Getting the House

An block print of people gathering in front of a sunrise
The movement against landlords picks up steam — three organizers tell their stories

By Cheryl Rivera

The other day I went on StreetEasy and searched for Brooklyn apartments renting for under $1,500. There were eight results, one of which was a tiled basement without windows. The day before I had watched a succession of Instagram stories from acquaintances begging for leads on rooms renting below $1,200, below $1,000, below $800 (and friendly to cats, of which there are two). There is no longer any state, county, or city in the United States where a minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment on their own, according to a 2023 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

As landlords extract skyrocketing rents, tenant unionization has increased apace. Renters in cities across the country are developing increasingly confrontational tactics, such as long-term rent strikes and building unions that include tenants in multiple buildings owned by
the same landlord. 

On the frontlines of these struggles are ordinary people who want stable homes. In this moment of increased austerity and militarized policing, their personal struggle has become political, often intersecting with labor and racial justice struggles. We talked to three tenants about fighting their landlords, connecting their fights to other movements, and how it feels to become an organizer. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.  —Cheryl Rivera

Megan reads a statement during an October 16 press conference outside her property manager’s headquarters.

Megan Franklin, 33, Chicago, Illinois

Megan has lived in her Chicago apartment for nearly a decade; it’s the only home her two sons, ages eight and nine, have ever known. When her landlord bought the building a few years ago (after her neighborhood in South Side Chicago began to gentrify), he neglected maintenance and tenant complaints until this year, when Megan’s foot went right through her floor. She began documenting her fight against him on Twitter under her handle, @NoEmmaG and has already organized the entire building. On November 8, after getting the city to fine her landlord millions for the violations in her building, Megan tweeted “you coulda played wit anybody in the world and chose to play wit me. sad.”

On how it all started: 

I fell through the floor this January. In our common area there was a cracked tile that had a rug over it. I was walking upstairs and I fell through the floor. I was in shock. When I went to the hospital the next day, I showed them the pictures because it was a very surprising thing to happen.

It’s important to be honest with each other and not let shame hold us back.

I didn’t start organizing until June 2023. Between December 2022 and April 2023 I had a whole bunch of housing issues. On Christmas, my apartment flooded with sewage, and then a month after I fell through the floor. Then I found out we had a rat problem — there was a rat stuck in my stove. The landlord was threatening me, giving me five-day notices. So it was like a culmination of all those issues that made me talk to my friend Dixon, who is part of a group called Not Me, We [a community group based in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago].

I worked for Chicago Public Schools for almost 10 years. I started in 2012, when we had that first round of strikes and school closures. As a union member, I know how the union shit goes — it’s slow — and I didn’t really think a tenant union was going to get things moving like it did. But as soon as I started talking to my neighbors, I realized the problem was way bigger than I thought. 

My landlord was telling me that I was the only person with the rat issue, that I needed to just wash my dishes. Then when you start talking to your neighbors and you realize he’s telling them the same stuff. It’s important to be honest with each other and not let shame hold us back.

On how she developed her union:

There are 21 other people in the union; there’s only two families in the building who are not unionized. We unionized in June.

I started talking with the people I knew and saw often. Then I started working with Dixon, who told us to move at the speed of trust, so we had the first few meetings just to let everyone talk about their grievances. That built relationships that allowed us to move quickly [in the last few months].

We went door to door to meet with every tenant so they could see our faces. I was also very consistent with keeping up communication even if I didn’t get a response. Before the meetings I would send my kids around to the doors. They’re going around and getting the other kids to come too. We would have food, drinks, snacks. 

On the consequences of organizing:
Mold-covered vent pulled from Megan’s furnace. It had been there for years

At first the landlord, Ari, was just targeting me because I wanted a new stove. Then the first story [about the union] hit the press in July. Ari has followed me on the street. I had to start filing police reports on him. 

We have legal representation, and I know what he can and can’t do now. The city has already been out here, we already have 60 violations. There’s nothing he can do. I’m waiting for him to realize that.

There’s a reason he’s knocking on our doors and texting us at 2 a.m. for money. It’s not for fun. We start digging and find out he owes half a million dollars to the city. Those fines don’t necessarily operate the same for the rich but it’s a sign of what’s going on. We know you have money tied up in new development. We know you took out loans for this. We know you can’t pay your workers. We know you’re begging us for rent. These have to start connecting somewhere: The rich are not as rich as they say. 

A lot of buildings in Chicago are not up to code. Once we had city inspections to find out what’s wrong, we said we are only paying 50 percent until these things are fixed. Some of the violations are so big it’s going to take years to fix it. You start to see they’re not as strong.

I’m angry, but also I’m getting his ass. The feeling of delight in knowing I’m ruining his day, every day, for multiple days. That brings me joy. [Editor’s note: The landlord denied tenant allegations. He claimed to NBC Chicago to be attempting repairs and blamed residents for not accommodating his repair staff. Residents argued that management had repeatedly failed to fix problems and had entered apartments without giving residents notice.]

On the future: 

What’s daunting about it is that once I jumped into this stuff, I realized: Oh damn, it’s not just my building, it’s all the buildings they own. It’s not just this corporate landlord, it’s all the fucking corporate landlords. There’s a lot of seeing theory in practice, in terms of gentrification. Violence looks different when it’s housing.

I think we’re just at a crucial time in history. People don’t have nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to take. I think it’s different once you’re taking from people who don’t have anything anymore. At the end of the day it’s about who is there more of, us or y’all? As we say, they can’t evict us all. Are you going to fix the building? Give up the building? Because we’re here. Once other people start realizing that, it’s over.

[Editor’s note: Since this interview, the city of Chicago has asked a court to appoint a receiver to take over the property in order to address unsafe conditions.]

Katy Slininger, an artist and tenant organizer, in her apartment in a converted textile mill.

Katy Slininger, 34, Putnam, Connecticut

Katy is an artist living in a renovated old mill with her husband (a teacher), and their young son. The complex was meant to undergo an environmentally friendly renovation yet there was green moss, mold and a dank smell in the buildings. After a neighbor’s toddler was poisoned by lead in the walls, Katy started organizing her neighbors. It only took three meetings for a group of 30-plus tenants to unanimously vote to become a tenant union and shortly thereafter collectively go on rent strike.

On how it all started: 

Right after Christmas last year, we got letters in the mail from the Northeast District Department of Health, an NGO contracted by the local municipalities, and it said a two-year-old had been severely lead poisoned in our complex. Their unit had been tested for lead and was found positive for toxic levels. 

Katy’s son Noah helps hang a rent strike banner outside the Cargill Falls Mill

This was a huge shock for everyone because this is a recent redevelopment project. It was opened to residents four years ago. We were part of the first wave of tenants. I moved in when [my son] Noah was 18 months old. People with young children had moved in, pregnant women, elderly folks. None of us went into our leases even thinking about lead because when you renovate a building older than 1978 there has to be lead abatement and remediation. On top of that, we were in a state subsidized unit; this development project had to reserve a certain percentage of affordable units. Legally, there should be even stricter inspection guidelines for affordable housing units and those with children under six. It was also a public project, publicly funded with millions and millions of dollars at the state and federal levels, with budgets earmarked for lead remediation. So how is this possible?

There were seven families with kids under six, they’re the most susceptible to lead poisoning. Immediately it was a panic because every day you’re staying, it’s like, are you poisoning your kid? We had to rush to get lead blood tests.

We got that letter on December 27. That first week of January I started putting up posters to advertise a meeting in the common area. I just knew it was going to be a crisis. We had to talk to each other in order to do anything. At the time I didn’t even have a printer, I had to hand paint all the meeting signs.

On building the union:

In my building we would often leave food for each other in the little alcoves across from our doors. I had a friend with two young kids in the building and we would leave toys for each other, just to trade. So I had friends I could talk directly to and bring in.

Members of the Cargill Tenants Union rally in with supporters, demanding lead inspections from their landlord

We had one meeting with like, 30 people. Second one was like the same turnout. At the time, we were just trying to share information about blood tests. During those weeks we retained an attorney. We had a meeting every week in January.

The first week of February we filed housing court cases and started paying our rent into escrow [a strategy deployed during rent strikes to show courts that tenants have the rent but are deliberately withholding until issues are fixed]. So we went on a form of rent strike. The first ones to file were the families with young kids, so it was eight units on strike. But every month through August we added people to the rent strike. 

We got our lead inspections; everyone had lead in their units. All the families that had lead in their units had temporary relocation for a month or so for abatement. It’s been really exhausting but most people have no other choice. We had to reorganize a few times because of turnover. 

On getting connected to the tenant union movement:

My first exposure [to tenant organizing] was through my friends Ben and Madi’s work in the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Flatbush Tenants Union. From the very beginning of my fight, I’ve been a member of the Communist Caucus of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] and we have a really strong tenant wing. They saved me. People in both the national tenant wing and my local cadre had so much more experience than me, and they encouraged my experimentation. Other people’s projects [in DSA] gave me some inspiration, or sometimes having some external accountability really helped.

On the struggle of being a mom while organizing:

Going into temporary housing for a month with a three-year-old — it was hard. He was going to Pre-K on the bus and I just wanted to keep things normal so I had to commute to his bus stop. I was exhausted because I had to wake up extra early with a preschooler. I don’t even have a car, my husband who is a public school teacher would have the car. 

Katy and Noah at a Teamster demonstration for warehouse workers in northeast Connecticut

This whole process has kept us in poverty because I have to spend so much time advocating for us, for Noah’s personal health [instead of being able to work]. He’s been sick so much from upper respiratory things from the mold. It has been so demoralizing. 

Moms with kids under six were the original core group on our organizing committee because we were the ones most immediately affected. I really appreciated them. The conditions here forced many of them out and I truly cannot blame them. Some of them didn’t even get other apartments, they just ended up doubling up in other family homes. That’s a form of homelessness. 

I lost friends I made as a mom with a young kid, and that’s isolating. It was really hard on me. It felt like a lot of work had been undone and I felt the burden of organizing more on my own. I was sad, tired, and poorer by the day because of what they are doing to us. They shove you in a hole and you can’t get out.

On the wins:

We’ve won a rent freeze and that made a big impact on our ability to win. We got comprehensive lead inspections in all units, not just limited to ones with families with young children, and comprehensive air quality testing to start to address the moisture and mold problems. We got $72,000 from the Department of Housing for the inspections, which was really good for showing people what we could accomplish together. We also uncovered major structural issues including water damage and high moisture levels. 

Also I really prioritized ending elder isolation through this project. My friend had her ankle broken because the lead abatement company left plastic sheeting out. I took care of her for several months. I’m a stay-at-home mom trying to make ends meet so this was very taxing but she had literally no one else. If she had been anywhere else without a union and neighbors close by, I don’t know what would have happened to her. She didn’t qualify for certain social services.

We’re going to have to go guerrilla mode to get attention

The other cool thing is people who are in unions — mostly educators — have started to get more involved in their work units. Some of our projects are really intertwined with labor and that’s something that’s really exciting to me too. This is a very small post-industrial town with lots of service jobs. Some cooks at a local restaurant heard about our tenant union and asked one of our members for more information. Now we’re plugging them into the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. [Editor’s note: EWOC connects workers with a labor organizer and resources to start organizing in their workplace.] 

Part of our political horizon is that housing should be a site of social reproduction for socialism. Tenant organizing inspiring people to work within their workplace unions is so cool. 

On what’s ahead:

There was a ton of public funding intertwined in this housing project. It’s unclear to us still who is legally liable for the lead issue. Our lawyer is still looking into it. What we do know is that the original toddler was poisoned by lead dust and that can only be created by the illegal practice of sandblasting lead. The EPA is involved, because it’s very illegal and there would be dramatic consequences for whoever is liable. The town is worried about being liable, the landlord’s worried about being liable, the property manager, the management company, the architect, the construction company — there’s just this whole cast of people that could be criminally negligent.

The bottom line is everyone is trying to suppress this case. Housing court didn’t even want to hear our cases. The town buildings office will not even come on the property for code inspection. We’re dealing with outright suppression of any efforts for accountability. 

We’re going to have to go guerilla mode to get attention. It’s going to have to be media shaming, it’s going to have to be direct action. We’re working on getting the people power;  one way is we’re opening up membership in the union to any tenant in town. If we can get more people on board, we can change the landscape of the town. 

We can protect everyone.

Keisha and her daughter on their Youtube Channel (Bella La La Naturals) where they showed the “before and after” of their previous apartment in Crown Heights

Keisha, 40, New York, New York

Keisha is a formerly undocumented Afro-Caribbean immigrant and a survivor of domestic abuse who has fought to build a good life for her and her 12-year-old daughter in Brooklyn. While rent-regulated apartments have rent increase caps of 3.25 percent, Keisha — like most New Yorkers — lives in an unregulated unit where the landlord can demand large increases. Keisha’s landlord raised the rent by eight percent, putting Keisha in a bind — as a single mom getting her degree, she has no money to spare. This rent increase came as a huge shock particularly because Keisha’s landlord is a member of her church, and knew her struggles. Keisha took her case to court, and through that experience became connected to several tenant unions. Though the future is uncertain, she’s proud that “I didn’t allow myself to be displaced.”

On how it all started: 

I’ve been living in a private house, just me and my daughter, since 2021. My daughter is 12 years old. The landlord tried to increase my rent a ridiculous rate, $150 [a month] on a one-year lease.
After she gave me notice of the rent increase in April, I still paid my $1,800 rent. My lease was going to end at the end of May of 2022. Then by June 2022, I got a notice saying that she wants to terminate my tenancy. The person that came to put the notice on my door was knocking on my windows and yelling my name, it was very disrespectful. She gave me 90 days. I still continued to just pay my rent.

Around October of 2022, mushrooms grew out of the wall in my daughter’s room because of water damage. It was on the ceiling, around the windows, and it started happening in my room as well. I had to make HPD [Housing Preservation and Development] reports. I started holding back my rent.

Keisha selling dishes she helped cook to raise funds for union merch

When we finally went to court, the landlord tried to settle with me but the settlement was crazy. I cannot settle for a one-year lease increasing my rent $90. What will happen to me and my kid next year? That’s still too high.

On how she got involved in a union:

I know about [labor] unions but it never dawned on me that there might be tenant unions that could help me. I was going through my situation by myself, privately. 

In February 2023, I went to housing court and I noticed there was a rally outside of the court for Fidele Albert [a local housing activist facing eviction]. When I exited the court, I inquired with Fidele and she gave me the information for Crown Heights Tenant Union. I also found out at the court that there was legal assistance. So I found two sources of help on the same day.

Through going to meetings at Crown Heights Tenant Union, I met an organizer and he connected me to other chats. That’s how I got involved with Tenant Union Flatbush and Brooklyn Eviction Defense. I did a fundraiser for BED over the summer to raise funds for t-shirts and now that union has their own t-shirts because of my participation, along with another tenant member Leslie.

Being in a union has been an eye opener. I wasn’t aware of this type of support before. I’ve also learned a lot going to court to support other tenants. I do believe that if it wasn’t for the three tenant unions, my case wouldn’t have gone the way it has. I wouldn’t say my case is yet successful but it is getting there. 

On the housing crisis and what is needed:
Keisha standing in front of her apartment with members of the three tenant unions that she is a member of: Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED-TU), and Tenant Union Flatbush (TUF)

Your home is your foundation. It is what you use to make all of your dreams come to fruition. Trying to navigate as a single mom in New York City, and what happened to me and my kid, it makes me very angry — it’s like, how much can you take? 

A realtor told me that in order for me to get an apartment in New York City for $1,800 dollars, for her to even take me on as a client [and for a landlord to accept an application], I’d have to be making $86,000 a year. I don’t make $86,000 a year! This situation has to change where they’re asking for such a high level of income for you to even be able to afford an apartment. What happens to people like me, who are great citizens, who are contributing, who are making an honest living? 

It’s very important for the government to put laws like Good Cause into place. [Editor’s note: Good Cause legislation would require landlords to offer lease renewals to tenants except in cases of lease violations.] There should be good cause for landlords to be able to evict a tenant. This situation I’m in, there is no reason for it. And with the migrant situation right now in New York City — everybody needs to have a home, no matter their circumstances. 

The politicians, the mayor, the governor of New York City, the district council — they have a responsibility to take care of us because we put them in that position to help the residents of our state. Our state is crying out. I can feel it.