Neighbors Unite! Gain Power and Friendship by Forming a Tenants’ Association

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Growing up in the suburbs, I'd chat with neighbors while out walking the dog or taking a break from yard work. Since moving to the city, I'm not so forthcoming. If a neighbor starts talking to me in the building lobby, it makes me wonder when the stabbing will start. The news industry is determined to make Chicago seem like the most crime-ridden city in the United States. Even if you see no personal evidence of crime in your life, it's easy to fall into the trap of expecting to be the next victim.

This kind of pervasive culture of fear can make renters shy away from interaction with their neighbors. As a result, the first encounter between two city neighbors is far too often a screaming match over small annoyances that have built up and boiled over. Meanwhile, structural problems affecting large groups of renters are never brought to the management as none of renters realize the extent of the damage.

There's a better way to go about city renting. Today I'll be explaining the basics of forming a tenants' association. Renters who participate in these groups can find better safety and great social benefits. Organized renters will also find that they have much more clout when problems arise with landlords and property managers.

Tenants can form a wide variety of associations for a wide variety of purposes. In our History of Renters Rights series we talked about old-school associations that fought for protection for low-income renters, but not every group needs to be so focused on social justice.

Is Your Building a Good Place For A Tenants Association?

In my opinion, every apartment building with more than 2 renter-occupied units should have at least a basic tenants association. Renters who live in condominium buildings may also want to form a renters-only association. Condo associations can be jerks towards renters, charging high fees to move into the building, placing renter-specific restrictions, limiting access to building amenities or banning renters outright. With unified representation at condo association meetings, renters can advocate for their own rights.

Start a Lightweight Tenants' Association On Social Media

Associations can be very informal – sometimes creating a discussion group on social media for the building is enough. It can be a Facebook group, a Twitter hashtag or even a subreddit. With just this one step, people will be able to take the first step towards knowing each other. They will be able to talk freely. Here are some basic things you can do with a social media based association:

  • Making sure that packages get delivered
  • Pet-sitting or plant-watering when on vacation
  • That nagging feeling that you left the back door open
  • Identifying who lives in the building and who is just a suspicious character hanging around
  • Finding people to take over your lease when you need to move out early
  • Plan building-wide events, such as cookouts or yard sales

One thing to remember about online groups: while your landlord cannot take action against you just for starting a tenants' association, they will definitely get worried when they hear about its existence, since most tenant groups are formed because renters are with their landlords. Don't be surprised if they want access to your online group.

Getting More Formal

For a group of renters having serious problems with their apartment, landlord, or property management company, an online discussion group may not be enough. You'll probably need a formal, in person group and regular meetings in order to build up enough bargaining power to force your landlord's hand. Formal tenants associations have formed for short periods of time to address specific issues including:

  • Neglect of the building or ignoring maintenance requests
  • Failure to keep common areas clean and presentable
  • Problems with building security or safety
  • Pest infestations
  • Harassment or other illegal behavior from landlord and staff
  • Abnormally high rent hikes
  • Change in building ownership resulting in eviction threats (this will often happen in situations where the building has been foreclosed upon or sold to a condominium developer)

If organizing an association to pressure a landlord, seek the advice and guidance of an attorney with experience in landlord-tenant matters, or from legal aid groups and city-wide tenant groups. Keep in mind that communication and problem resolution are the goals. To form this type of organization, take the following steps:

  • Find another local apartment building that has a tenants' association. Ask if you can sit in on one of their meetings to see how they do things. You may want to visit a few, if you can find them, for buildings of different sizes and demographic groups.
  • Organize your first meeting. Meetings can take place in an apartment, in a common area of the building such as a lobby or laundry room (have people bring chairs) or in a nearby cafe or park.
  • Prepare flyers to advertising meeting with time, location, and brief explanation of what it is for. These can be slipped under doors or posted in high-visibility areas. Don't put them in mailboxes – it's a federal offense for anyone other than mailmen to do so.
  • For the first meeting it might be a good idea to keep your landlord out of the loop. Don't be surprised if they show up anyhow, or if someone in attendance tattles to them afterward about what went down.
  • At the meeting, have a sign-in sheet for gathering contact information (apartment, phone, email).
  • If your group is small enough, have everyone take a moment to introduce themselves. If you live in a very large building, you might want to just give out sticky nametags instead.
  • Allow time for neighbors explain a few of the issues they'd like to have addressed. Large groups might want to break into smaller groups with an organizing member in each group to hear complaints. There might be quite a bit of anger and some arguing during this portion.
  • Ask for up to 5 volunteers to form a leadership committee who will be the main points of contact for association matters. The angriest and most vocal tenants are not always your best choice. The leaders are going to be the ones who will be voicing the group's demands to the landlord and standing up for you in court should matters go that far.
  • Take a vote on the best time to hold regular meetings for both the leadership committee and the group as a whole. Schedule at least two follow up meetings to ensure that you don't lose momentum.
  • At later meetings, you may vote on which courses of action to take. These may include:
    • Requesting as a group that necessary repairs be made
    • Reporting building code violations to the City of Chicago (dial 311)
    • Contacting a community organization for help (list can be found at end of article)
    • Issuing a press release to news media
    • Starting a building-wide rent strike
    • Filing a lawsuit against your landlord
  • Set up a bank account to pay for any costs that may arise like printing, repairs, or even hiring an attorney. Donations can be gathered by “passing the hat” or by setting up an online payment account. It is a good idea to require multiple signatures on any checks.
  • You can incorporate, but this is generally not necessary or recommended given how quickly renters come and go.

We think that tenants' associations are a good and necessary part of renting. If more of them existed, renters might be able to reclaim some control over their housing situation and clamp down on rising rent rates.

If you plan to start a tenants' association in your building, let us know! We're happy to come share our knowledge with you, and do what we can to help you get started.

Community groups for Renters in Chicago

Metropolitan Tenants Organization
Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing
Lakeside Community Development Corporation
LAF Chicago
Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (For fair housing issues)
Spanish Coalition for Housing

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Published by

Jon Hoferle