Autonomous Tenant Councils: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
We all know that the situation under capitalism is dreadful for tenants. Rent is theft. Landlords are parasites. Paying for a roof over our heads is an inhumane but long-standing practice. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has only gotten worse.
In the SF Bay Area, there is a long legacy of nonprofit organizations that deal with housing and tenant issues. Some have been forged out of specific struggles against particular landlords, some have emerged to offer legal counsel for those facing evictions and other unfriendly legal processes stacked against the poor. Other organizations have gone the ”poverty pimp” route, creating a raft of high salaried positions that enable the financing and construction of supposedly “affordable” housing which often, considering the high median income in a place like the Bay Area, is not actually affordable to most working people. While these diverse housing groups are more or less helpful to working class people, they most often do not focus on building power amongst those served.
For this reason, Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) was formed in 2018. A tenant council is a group of tenants who work together to wield collective power against a shared landlord in order to improve their conditions. While in general councils may organize for more affordable, habitable, and safer housing, the issues that a council decides to organize around are ultimately dictated by its members.
TANC helps organize councils and bring them together as a network. While councils interface directly with their landlord, they can find support from other councils who rent from different landlords. TANC researches landlords whose tenants would benefit from forming a council and compiles complaints that are common across councils. Councils can discuss and demand timely repairs and support tenants threatened with eviction. Ultimately, the point is to reconfigure power dynamics of landlords and tenants in the Bay Area.
One example from my own experience showed how this solidarity can work. Working with tenants in a San Francisco building that was being threatened with an eviction before the pandemic began, the local SF chapter of TANC launched a pressure campaign involving dozens of phone calls to the owners of the building and tabling / flyering in front of their workplace. Within weeks of these actions, involving friends and family of the tenants, as well as TANC’s networks of unpaid activist tenants throughout San Francisco and in the East Bay, the landlords had rescinded the eviction. Tenant councils are the base level of organization to make this all work.
TANC has been distributing information on tenants’ rights given the pandemic and hosting BBQs and events to network and strengthen our ties. TANC initially started out of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but it is now run completely autonomously from the DSA.
Alongside many other similar organizations starting up around the country in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, an Autonomous Tenant Union Network / La Red de Sindicatos de Inquilinxs Autonomos (ATUN-RSIA) was formed to share resources, knowledge and experience in struggle and to politicize housing struggles towards more consciously revolutionary and intersectional analysis and lifestyles. All folks are invited to take part in these networks, as supporters or as members. Check out the websites for details: TANC Bay Area: baytanc.com. ATUN-RSIA: atun-rsia.org