New Tenant Movement Blooms in Oakland and the East Bay

Though June 30 is the scheduled end of the CDC’s federal moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent, the housing crisis isn’t going anywhere. A recent survey shows that DSA chapters rank housing as the most important issue they deal with.

The San Francisco Bay Area is a logical place for tenant organizing to gain momentum, as rents have infamously skyrocketed in the region. Despite a slight dip in the early uncertain months of the pandemic, rents are already back up, with $2,000 being a common rate for a one-bedroom apartment.

So, instead of waiting for policymakers to take the crisis seriously, some tenants have formed a union to solve their most pressing needs. Today, thanks to organizing by members of East Bay DSA, the Oakland-based Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) has more than 400 dues-paying members.

Representing Oakland, Berkeley, and the rest of the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, East Bay DSA (EBDSA) is the fifth-largest DSA chapter in the United States. TANC grew from EBDSA but is not officially connected to DSA. Although a resolution to create the tenants union within EBDSA failed at the chapter’s annual convention in 2018, some 15 EBDSA members decided to form TANC as a completely autonomous group, eventually expanding it to nearly 80 members by the time the pandemic hit in March 2020. 

“COVID basically exploded that and made growth happen ten times faster for six months,” said Matt Takaichi, a member of both TANC and EBDSA as well as current co-chair of the EBDSA Social Housing Committee.

The primary goal of TANC is to help tenants organize themselves and take action. A handbook provided by the group begins with a broad introduction to the power of thinking and acting politically amid a worsening rent crisis—”solidarity is our weapon”—but also offers a detailed escalation guide with tactics tenants can use on their own (such as citing the law in communications with landlords or filing official complaints with local municipalities) as well as tactics that leverage TANC’s resources and connections to other tenant councils. 

Image via TANC

While EBDSA’s Social Housing Committee has one working group focused on promoting social housing policy, the other big working group focuses on tenant organizing work through the newly formed Socialist Housing Organizer Project (SHOP), which was approved by democratic vote within both TANC and EBDSA to function as an intermediary between the two.

A concrete program designed to help individuals become disciplined socialist tenant organizers, SHOP starts with an extensive onboarding process, including reading materials to give a crash course on why housing is broken and how it can be fixed through a tenant movement. Far from being only theoretical, however, the ongoing process is tailored to each member, encouraging them to examine how they can improve their own situation, connect with other tenants, and ultimately negotiate with landlords over specific issues. 

Central to all of this is the fact that SHOP and TANC are teaching the fundamentals of organizing, including how to canvass, how to avoid alienating people, and how to run a meeting. While TANC was initially formed entirely by DSA members, the vast majority of TANC members today are not associated with DSA. For many, it’s their first experience with organizing.

“There are more people becoming active organizers and supporters,” said Justin Gilmore, an EBDSA member and co-founder of TANC. “There are more people organizing their buildings and attending local meetings. There are more people joining as members. The sum total of that is to create a new constituency that didn’t exist before that has a level of class consciousness around the housing question. That’s probably the most important thing TANC is doing, and if that continues, I imagine it will help change the political landscape in the Bay in a few years.”

Real estate speculation isn’t just a Bay Area phenomenon though: While rental income remained relatively flat and under $30 billion between 1950 and 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, that figure has surged to more than $800 billion over the past two decades. 

Like many examples of community organizing, TANC was created based on the real needs of its members, most of whom were tenants living under hostile landlords. One tenant described how their landlord (who owned more than 40 units across Berkeley and Oakland) made it overly burdensome to replace roommates that had moved out, effectively raising the rent on everyone still living in the unit and ultimately forcing self-evictions. 

Yet organizing tenants has its challenges. In a large apartment complex, organizers can make  the rounds of each floor, knocking on doors to gain neighbors’ support or remind them of a meeting happening downstairs. However, many landlords in the Bay Area rent out duplexes and single-family homes split into multiple units, and they could own hundreds of these units across multiple cities and counties. This means tenants have to do a bit more research to find each other. In some cases that means searching public records for properties owned by landlords or even using mass marketing tools to dig up the data, and then canvassing. It’s a lot more work for one, two, or even a handful of organizers to make sure that all those tenants are on the same page.

Tenant organizing work may be tough work, but it’s able to achieve quick, easy wins rarely seen through the grind of electoral organizing. In Sacramento County, the seat of California’s capital, the Sacramento Tenants Union (STU) pushed for Measure C, which would have created an elected rental housing board, limited rent increases, and required specific conditions for evictions. The measure failed, with 61% of respondents voting “no.” Now STU has shifted its focus from electoral work to tenant organizing.

STU and TANC are both part of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN), which is made up of representatives of all the tenant unions that exist in North America. Today, 25 unions across Canada and the U.S. are dues-paying members of ATUN. With the tenant movement still growing, ATUN helps connect smaller tenant unions to more established groups like the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), which has thousands of dues-paying members as well as the resources and solutions that come with experience.

This still feels like early work, and there’s still a long way to go, especially since landlords are very well-organized and flush with cash. But tenants across North America are waking up and realizing that, in solidarity, they hold a great deal of power.