This local community organization wants to unionize tenants across Sonoma County
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series looking at efforts to help low-income tenants unionize against corporate landlords. Read the first part here.
With a lot of ground to cover on a hot Sunday afternoon, Diana Kingsbury switched between English and Spanish as she moved quickly from door to door at a large apartment complex on Petaluma’s east side.
As a tenant organizer apprentice with the Sonoma County Tenants Union, Kingsbury was canvassing for a local just-cause ordinance under consideration by the city council that would limit landlords’ ability to evict. She encouraged tenants to show up for a city hall rally during the vote the next day.
Several people aren’t home. Most of those who are took a flyer, open but noncommittal.
But for some others, Kingsbury’s pitch about strengthening renter protections struck an immediate nerve. Tenants launched into complaints about the property manager or unreasonable fees for things like complex landscaping.
“They tried to raise my rent 20%,” said Joseph Alvarez, a resident at the complex since late 2020, who added management only backed down after confronted with his research that such a rent hike was illegal.
“How many people have they done this to that can’t speak English or don’t know the law?”
Sonoma County Tenants Union was created in 2019 as the housing advocacy arm of the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of local grassroots organizations.
“We got to a place where we recognized that the housing issue was going to be with us for a long time and that we needed to create a political home for tenants in Sonoma County,” said Chad Bolla, a tenant organizer and counselor with Sonoma County Tenants Union.
Central to the operation is a hotline where counselors provide free tenants rights’ information, supportive resources, legal aid referrals and other information to renters in need. It has a key focus on those most vulnerable to the housing crisis, like communities of color and low-income, undocumented and disabled renters.
The most frequent calls are about improper evictions and rent hikes, uninhabitable conditions and abusive managers, according to tenant counselors. Some have come from the Petaluma apartments where Kingsbury was canvassing.
But aside from providing mutual aid, the hotline serves as a way to identify problem apartment complexes and help organize at-risk tenants into de facto unions to assert their rights as a collective and build broader solidarity through a regional tenant network, the organization’s primary goal.
“The most effective way to make changes in their unit or on their site is to be an association or at least loosely speak to management en masse,” said Jeremy Hill, a Sonoma County Tenants Union hotline counselor and former board member. “Management will listen to a bunch of tenants together. They rarely listen to individuals on their own.”
In response to a pandemic that brought the precarity of worker protections, the magnitude of the housing crisis and the growing wealth gap into painfully sharp focus, tenant unions, like labor unions, have received renewed attention and energy.
First, as COVID-19 took hold and now as protections expire, hundreds of tenant unions have reportedly formed, from the Bay Area to Akron to Chicago to St. Petersburg, to push back against soaring rents, evictions, price hikes, deferred repairs or intolerable conditions.
Though less structured and legally protected than their labor counterparts, tenant unions are based on the similar principle that there is greater leverage in collective action when up against corporate power. It’s becomes an increasingly frequent circumstance as mega property management companies and real estate investment firms buy up more and more of the rental market.
2021 was a record year for profit for many corporate landlords.
While acknowledging residents’ rights to assemble and discuss problems, “tenant associations can't really effectively bargain with a property owner on things like rent, rent debt and lease concessions because all of those factors vary with the individual tenant,” said Joshua Howard, executive vice president of local public affairs with the California Apartment Association. That’s a nonprofit trade group of small and large rental housing owners, managers and investors.
“Some of the issues that associations come together around are best handled when a landlord and tenant meet together individually, for instance, a maintenance issue in a unit,” he told me, adding that California law protects tenants in poor living conditions from eviction or retaliation if they take certain steps.