The Rent is Too Damn High. It's Time for Tenants to Organize.

Written by
Liz Brown
Jan. 17, 2023

by Liz Brown, MPA '24 for Annotations Blog

87 years ago, the United States enshrined the right of the private sector worker to join arms with their fellow laborers and collectively bargain with their employer for better working conditions and better pay. In so doing, the United States affirmed its commitment to balancing the scales and ensuring the little guy has a fighting chance to stand up for themselves. 

Today, as we experience a resurgence of the organized labor movement, there are 44 million Americans for whom we have not yet codified this fighting chance. Renters – who are younger, less affluent, and more racially diverse than homeowners – face similar challenges to those laborers faced nearly 100 years ago, but instead of depressed wages, it’s soaring rents.

Renters, also known as tenants, need a national right to organize. Without this right, tenants don’t stand a chance against the increasingly concentrated power of landlords. 

Picture of a protest for tenants rights, featuring Tennessee tenant leader Judy Schwartz-Naber.
Photo of a protest for tenants rights, featuring Tennessee tenant leader Judy Schwartz-Naber. See original Instagram post here.

The housing supply in the United States is exceptionally low, with an estimated shortfall of more than three million units. With that dynamic in place, landlords know that if a tenant is causing them any problems, there is a line of people waiting to take their place. In practice, this means a tenant who complains about slow repairs, or a creeping mold infestation, has zero leverage to hold their landlord accountable and is instead incentivized to keep quiet for fear of being replaced. 

This power imbalance has created a certified hellscape for American renters. Rents have risen by over 14% in the past year, compared to an average increase of just 5.7% per year since 2017. Limited housing supply, the financialization of housing by institutional investors buying up single family homes, and young peoples’ inability to buy houses and exit the rental market have created a perfect storm driving skyrocketing rents. One in four tenants are spending more than half of their income on rent. Living conditions are declining, leaving tenants to contend with lead paint and broken heaters as maintenance issues are ignored and repair backlogs swell.

Tenants are being removed from their homes through informal eviction maneuvers, like lock changes and exorbitant rent increases. Even when an eviction is filed legally and brought to court, tenants don’t stand a chance. An estimated 90% of landlords come to housing court with legal representation, compared to just 10% of tenants. One study found that 75% of these unrepresented tenants lose their eviction cases.

I experienced the tenant-landlord power imbalance firsthand just last year when my landlord decided to sell my building out from under me. I was left to scramble to find a new place to live within 30 days, a predicament befalling renters across the country.

However, despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, tenants across the United States are organizing, forming unions, and fighting back. In the Bronx, tenants banded together to buy their 21-unit building after a new landlord planned to raise rents by up to $1,000. In Kansas City, 4,300 renters have formed KC Tenants Power to lobby the local government, recently winning a $50 million housing bond to build new units that will rent for under $750 a month. And in St. Petersburg, Florida, the newly organized St. Pete’s Tenant’s Union won a city ordinance requiring landlords to give tenants significant notice before a rent increase.

Tenants from Garden Terrace marching on property manager's office to demand rights.

Tenants from Garden Terrace marched on their property manager's office to demand that their rights to quality housing be upheld and that their demands no longer be ignored. See original Instagram post here

Ensuring tenants have the right to organize doesn’t mean all renters will unionize overnight. Unfortunately, only 10.3% of US workers are members of a labor union, even after nearly 100 years of guaranteed labor protections. However, a guaranteed national tenants’ right to organize would ensure that the thousands of tenants who want to organize now, but don’t for fear of retaliation from their landlords, would be able to unionize safely. Any tenant union formed gives dozens of families an invaluable shot at greater housing security. 

Congress must pass a law enshrining the national right of tenants to organize just as they did for the labor movement via the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Representative Andy Levin’s (D-MI) proposed H.R.9587 Tenants’ Right to Organize Act and Representatives Pressley (D-MA), Tlaib (D-MI), and Waters’ (D-CA) proposed H.R.4237 Tenant Empowerment Act of 2021 provide useful stepping stones, with both bills codifying the right to organize for tenants living in federally assisted housing. A more ambitious, comprehensive bill is needed, however, that also extends this guarantee to renters on the private market.

Rent control, prompt repairs, good cause evictions. These are the basic rights that tenants are clamoring for today but don’t have the power to demand. Just as labor unions won the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, and the minimum wage, the right to organize is the surest way to get these basic protections in place. 

It’s time we give tenants that chance.

Headshot of Liz Brown, MPA '24
Meet the Author: Liz Brown

Liz is from Raleigh, North Carolina, and attended Duke University as a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar, graduating in 2018 with majors in political science and global health and a minor in cultural anthropology. After graduating, she worked as a housing justice community organizer at the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF), a nonprofit providing financial services and housing counseling to individuals experiencing homelessness in Durham, North Carolina. Following her local work at CEF, Liz pursued federal policymaking experience at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, working in the Office of Consumer Education and Engagement and the Office of Enforcement. Prior to attending Princeton, she served as the Special Assistant for Economic Mobility and Racial Justice and Equity to the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, where she focused on tenant protections, childcare policy, and implementing the President’s day one Equity Executive Order. Following her studies at Princeton, Liz hopes to return to local-level housing work. In her spare time, she enjoys watching and reviewing movies and catching up on c-list celebrity gossip.