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New Carpet in the Hallways? Get Organized!

17-Jun-2019Stuart Strader and Brynn Strader

How Tenants in Seattle Successfully Fought Back

Stuart Strader and Brynn Strader are Kenton Apartments Tenants & Co-organizers

On February 1, 2019, Milestone Properties, LLC took over a 15 unit 1920s-era apartment building, the Kenton, in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. They attempted to raise the rents by as much as 68 percent by slapping uniform rents onto units — $1,675 for single bedrooms and $1,975 for two bedrooms — and wrenching up utility fees previously included in the rent to as much as $150 for couples. Responding with shock and anger, the tenants who had been previously organizing to oppose the sale of the building, first won minor but important concessions: blocking the utility fees entirely, reducing the rent increase by $75, and delaying the increase by two months.

Through our continued collective action, we eventually won our demand! After the old lease notifications were rescinded, new notices only called for 10% increases, and parking and utility fees were cut. The landlord even acknowledged she made a “mistake” by raising the rents so high. These are rare concessions for a landlord to make, much less to a group of self-organized tenants.

It is important to take the news of these successes to other groups of tenants. We can show it is possible to fight back and win. Together we can organize the basis for further battles of the working class against landlord parasitism. We demand city-wide rent control. Publicly owned and democratically managed housing is needed on a large scale to provide people-affordable housing.

Who is This Landlord Company?

Milestone portrays itself as one of the “good guy” landlords. They are a relatively small firm in the grand scheme of things, with only $65 million in assets, 11 buildings in the Seattle area, and some 500 units all told. This is in comparison to the largest corporate landlords who own thousands of units in the city.

Good Guys?

In a publicly facing notice taped to the front door of the building after their first capitulation, Milestone wrote:

“Believe it or not, Milestone Properties is one of the good guys.

We maintain our properties with a full-time staff, hire local tradespeople and comply with City Tenant Law.

We rent to Section 8, Plymouth Housing, Catholic Community Service & Chief Seattle (sic) clients in an effort to help solve the homeless problem.

We maintain buildings that are aged and have character to save the historical skyline of Seattle.

We made a mistake with raising rents and adding utility fees but we fixed it and the new rates are fair.

We are operating a business in a City that continues to grow. And the City continues to increase property tax, utilities and business fees.”

If the “good guys” increase rents by up to 68 percent, the failure of a market-driven housing system is obvious.

The company’s owner, Rhoda Altom, is well established in liberal donor circles, a founding member of Washington Women’s Foundation, the National Park Foundation’s treasurer, and on the board of trustees of the Frye Art Museum.

Milestone’s rhetoric is just flowery perfume to cover up the not so subtle rotting smell wafting from their profiteering. With a global crisis of capitalism pumping massive investments into real estate, the dwindling stock of older affordable housing is being consolidated by corporate landlords like Milestone, and the rents are rising nearly to the levels of newly built luxury housing.

Before Milestone took over, our previous landlord had more or less also claimed to be a “good one.” He kept rents lower than market rate, but he was still benefiting from tenants who took care of the building and were a minimal hassle for fear of rocking the boat. Rents are only one component of the profits a real estate investor expects. By far, the most important is asset appreciation. The landlord who sold the Kenton bought the building in the early 1980s for roughly $200,000 and sold it in 2019 for $4.6 million. And since they are holding the mortgage for the new landlord, they are being paid directly by the new landlord’s rent hikes.

Ultimately, landlords and renters can never see eye-to-eye. As long as the state maintains private property over other people's homes, landlords will always have power over tenants.

Kenton Tenants Got Organized

The Kenton tenants started meeting in October 2018 when the previously frugal landlord suddenly began to make superficial improvements to the building — new carpet in the hallways! — and announced that numerous prospective buyers would be traipsing through renters’ units to survey the goods.

With increasing organization and political consciousness, neighbors moved from asking the previous landlord to issue renewed year-long leases, to proposing to buy the building as a co-operative, to demanding that the new landlord meet with the tenants to hear our demands that no unit receive more than a 10 percent rent increase.

Tenants began attending other tenant organization meetings and press conferences. They made coordinated phone calls every hour to the manager in charge of the rent increase, calling on them to meet with the tenants. When a Milestone representative refused to meet, the tenants held a rally on their front stoop to read their demands and videotaped it to share on the “Milestone Tenants Fight Back” Twitter and Facebook pages.

Unable to locate Milestone’s offices, they marched on the company owner’s lakeside suburban estate to deliver a collectively signed letter. The tenants saw that the same notice used to announce rent increases had been consolidated into a notice to vacate should they choose not to pay the increase, which is illegal in Seattle. They then contacted the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) to use this violation to temporarily halt the increases.

Some tenants, along with other activists, also began canvassing other Milestone properties with agitational leaflets, sharing their stories and hearing other Milestone tenants’ experiences while living under their management.

The utility and rent concessions came early as a result of the “phone zap,” while the SDCI intervention was tactically timed to occur one month into the two month window of Seattle’s “Just Cause” law required for increases above 10 percent. This was intended to buy the tenants as much time as possible to continue organizing while on their current leases, while providing buffer time for those tenants most in threat of eviction to find new housing in case our efforts to stop the rent hikes proved unsuccessful.

No Easy Road

Tenant organizing presents a difficult set of challenges. Renters meet landlords as customers, yet have few legal protections. In much of Washington State, there is only a mandated 20 day notice to vacate, while Seattle requires just cause to evict and 60 days notice for rent increases above 10 percent. While this protection gives some time for renters to organize, there is a fear of being taken to eviction court which can mark a renter’s history as a troublemaker.

Most apartment buildings don’t provide the daily interactions and comradery of a workplace. In the Kenton, there was little to no community previous to organizing, and few ties existed between the residents who did not depend on each other for help in day-to-day struggles. Had tenants been able to break the ice years ago, they could have watched each other’s pets while away, shared wi-fi passwords, and held community dinners. But such is the reality of most renter experiences.

In this situation, it’s difficult to get tenants interested and engaged with weekly group meetings, let alone have the many face-to-face discussions necessary to build trust and share perspectives. Reserved and reluctant neighbors are nearly impossible to pin down for conversations. An organizer can knock on a door, but they can’t make anyone answer.

With low levels of working class consciousness and a lack of organization, the core organizers were challenged to win support, let alone voluntary participation in escalatory steps. Tensions between militant workers and those with liberal illusions threaten to rupture at every step. As concessions and wins accumulate, anger is mitigated and pressure to re-conform to the existing system mounts. Additionally, organizing energy is lost if victories aren’t recognized or celebrated. At a certain point, the pressure to join in makes it difficult to hold an apolitical social gathering.

At the peak of the movement, active members of the Kenton tenant organization canvassed other buildings in Milestone’s housing stock. Apart from the normal difficulties of trying to canvass controlled entry buildings and risking being thrown out, there was a notably low rate of success in getting tenants in other buildings to engage beyond passive support. Many were happy that residents of the Kenton were fighting back, but had no interest in organizing themselves. While many promising conversations did occur, it requires time to develop these connections — time that self-organized tenants with a two month deadline to either pay up or vacate their homes do not have.

What needs to happen?

With a possible economic recession on the horizon, there will be no end to the housing crisis anytime soon. As rent and other bills rise, and wages stagnate or fall, the need for relief for tens of millions of tenants will only increase.

Although currently tenants are generally not confident that they can pressure landlords to concede to their demands through collective action, a minority of tenants are being increasingly compelled to organize collectively just to survive.

Most of these struggles by politically inexperienced tenants and activists will likely be unsuccessful for a period. But a new layer of activists has emerged in the last decade since the Great Recession, and they are gaining more experience, a clearer political understanding of class conflict, and the confidence that working-class people can win.

Groups of tenants are starting to score isolated victories, but most of these victories have been too small to keep up with the rent hikes and the deeper process of gentrification. It is likely that the first big victories for working-class people will come from stronger social movements such as #MeToo or Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Wherever the victories come from, they will demonstrate the power that working-class people have when many of us unite and fight in a determined fashion. A few high profile victories will raise the sights and expectations of millions of poor and oppressed people, paving the way for much greater struggles that will spur on the fight for affordable housing.

The key tasks for tenants now is to get organized and gain experience in the class struggle by participating in broad social movements, housing justice campaigns, or launching our own housing campaigns. The development of experienced and knowledgeable leaders who know how to lead others in organizing successful campaigns, sometimes after a period of trial and error, will be a key factor in achieving success.

Activists can become much more politically educated if they study Marxism to understand how society changes and how a socialist alternative to capitalist society can work. Studying the history of social movements, such as the civil rights movement and the Russian Revolution, can help clarify which ideas and strategies achieved limited results and which ones achieved dramatic results.

By sharing the Kenton’s successes and other important victories, such as the recent New York rent control victory, we can connect our individual housing struggles together as part of a broader movement, and we can demonstrate how to fight back and win.

The Washington State government — controlled by Democrats since the last election — has been reluctant to take action. While Washington State's governor Jay Inslee is travelling through New Hampshire for his presidential bid, Democrats who control the state legislature have not lifted the ban on rent control and are only now moving forward with minimal protections to prevent the worst of landlord abuses. A new law, won through tenant organizing and grassroots activism, effectively extends pay-or-vacate notices from 3 to 14 days, and gives judges more leeway to side with renters in eviction trials.

Tenant self-organization on the individual building scale is difficult to sustain. In the short term, it is more likely that renter struggles will have to be conducted on the political plane. We need to push politicians and run independent working-class candidates both citywide and statewide to enact rent control, with an absolute minimum demand of rent hikes of no more than 10 percent per year.

As housing is being increasingly talked about by presidential candidates, the presidential election is a major opportunity for tenants to bring forward clear demands for rent control, a massive investment in social housing, and other demands. Tenants and activists need to press candidates to commit publicly to these demands while millions of voters are increasingly sizing up their campaigns. By organizing protests at candidates’ rallies, ordinary people can push our demands onto the national agenda instead of letting the corporate media and establishment candidates ignore or side-step our demands.

DSA should help build fighting tenants unions across the country to establish immediate protections for renters and build a movement strong enough to eventually end the for-profit, speculative housing industry. The movement needs to campaign for rent control, taxing the rich to build publicly-owned, democratically controlled housing, and taking the largest real estate companies into democratic public ownership.

We need mass tenant organizations that won’t cut deals with landlords but instead aim to mobilize workers, help build independent tenants unions inside and across buildings, and run campaigns to strengthen renters’ power and working-class consciousness. The tenants movement should form coalitions with labor unions that want to fight for workers, not just at their workplaces, but wherever they face exploitation and oppression. DSA could help build these organizations and work to convince them to take up bold anti-capitalist demands, with the goal of creating a new mass workers’ party which could challenge private ownership of real estate and other major industries.