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Rights or Power: TANC Organizing Committee on SF’s ‘Right to Organize’

by TANC Organizing Committee
'Right to organize' legislation limits its nominal goal and solidifies conditions unfavorable to mass tenant power.
In February, San Francisco officials amended administrative code to “require residential landlords to allow tenant organizing activities to occur in common areas of the building; require certain residential landlords to recognize duly-established tenant associations, confer in good faith with said associations, and attend some of their meetings upon request; and provide that a landlord’s failure to allow organizing activities or comply with their obligations as to tenant associations may support a petition for a rent reduction.” They call it the “right to organize.”

While the media and some tenant organizations hailed the legislation as an unprecedented expansion of tenant rights, in key ways the legislation limits its nominal goal and solidifies conditions that undermine mass tenant power. We believe it is critical for autonomous tenant unions like Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), which aim for the total abolition of rent, to analyze such legislation in order to continue developing our positions on reform and tenant power.

The San Francisco legislation constrains organizing by narrowly defining “tenant association.” Under the law, only tenants in buildings with five or more units can form associations. This excludes thousands of tenants living in single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes.

This leaves out the tenants of landlords who exploited the 2008 crisis to accumulate huge rental portfolios of foreclosed single-family homes and small multi-unit buildings. The vast exemption describes many currently active and organized tenant councils comprising our membership.

Non-profit landlords are also completely exempt from the legislation. This leaves out tenants of many single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings, including those run by some of San Francisco’s most prolific pandemic evictors, such as the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. The exemption favors the slumlords operating under nonprofit auspices (not least in sponsoring pols’ districts), and disregards the legacy of struggle of the city’s SRO tenants.

For qualifying buildings, prospective tenant associations are required to petition the landlord for recognition with signatures from at least half of the building’s units. Requiring tenants to identify themselves to the landlord may put them at risk for retaliation. This isn’t a speculative assertion. Many of our members, especially those living in subsidized housing or that have experienced homelessness or other forms of housing insecurity, are concerned about or have experienced targeted retaliation for organizing, or even for asserting their rights on an individual basis.

With so many limitations on who can form “tenant associations,” and other criteria meriting the associations’ validity under the law, the legislation risks providing landlords and landlord lawyers the statutory justification to rhetorically challenge the legitimacy of any tenant organization.

The law requires landlords to meet periodically with qualifying tenant associations and “confer in good faith,” defining this phrase by way of examples including “putting agreements into writing,” and tenants of landlords who don’t comply with the law may petition the rent board for penalties.

In other words, under the law, the state not only defines a legitimate tenant association, the state also polices appropriate interactions between organized tenants and landlords. Why does this “right to organize” lead to the same legal system that structurally upholds landlord power?

The bureaucratic process of the rent board doesn’t ensure action for tenants who are in need of relief any more than organizing, whether from harassment, habitability issues, or even eviction. In fact, as we’ve seen historically, it discourages possibilities for experimental collective action.

By channeling tenant organizing towards the San Francisco Rent Board, this ordinance is reminiscent of the creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) amid rank-and-file union militancy of the 1930s. The NLRB nudged organizing from the shopfloor and towards the drawer, laying the groundwork for politically constraining labor with the postwar Taft-Hartley Act.

The “right to organize” law similarly follows a groundswell of tenant militancy during the pandemic, including rent strikes and home expropriations. Tenant and labor unions aligned with the growing autonomous tendency of class struggle should beware these historical parallels.

Recent reforms that arbitrarily stratify tenants have most negatively impacted the poorest, most precarious, and most marginalized tenants. The period between the 2018 passage of a state law selectively expanding “rent control” and its implementation the next year saw an uptick in evictions and rent hikes at qualifying units. Pandemic eviction restrictions, meanwhile, have not prevented nuisance evictions, harassment, lockouts, and other forms of constructive eviction.

The San Francisco legislation reads similarly to the “right to organize” granted to tenants of federally-subsidized buildings, which promotes participation “in certain decisions regarding the well-being of the property.” Despite this protection, and even substantial funding, HUD tenants struggle with the same challenges to organize as those without: Social and political isolation, landlord intimidation and harassment, and the burden of wealth extraction through rent.

Tenant rights are always strategic considerations, and tenants already have organizing protections. Landlords can’t legally retaliate against tenants who exercise their rights. The warranty of habitability can even protect tenants who withhold rent on an unlivable unit.

Like these protections, the San Francisco legislation may increase tenants’ leverage in certain conditions. We hope to see tenant associations proliferate and use the law to their advantage—without mistaking legal recourse for building a militant tenant movement.

As the autonomous tendency of the tenant movement attempts to make itself socially and politically legible we should refrain from pursuing loophole-laden reforms and focus instead on building the power necessary to make them irrelevant.

It bears repeating: The problem for the tenant in the tenant-landlord relation isn’t “effective communications,” as the ordinance says. The problem for the tenant is the existence of rent; it’s the commodification of life-sustaining shelter. And our power as organized tenants emerges, not from laws and city officials, but from our capacity to confront landlords directly and collectively. Organizing, in this context, transcends legal rights. It is an affirmation of our struggle together towards the possibilities of another world.
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