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One Building At A Time Won’t Do: Tenant Organizing in a Red State

Article published:
Members of the Garden Terrace Tenants Union during an action in which they were confronting the property management over unsafe living conditions and forced displacement.

To win housing rights where hostile state governments constrain local power, we need state-level strategies carried out in a larger, coordinated movement ecosystem. Tenants union organizers from Durham, NC share lessons.

At the peak of the pandemic housing crisis in Summer 2020, community organizers across the country started building tenant unions to try to keep working-class people in their homes and push back against the gentrification transforming every major city. Today, many of those spontaneous tenant organizing projects have run out of steam, including our own. This article is a reflection on our experiences building Bull City Tenants Union (BCTU), which was active in Durham, North Carolina, from 2020 to late 2022. Our reflection and summation process concluded that, in gentrifying cities within red states, the tenant union strategy is not the path to housing justice. Here we highlight our campaign experiences, lessons on organizational culture and organizer training, how we came to this conclusion, and what we think is the path to housing justice in conditions like ours. For those interested, we wrote a more detailed account of our experiences and lessons here, in hopes that it may help future housing organizers start on stronger footing.

Durham is a rapidly gentrifying city of around 300,000 people. Before the pandemic hit, there had been about 1000 evictions per month in Durham County for at least a decade, making the local per capita eviction rate the highest in North Carolina, and twice the rate of the country overall. In Summer 2020, an estimated 50,000 Durham renters (one in six residents) were behind on rent and at risk for eviction. A collection of activists with a range of backgrounds—labor, community and housing organizing, and Democratic Socialists of America—formed BCTU in response to that crisis. We aimed initially to mobilize a large number of working-class tenants to pressure city and county officials to do everything in their power to prevent the “eviction tsunami” from crashing.

After the CDC announced its eviction moratorium, we found that most working-class renters were more concerned with their living conditions than anything else. Anyone who has lived in low-income neighborhoods knows the stories of landlord abuse: predatory towing practices, massive cockroach infestations, leaks, mold, theft of security deposits, and more.

Our organizing team dug into the first “hot shop” we encountered: a 56-unit apartment complex of majority-Latinx immigrant families called Garden Terrace (GT). GT had many unsafe conditions, an existing social fabric among the tenants, and a landlord who lived less than a mile away. GT tenants were agitated when our organizers first started knocking doors, and thanks to the presence of one organic leader who was previously a member of Make the Road NY, we kick-started a campaign.

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A few key tenant leaders stepped up to collect petition signatures, bring their neighbors to building meetings, formulate demands, and plan out the pressure campaign. A month later, a tenant delegation delivered a petition signed by three-fourths of the GT families to the landlord and held a press conference outside the property manager’s office. One reporter’s footage of the rotting walls at GT spurred city code inspectors to action; over the next month they inspected 17 units and cited 121 code violations. Publicly embarrassed, the landlord began to make repairs to some apartments, but he maintained a policy of silence toward the tenants’ union. Spurred on by these hints of success, tenants and organizers raised our aims, and started agitating for a collectively negotiated lease during a series of public rallies, including a 100-person march to the landlord’s house in February 2021.

Despite these escalations, the factors working against us ultimately won out. Because of landlords’ political power at the state and municipal levels, city officials were unwilling to penalize this particular slumlord despite the raft of code violations (e.g. ceiling mushrooms). The precarious and transient rhythm of renters’ lives in a gentrifying city meant that some key leaders moved out. Our volunteer organizing team, exhausted after months of campaigning outside their day jobs, began to falter. With minor concessions, a campaign of consistent harassment, intimidation, and retaliation, and a refusal to recognize the tenants’ organization, the landlord was able to effectively stall out the campaign. No amount of public shame could budge him, and as tenants had no further legal recourse, they began to lose hope, and stop participating in their union. GTTU stopped functioning a year after it began.

Our organizers learned much from the Garden Terrace campaign, and kept working to build tenant unions at a few other apartment complexes around Durham for the next year and a half. Over time, we developed an understanding that our strategy didn’t account for the limits of our political conditions, became clearer about the strengths and weaknesses of the organizational culture we’d built, and developed a high-quality training program for new organizers to expand our team. The rest of this article shares some of those lessons:

Strategies misfired in our political conditions

Our strategy built on the LA Tenants Union’s formulation that the power imbalance between landlords and tenants produces the urban housing crisis—so organizing tenants as a counter-power could solve that crisis. And because many of us came out of the labor movement, a syndicalist strategy made sense: we would find organic leadership and organize one apartment complex at a time.

In practice, we consistently struggled to apply this strategy within the political and social conditions in our city and state. North Carolina has some of the widest-reaching preemption laws in the country: the state government strictly limits municipal powers, which constrains community organizations like tenant unions. The right-wing state legislature prevents municipalities from giving tenants many of the tools that they would need to pressure their landlords. In NC, regardless of a landlord’s behavior, it’s illegal for tenants to withhold rent without a court order, and municipalities have limited power to enforce penalties for code violations, much less to pass rent control or other regulations.

Even when we were able to put significant pressure on the City Council during a campaign in which eight long-term, stable families were given an eviction notice right before Christmas at the peak of the Omicron wave, the councilors were very hesitant to push the policy envelope for fear of retribution from the state legislature. The City Council’s aversion to policy change and city staff’s unwillingness to levy any penalties mean that Durham landlords can act with impunity. Tenants’ only recourse is a public shame campaign, which many landlords can and will ignore. Those eight families were able to win a three-month lease extension, financial assistance with moving costs, and technical assistance and placement for new apartments, which was a victory of sorts, but only because “renters stay in their homes” was never on the table.

In addition to the limits of a Dillon’s Rule state held hostage by a far-right legislature, we were organizing in a rapidly gentrifying city. Skyrocketing rents drive constant turnover, so fewer and fewer people know their neighbors—and this makes organizing using labor organizing practices very difficult. A syndicalist tenant union strategy depends on organic leaders existing within apartment complexes. When there is little existing social fabric in the building, the method of “recruit the social leaders within individual buildings to fight individual landlords” (akin to one-shop-at-a-time union organizing) simply doesn’t work. Tenants’ social fabric rarely lines up with the structure of a building—so in trying to organize tenants, individual landlords are most likely the wrong targets.

Flawed organizational culture upped the difficulty

In addition to the external political challenges that we faced, a number of flaws in our organizational culture made success harder than it had to be. These stemmed mainly from patterns of magical thinking and political and interpersonal conflict avoidance. We also grappled with the challenges of multi-racial organizing in a time of racial reckoning.

During each campaign we engaged in some degree of magical thinking, where we overestimated what was possible and underestimated the amount of work, skill, and time required for success. We consistently under-planned before starting campaigns and instead built a pattern of “take action and learn from it later” into our organizational culture.

We were great at planning for and evaluating small steps, but we did not often plan and evaluate bigger steps (three, six, or 12 months at a time), which made it hard for our leadership to recognize many of the challenges we faced. Our inability to put together a specific and credible plan to win on any scale led tenants to take us less seriously, and the mismatch between our hopes and the lack of results we saw from our work led to feelings of futility and despair among our team.

We were challenged by political and interpersonal conflict avoidance internally. This precluded generative arguments over strategy, stunted our members’ development, enabled unacceptable behavior, and undermined accountability. Because we were unable to engage in generative disagreement over matters of strategy, we couldn’t reorient ourselves when things were not working, and became inflexible as an organization.

We were a majority-white and monolingual English-speaking organization, and learned a few things about multi-racial organizing among mostly Black and Brown low-income renters. On language, our campaigns that had bilingual organizers were dramatically stronger, more vibrant and inclusive, and those in which our organizers only spoke English were not able to build unity across the language barrier in any sustained fashion. Native English-speaking organizers simply must learn Spanish en masse.

On multiracial organizing, a number of our challenges stemmed from racial discourse rooted in essentialism.  We fully understand the need to be conscious of the way deep-rooted oppression affects our interactions. But we observed that our relationships were more shallow and our political clarity got muddied when white activists held back their thinking, their leadership, their willingness to try something and be wrong and face criticism, when they idealized their Black and Brown comrades and asserted that they should be calling the shots based on identity alone rather than values, skills, commitment, and leadership. The same was true when activists of color asserted that because of their identity, their thinking must be correct, that their behavior must be above reproach, and that disagreement with a white comrade is rooted in racism. The truth is that we all have a responsibility to take risks and to meaningfully engage in principled struggle to arrive at a stronger, clearer place across political differences when they arise, and we can only do that if we are showing up as our full selves. This requires comrades of any racial background to be willing to show up with both humility and courage, directness in offering feedback and openness to receiving it, and above all, mutual respect.

Confronting the capacity crisis

Capacity was a constant challenge in our work. As a small, all-volunteer organization where almost everyone had at least a full-time job, finding the time to organize consistently was almost impossible. Organizing is labor-intensive; it requires being able to quickly build relationships, identify and develop leaders, and move on campaigns. With limited capacity, we struggled to maintain momentum, and faced high levels of stress and burnout. Despite that, one of our greatest successes was training a significant number of folks with little to no organizing experience to become effective organizers quickly.

Through the Organizing for Power trainings, we gained a shared language, set of tools, and analysis around building power that we incorporated into our own training program. New organizers were asked to commit to six training sessions, a gradual onboarding to new turf, and ten volunteer hours per week for at least six months. Once they were out on turf, new organizers were paired with a mentor who met with them regularly to check in, troubleshoot, and coach. Through this process, we doubled our size and pushed existing organizers to develop their skills as trainers and mentors. We found that through mentorship, role-play, opportunities to practice new skills and tools, peer support structures, and course correction through debriefs and feedback, it is possible to take folks who are completely new to organizing and teach them how to be effective organizers. Here is a link to our trainings folder, including an outline for the training program and each session.

Despite this good work, we continued to encounter a number of problems. Although having more organizers allowed us to cover more ground, it also created new problems as experienced organizers stretched to cover their turf and mentor new organizers, all on a volunteer basis. We ultimately concluded that a project like ours must have some staff and institutional support if it is to succeed. In order to sustainably grow, we needed more stable commitments to the project than any of our organizers were able to provide. In the end, we stretched our existing and new organizers far too thin, and created an organization in which folks who stepped into leadership had neither the time nor the structure to support their own growth—and instead worked to the point of burnout.

The long run

We take it as a given that high-participation campaigns held within democratic organizations are the right way to build a large progressive base capable of transforming society, and that building those campaigns and organizations should be the top priority for people who want a just world. Running headlong in the direction of the first, worst, most urgent crisis without adequate planning or financial resources is a great way to sharpen activists’ skill sets, but it’s no way to win anything big, nor is it a viable path to sustainable organization-building.

Since the state mediates economic relationships, e.g., between landlords and tenants, if housing activists want to improve living conditions for large numbers of people, public policy must change. To make effective interventions, we need an accurate understanding of the balance of forces at play; in red states with wide-reaching and punitive municipal preemption policies, most of the power over housing policies is concentrated at the state legislative level, and municipalities have few meaningful options to address the housing crisis.

In North Carolina, some policies and procedures can be improved at the municipal level to create safer housing conditions and expand tenant rights in eviction proceedings and organizing efforts. A campaign with that focus, with sufficient planning and organizing staff, would be worthwhile. But to have a shot at stopping gentrification, preserving historic working-class Black and Brown communities, and curtailing the public health problems caused by slum housing, we’ll need strategies, organizations, and campaigns that operate on the state level and as part of a larger, coordinated movement ecosystem. In North Carolina, progressive movements have done this twice before (in the Reconstruction and Fusionist eras), and the majority of our state won’t be able to live good lives until we can do so again. Breaking the Right’s hold over the central functional unit of U.S. society—state governments—must be our top priority.

Featured image: Members of the Garden Terrace Tenants Union confronted the property management over unsafe living conditions and forced displacement. Photo courtesy of Bull City Tenants Union.

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