For years, media coverage of tenant organizing has been focused on larger cities. Tenant unions in cities like Los Angeles, Kansas City, and New York, have received press attention, won campaigns for social housing development, repairs from slumlords, stronger rent control standards and legal protections for those facing eviction, and built powerful, democratic organizations to fight for housing justice for all. These tenant unions became particularly important during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countless tenants lost their jobs, faced serious economic challenges, and struggled to make their rent each month during a massive global health crisis. Under these stressful conditions, tenants came together across the country, went on rent strike to improve their living conditions, and organized to #CancelRent, pressing that the government had a responsibility to protect tenants during this dire time.
Credit: Katelin Penner
This tenant organizing was undoubtedly heroic; it pushed the Overton window for what was possible for COVID-19 rental relief programs and many tenant unions were able to win extensions on eviction cases or prevent evictions altogether. These tenant organizing initiatives also brought attention to the violence of evictions, the importance of housing as a right, and the deeply unbalanced power dynamic between landlords and tenants, dynamic many people were not conscious of prior to 2020. However, focusing on tenant organizing in big cities alone prevents us from seeing the full picture of housing movements in the United States, as tens of thousands of tenant groups have begun to form in smaller cities, to fight back against gentrification, landlord negligence, rent hikes, and evictions. Pressures facing these tenant organizers are more intense than ever as the rapid growth of remote work has allowed many wealthier urbanites to move to bucolic towns in the Hudson Valley and New England. Just like in New York City, tenants in these towns are organizing and fighting back.
Fighting For Rent Control and Tenant Unions in Kingston
The City of Kingston is an idyllic town of 25,000 nestled between New York City and Albany in the Hudson Valley. Located along the banks of the Hudson River, and within a stone’s throw of the rolling mountains of the Catskills, it became a hotspot for New York City dwellers who sought respite from the five boroughs at the peak of the pandemic. As more people are attracted by the city’s small-town feel, the picturesque Stockade district, and close proximity to nature, many real estate investors have begun to speculate on real estate in the city. E&M, a large, Brooklyn-based real estate firm purchased five sizable apartment complexes between 2016 and 2019, while other real estate investors have focused on creating AirBnBs for New Yorkers seeking a weekend refuge. As real estate vultures purchased buildings, flipped them, and turned them into Airbnbs or luxury rentals, the city’s affordable housing stock has plummeted, while Ulster County now has the highest vacation rental revenues in any county outside of New York City. As a result of this concerning speculation, the city is quickly gentrifying – the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city has skyrocketed to $1,615 a month, a 25% increase in just three years. As rents have risen, countless residents have struggled to make ends meet, working 60 or even 80 hours a week just to be able to remain in the city they’ve called home for decades.
The Stockade District, Kingston, credit: Katelin Penner
The City of Kingston has tried to act on the housing crisis, passing legislation opting into the state’s expanded rent stabilization legislation in July of 2022. On November 5th, 2022, I joined dozens of tenants in the Hudson Valley and crowded into a community room at the Kingston Public Library for the second hearing of the newly-formed Kingston Rent Guidelines Board, the body responsible for determining the rental changes for apartments subject to the city’s new Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA). As the four-and-a-half-hour hearing unfolded, tenants told their harrowing stories. A couple shared that they had been evicted and displaced from the City of Kingston just after they had discovered that they were having a baby, while others shared that they had been forced to move to other municipalities, like Newburgh or Poughkeepsie, where they could afford the rent.
One of the most prominent story lines from the hearing came from tenants living at Stony Run, Kingston’s largest ETPA-eligible apartment complex. While Stony Run’s clean, modern website advertises plentiful amenities and airy, light-filled spaces, tenants universally pushed back against this narrative, telling members of the Rent Guidelines Board about the poor maintenance, rapid rent hikes, and frequent turnover of management companies at the complex. Tenants at Stony Run talked about experiencing 25% rent hikes over the span of three years and having to work up to 80 hours a week just to make the rent each month. Many of these tenants have begun organizing a union, hoping to fight back against these absurd hikes.
I spoke to Charlotte Lloyd, one of the dozens of Stony Run tenants who filed into the Kingston Library on that warm, cloudy November afternoon to stand up for the housing they deserve. Charlotte, a lifelong Kingston resident, works as a DoorDash driver and a grocery cashier. Charlotte moved to Stony Run two years ago after a long search for an apartment she and her partner could afford in Kingston. “It’s almost impossible to find affordable housing in Kingston,” Charlotte told me. “I looked for years.” The novelty of having a new space wore off quickly due to Stony Run’s poor management. Charlotte joined the tenants’ union at Stony Run to fight back against the untenable rent hikes and threatening mail she and her neighbors were receiving from their landlords, who were trying to intimidate tenants into signing new, more expensive leases right away. “I’ve spent many days and nights worrying about how long we have until we have nowhere to live, since every year, they decide they’re going to increase the rent,” Charlotte told me.
According to Charlotte, organizing at the complex intensified once the city opted into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), as Stony Run was home to a large percentage of the city’s ETPA-eligible tenants. With the assistance of For the Many, a leftist non-profit organization based in the Mid-Hudson Valley, tenants at Stony Run began to talk to their neighbors about the conditions they were facing in their complex. She told me about how meetings started in the apartments of lead building organizers, but as the tenant union grew, they had to find larger spaces, like churches near the apartment complex, to hold meetings in. Just days before the November 5th hearing, For the Many and the Stony Run Tenants Union visited Aker Companies, their speculative, Wall Street-funded landlord, at their office in Beacon to deliver them a list of their union’s demands. These demands had been simple — reverse the unjust rent hikes, end unnecessary fees, and complete basic repairs. Many tenants had been surprised by how receptive their landlords were.
But the organizing didn’t stop there – just one day later, dozens of Stony Run tenants like Charlotte testified at the second Rent Guidelines Board hearing, demanding that the Rent Guidelines Board enact a thirty percent rent reduction with a long lookback period, ensuring the largest possible number of tenants would experience relief. As the four and half hour long hearing drew to a close, only a small handful of landlords had testified, while around fifty tenants had spoken. A few weeks later, the Rent Guidelines Board voted for a 15% rent reduction, a historic move intended to give tenants relief from the non-stop rent hikes. For a moment, it seemed like the tenants were taking over.
Testimony at the Rent Guidelines Board, credit: Aaron Narraph Fernando
Sadly, landlords sued to stop the rent reduction, as well as the entire ETPA law that the city had put in place the summer before. While tenants won the fight to keep ETPA, the rent reduction was overturned, a serious blow to many tenants at Stony Run. But that didn’t stop the tenants from organizing – Charlotte and her neighbors began to fight back against the Mayor of Kingston’s new plan for Stony Run, which would turn the development into “workforce housing”, a proposal that gave the landlords tax breaks in exchange for measly affordability standards. Once again, Stony Run tenants filed into a room to share their testimony and push back against the workforce plan, which they saw as weak. “The city is home to so many working people, and it’s not a commodity,” Charlotte told me. “We have to make sure that the people who make Kingston Kingston don’t get pushed out.”
Tenants Fight Back in Connecticut
The town of Hamden is a small city of just over 60,000 people along the Quinnipiac River bordering New Haven. Once known for being a former factory town for the workers at Eli Whitney’s gun factory, the town is now an educational hub, as it is home to the campus of Quinnipiac University and parts of Albertus Magnus College and Southern Connecticut State University. While Hamden has not been a major location for New York City expats, the town’s housing market has still faced serious challenges over the past decade – while the population remained relatively flat between 2011 and 2021, rents increased by 23.46% and the rental vacancy rate fell by 39.29% over the same time period.
For Paul, a tenant organizer in Hamden, the issues in his building started at the beginning of the pandemic, when his management company disappeared for the first eight months of isolation. After months of radio silence, Paul and his neighbors finally learned their building had been sold when a new maintenance company came in and towed around 40 cars. “I was injured from falling in their parking lot because they didn’t plow it, and I could barely walk”, Paul told me. “One day, I was looking out my window, and they were towing my car.” According to Paul, a byzantine system of parking regulations was implemented without the knowledge of the tenants, leading Paul and many of his neighbors to lose their cars without any knowledge that they had broken the building’s parking rules. Paul told me this was the last straw: “At some point, my wife and I were just like, we have to do something… My mother-in-law is really involved with SEIU-1199, and that kind of inspired us. I was like, you know, we need a union, just like a labor union, but for tenants.”
Henri, a tenant organizer in Hartford who lives in New Britain, got involved with tenant union organizing through his involvement with the Connecticut branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Over the past few years, Connecticut DSA has been working on a large-scale housing justice program, both by building a statewide tenant union and by agitating for legislation to cap rents and end no-fault evictions. This initiative has begun to gain substantial momentum, building tenant unions in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, and countless other towns and cities throughout the state, while winning a marathon hearing for their “Cap the Rent” bill. In many of the buildings Henri is helping to organize, people face horrifying conditions: “A lot of the kids in these buildings have respiratory and skin diseases from the mold and things like that,” he told me. For these tenants, organizing is about creating healthy, livable homes, not apartments that make them sick.
To Paul, Henri, and many other tenants living in Connecticut, their housing conditions were untenable, and organizing was the only way to fight back – but this didn’t come without risks. Connecticut is a no-fault eviction state, and municipalities are banned from passing rent control measures, which creates challenges for those seeking to organize their buildings, as landlords are easily able to carry out retaliatory evictions against tenant leaders. Paul and his wife, Greta, sat in bed one night and discussed their options: “We were like…. What’s the worst that can happen? And we came up with the worst thing that could happen, which was being evicted….and we felt like it was a sacrifice we were willing to make for the cause.” Henri talked about many of these same risks: “The biggest barrier we face is how much we feel comfortable in the risks tenants face while organizing”. Henri also touched on another issue that tenants he was organizing with were facing – bad landlords from New York City who were expanding their portfolios into the Nutmeg State. “A lot of these landlords are from New York, and they’re doing that whole corporate thing…..They hide behind an L.L.C.,” Henri told me. “A huge issue we’ve seen is that these landlords from New York are so absent that people didn’t even know who they were paying rent to. One group of tenants I was working with wanted to take a bus to New York to go to their landlord’s house and let them know that they were doing something awful by not maintaining the building or dealing with rats, bed bugs, or our elevator that’s been broken for seven years.”
Organizing and Winning
Even though slumlords from New York City are setting up shop in Kingston and Connecticut, that hasn’t stopped local organizers from winning big. Kingston’s momentary rental reduction was a historic victory for the city’s tenant movement, showing that tenants’ voices had the power to impact the votes of the Rent Guidelines Board. And over the past few years, tenant unions across Connecticut have won some major victories – the Hamden Legislative Council passed a resolution in support of stronger tenant protections thanks to the efforts of Paul and his fellow tenant union members in June of 2022. While this resolution has been imperfect, Paul told me that the Hamden rent resolution is likely the strongest in all of Connecticut, proving that organized tenants have immense power to win legislation and better living conditions.
Paul also told me that organizing a tenant union in his building had a snowball effect; once tenants at Paul’s building, Seramonte began to organize, tenants from across Hamden began to reach out to Paul and other Seramonte organizers, asking for help in building tenant power in their own communities. This allowed the Hamden Tenants Union to scale up and become a citywide tenant union, despite pushback from the city. As the union grew, it was also able to escalate complaints – “We had a ton of mold issues, in both the common areas and the apartments,” Paul told me. “When we were able to get these health claims on the record and escalate them to the state level, we got our landlord in criminal court.” The tenant movement in Connecticut is just beginning – while the Cap the Rent bill did not pass this year, momentum for this initiative continues to grow.
And back in Kingston, when the City Councilwoman for Stony Run, Barbara Hill, voted for the Workforce Housing proposal supported by tenants, Charlotte Lloyd decided she would challenge Ms. Hill in the City Council primary. “We need a representative that stands up for tenants and working people first,” she told me. With the support of the Stony Run Tenants Union and For the Many, Charlotte’s running a formidable campaign to center tenants’ rights in Kingston. “Some people are more concerned with Kingston’s economy than Kingston’s people,” Charlotte told me. “I just want to make sure everyone has a safe roof over their heads.” Every week, Charlotte knocks doors, flanked by volunteers in her tenant union, fighting for a future where no one in her city has to pay sixty percent of their income to have a home of their own.
Katelin Penner (she/they) is a vacant lot researcher and Master in Urban Planning student at Hunter College. Her work concerns the ways cities respond to austerity, community resilience, social housing, and the role capital has played in shaping our homes and neighborhoods, especially in the late 20th Century. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or quandries you may have!