have also released a guide to tenant organizing.
*Since tenants in TANC are actively organizing against their landlords, they asked that names in this article be changed or omitted.