Tenant Organizing. Photo Credit: Gerri Fernandez
Tenants protesting in Englewood. Photo by: ThoughtPoet/GoodKids MadCity

Tenant Unions Form to Cope with the Crisis

The formation of tenant unions across the city is just the first step in a greater project that brings self-determination to tenants.

Amidst the greatest health crisis in almost a century, in conjunction with one of the biggest economic downturns since the Great Depression, housing insecurity is one of the first and most prominent issues Chicago residents are coming to face. Recent estimates indicate that over 30 million people could face eviction in the U.S. because of the pandemic and the related economic crisis. In a county where over 40% of households are occupied by renters, many Chicago tenants are mobilizing today to meet the needs of one another and to take a stand for liveable conditions for all city residents.

Data from the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Loyola University show that potential evictions peaked between May and August, but were not carried out after a state moratorium was passed. Although the eviction moratorium for COVID-19-related evictions has been extended to February 6, tenants still face forced removal from landlords. There remain ongoing legislative fights to require just cause for eviction and the end of the rent control ban, and the conditions of the pandemic have made urgent the opportunity to get more people involved with tenant organizing than ever before. The formation of tenant unions across the city is just the first step in a greater project that brings self-determination to tenants.

At the center of these organizing efforts is the Chicago Tenants Movement (CTM). The coalition, which formed this past summer, came to existence out of organizations like the Albany Park-based Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU), Tenants United (TU), Logan Square Mutual Aid, Somos Logan Square, Solidaridad Inquilina, Únete La Villita, Pilsen Alliance (PA), Chicago DSA and ONE Northside. After organizers in ATU and others in the city began petitioning Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker to freeze rent, they saw potential to build a network for tenant organizing across the city.

“We have all these people who want to get involved in organizing, contacting us who we don’t have the capacity to be in touch with,” Jake Marshall, an organizer with ATU, said. “We have 17,000 people signing this petition, many of whom are indicating they want to get involved. Why don’t we take advantage of this kind of group of organizers that came together for this petition and keep meeting and keep thinking about how can we sustain this energy.”

CTM functions as a collection of smaller organizations that help give communities across the city the resources to help organize tenants to build their own unions. Tenants of a particular building or tenants that live in buildings owned by a single landlord can form their own unions to represent their demands. By building hubs across the city of multiple unions and community organizations, CTM attempts to build out “hyper-local” organizing efforts that can adapt to the varying conditions tenant live in throughout Chicago.

“When CTM goes in, we don’t try to tell the tenants what to do,” Michael Tilly Parks, an organizer in the South Side hub of CTM, said. “We’re not coming in and saying that you need to do this, this and this. We give them advice and we give them guidance, but ultimately, it’s their decision, it’s their housing, and we try to build up their own feelings of power, of both power as the individual and in the collective.”

This can include measures whereby landlords cut utilities, harassment, or other extralegal measures. As a set lighting technician for television shows, Parks spends some of his time with CTM responding to calls to help fix utilities so tenants can remain in their apartments.

“I respond to a lot of illegal lockouts or landlords cutting utilities, and 100% of them that I’ve responded to are brown and Black people, majorly on the South Side, and those that weren’t, were on the West Side,” Parks said. “After a summer when we were really considering racial justice in the context of police, we also have to, and I think most people do, consider it in all other spheres, the housing sphere especially.”

Parks noted that similar to other trends that can be tracked by race in Chicago, a significant portion of the stronger tenant unions in the city are based on the North Side. However, in recent months, there has been a rise in the formation of tenant unions across the South Side, such as Mac Tenants United and TU Hyde Park/Woodlawn. Parks said CTM is working to establish strong relationships with other local organizations throughout the South Side and give them the tenant-related resources to help expand their work to include tenants in their neighborhoods.

At TU Hyde Park/Woodlawn, organizers are helping residents fight illegal lockouts by replacing locks for tenants and building public campaigns of dissent against major property groups like Mac Properties. John Hieronymus, a founding member of TU and their coordinating committee, noted how hyper-local, community-driven tenant organizing appeals to residents more than non-profit non-governmental organizations that attempt to bring change.

“Most tenants, when they called some of the bigger existing tenant organizations that have been around since the 80s, kind of get a sense that they’re really just there to help negotiate to believe in a community rather than actually fighting and organizing to keep them there,” Hieronymus said. “So generally, even though there’s a lot of community expertise with how to deal with landlords on an informal basis, on the more public, formal tenant organization, most people’s experience with that is very positive.”

Tenant organizing for some groups can be another extension of current campaigns. At Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots organization advocating for affordable housing and immigrants’ rights, they have expanded their efforts in organizing tenant-related work as the pandemic has continued. They’ve connected community members to resources with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, as well as ATU and CTM, to help reduce the chance residents may leave the city altogether. Beyond mutual aid and rent assistance, PA also has sought to step in for tenants facing serious circumstances.

On January 23, PA and Mi Villita community organizers gathered outside of 3200 S. Kedzie to protest against the Saint Anthony Hospital development project that residents say could trigger the displacement of families in Little Village and is attempting to evict a group of people currently residing there. Saint Anthony intends to take the occupants to eviction court, despite being unable to demonstrate an eviction order during the moratorium. “The building is zoned for industrial use, and their conversion of part of an industrial building into their personal residence was illegal, unsafe and dangerous,” a spokesperson for Saint Anthony said in a statement.

Moises Moreno, executive director of PA, said the renters they’re working with “are exercising their rights to form a tenant union.”

“We have one building that is kind of our focal point right now because [renters] feel that just having tenant meetings, understanding that the issues that they have are not just their own,” he said. “Half the people in the building are also struggling and afraid about being displaced. And then they feel like this ‘Oh, I feel stronger now. I feel I have support. I’m not afraid of retaliation.’”

GoodKids MadCity, PA, CTM, TU, the Chicago Union of the Homeless, and other grassroots groups organized a Housing Justice for All press conference in Englewood on January 26 for a tenant who was allegedly assaulted by her landlord. The landlord had also destroyed the tenant’s property and apartment windows, the groups said, and they demanded he be removed as the property manager. In building relationships between organizations, organizers can connect tenants to the appropriate resources to first seek safety and then organize themselves.

Unions are seeing success in their efforts. In an ATU-affiliated building in Albany Park, tenants living in a recently sold building were able to stop a 30-day eviction notice and pressured their landlord to negotiate new leases for current without any back-rent being owed nor anyone being evicted. At the North Spaulding Renters’ Association, which organizes residents in M. Fishman & Co. properties, organizers negotiated a month’s free rent at the start of the pandemic. PA-affiliated residents formed a union this past year and are working to educate members on their rights as renters.

Because eviction courts are holding less frequent hearings due to the pandemic and as the moratorium remains in place, this moment can be a pivotal one with leverage for organizers. Marshall hopes that through the mobilization and organizing of tenants throughout the city, residents can focus primarily on their essential purchases while organizing for rent cancellation.

“If you are in a position where you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your income and you’re desperate that normally there’s this attitude that you have to sacrifice anything to make rent,” Marshall said. “And what we’re saying here is that at least until the moratorium runs out, you shouldn’t be doing that, right? You should be buying food, you should be buying diapers, you should be getting your medicine, and exercising the power you have as a tenant to make a demand of your landlord saying that, ‘look, I don’t think it’s right, that I should have to be on the hook for back rent during a crisis like this.’”

Anecdotally, Parks noted that amongst CTM organizers, they have a vision to “abolish the tenant-landlord dynamic and make housing a human right.”

Whether it is those fighting against displacement from a big developer, or an apartment complex unionizing to restore their heating, what remains clear is that tenants and organizers are fighting for everyone to have a safe space to call home.

Correction, February 3, 2021: The story was edited to reflect the Chicago Tenants Movement as a coalition made up of various organizations.

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Noah Tesfaye is a Bay Area-born journalist, columnist at the Maroon student newspaper, and second-year at U of C studying political science and critical race and ethnic studies. He last wrote for the Weekly about rapper Blvck Svm.

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