Good Cause and a Tenants’ Union! Building Independent Tenant Power

Image caption: In the foreground is a poster that reads “No Evictions without Good Cause”, and in the background is a mural of Martin Luther King.

By James Yeun


Fight for What’s Right

The Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) was officially established in 2015, after several years as a solidarity network modeled after the Seattle Solidarity Network. At the Founding Congress, members voted to pursue advocacy of Good Cause eviction protections (called “Just Cause” in other cities).

Good Cause eviction protection laws are designed to outline the conditions under which a landlord can fail to renew a tenants’ lease. While the specifics change from bill to bill, often it means only being able to evict or not renew a lease in cases such as failing to accept a rent increase, breaching the terms of the lease, or a desire by the landlord or their direct family to live in the unit.

The PTU supports Good Cause because it directly answers Philadelphia’s expanding eviction crisis and provided a solid legal base for future reforms. Based on the 2010 Census, Philadelphia is the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab project, Philadelphia’s eviction rate was 3.48% in 2016. This is well above the national eviction rate of 2.34%, and more than double the eviction rate in New York City, which was 1.61% in the same year. However, even this obscures great variation in eviction rates throughout the city. In 2015, census tracts that were 80% Black faced eviction rates of 10.2%, whereas those that were less than 10% Black only saw eviction rates of 3.3%.

While reforms like rent control would directly address the issue of rising rents, rent control does not directly solve the problem of evictions. Moreover, without Good Cause protections, rent control is unenforceable: a landlord can evict tenants from rent-controlled units and replace them with market-rate tenants, without any reason. Good Cause is the necessary first though far from the last step to moving towards rebuilding the affordable housing stock in Philadelphia.

Left Alone

To founding members of the PTU, Good Cause represented a minimal progressive demand. Found in several states and major cities, Good Cause is a growing staple in progressive housing policy. Among the handful of existing tenants’ rights non-profits in Philadelphia, nearly all publicly supported Good Cause prior to the PTU’s advocacy, and some had been already been trying to introduce the bill for years.

Despite this, our initial attempt at a coalition with non-profits dissolved. Once we began canvassing buildings and directly pressuring city council members, non-profits feared that we would sour their relationships with their friends on city council. Quickly, our partners distanced themselves from us and dropped active advocacy of Good Cause.

Similarly, we found little support from “progressive” city council members beyond silent nods. In meetings with such council members, we were told in no uncertain terms that support of this bill was currently impossible. At one town hall meeting, we were told that the most effective course of action was to hold another town hall meeting in a year.

Preparing to Strike When Crisis Hits

For two years, we found little support for our advocacy work but this did not slow our organizing. The PTU is organized along a dual strategy of advocacy and tackling individual tenant struggles—and the latter in many ways is the core of our organizing.

We continued advocating and raising awareness on Good Cause, mobilizing actions at town halls, canvassing to collect signatures and tabling at community events. However, during this period, the brunt of the organizing work turned to individual tenant fights. This gave us the experience of building an effective fighting organization and raising new tenant leaders.

Our advocacy campaign gained momentum only after we tackled our largest fight. At Penn Wynn Houses, we found more than 60 tenants at risk of mass eviction without “good cause”. Many of those remaining were on fixed income and could not afford to move so quickly; others needed to wait for Section 8 vouchers to come through. While we could not stop the evictions, we won several months of delay and personally moved dozens of tenants.

This victory brought us new wave of core organizers and gave us the media attention necessary to finally find our bill’s sponsor. Even in the midst of this mass eviction, many of the existing progressives in the city still failed to mobilize. Once our bill was sponsored by a center-left council member who represented the district in which the mass eviction occurred, progressives had no choice but to support our initiative.

Pushing Independently for Reforms

As the legislative struggle has unfolded, the PTU has been the leading force in pushing the bill. Though some supporters of Good Cause, such as the city’s Community Legal Services, have provided crucial legal support and advice, we’ve organized the lobbying days, filled City Hall, outlined the strategy to target specific city council members, produced our own branding, led the social media campaigns, continued to take on individual tenant fights and raise tenant leaders, and organized local union, community associations, and non-profits into a sponsoring coalition.

In contrast to the typical position of the Left, the PTU is not acting as a minority voice in a broad grassroots coalition, but as the dominant force centering the voices of those who’ve experienced unjust eviction, garnering support among more establishment organizations, and directly negotiating with City Council.

The PTU is facing strong resistance from HAPCO, Philadelphia’s largest association of landlords. As a result, the PTU has found itself at a standstill with the remaining four Democratic councilmembers it needs to win a vote. Furthermore, the supporting five councilmembers refuse to bring this bill to a vote. Rather than publicly demonstrate that City Council will not support Good Cause eviction protections, Democrats would rather put forth a new sham bill. They would dress this bill as if it contained Good Cause eviction protections, when in reality it would do nothing more than require landlords to renew the lease if they are selling or renovating the property.

There’s still time to win and momentum remains on the side of the PTU.  Should the PTU lose the fight for Good Cause, it would be a defeat for every tenant in Philadelphia. However, the fight does not end in legislatures. The fight to build a base of independent tenant power is not rooted in City Hall—it is always located in the building in which tenants live.

Currently, the PTU is already embroiled in another mass eviction campaign, where 60+ tenants have been illegally ordered to leave. To this new fight, the PTU brings the experiences, cadre, and relationships it has built over the course of its struggle for Good Cause. Community Legal Services and Tenant Union Representative Network brought these fights to the attention of the PTU, and helped rally tenants and media attention.

Building Independent Tenant Power

In all cities experiencing an eviction crisis, a mass eviction may not occur every day but they are commonplace. The question is what can the Left do about it? What the PTU has pursued from the beginning is a strategy of base-building: organizing centered on the development of deep, long-term trust-based relationships directly with the oppressed.

Our road to power did not lie in establishing relationships with other activists, non-profits entities, or city council members, but in establishing deep, long-term trust-based relationships with poor or working-class tenants, often from communities of color. The primary concern was not, “How do we pass this bill?” but “How do we build a movement that can defend this bill and others like it?” Such a strategy is not built by carefully balancing the political needs of City Council and non-profits, but by articulating across differences in politics or identity a sense of community.

Currently, several of the PTU’s Executive Committee and overall leadership are formerly-organized tenants. The PTU represents a unity between transplants from outside Philadelphia, who trend white and young, and long-term residents, who trend older, Black, and Brown. Politically, differences also persist between those who identify with the revolutionary Left and those who identify with reformism. Throughout the PTU’s existence, building an organization capable of articulating difference in politics and identity was a priority. There is no other way to build a democratic organization in one of the most diverse but segregated cities in the country.

This is truly difficult work for its runs against some of the basic instincts many of us have as activists. It can be difficult to tackle individual tenant fights, knowing you may be bogged down in a stranger’s problems for months with no guarantee of success. It is even more difficult to stay committed to this work, when new social movements arise and begin to swell with thousands.

However, we will never build organizations that are filled and led by the oppressed if we do not demonstrate our commitment to our communities. A tenant will not call us if we have a reputation of dropping cases. A tenant will not become a leader if they see the PTU as the vanity project of activists. We need to rebuild the faith people once had in the Left as genuine problem-solvers and deeply-connected community leaders. This can only be done if we demonstrate that we genuinely care for our fellow members in a way that breeds a deep lasting trust. A genuine, material solidarity.

Disclosure: James Yeun is a dues-paying member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union. This is not an official representation of the views of the PTU. Only the views of a single member.

WANT TO SUPPORT THE PTU? RALLY AT CITY HALL ON MAY 31st AT 10AM! Demand City Council vote for Good Cause before they leave for recess. Demand City Council vote on Good Cause not a gutted bill designed to appease the landlord lobby.

RSVP here on Facebook.

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