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Public policy needs more input from renters, but organizing them is difficult

The task of organizing tenants poses all sorts of social barriers. But physical barriers can be important too.

Attendees of a renters rights rally organized by the West Side Citizens Organization in June.
Attendees of a renters rights rally organized by the West Side Citizens Organization in June.
Martin Hernandez/WSCO

It’s very rare for a Twin Cities neighborhood group to spend much time organizing renters. Despite their being half the population of Minneapolis and St.  Paul, it’s hard to find renters on commissions, at public hearings, or at evening community meetings. The lack of renters in those places is a problem because, as a recent study in Minneapolis pointed out, the priorities of public engagement have long been skewed to helping homeowners.

Part of the problem is that, as I’ve written before, organizing renters is a difficult task posing all sorts of social barriers. But physical barriers can be important too, as Monica Bravo, the executive director of West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO), has learned. For over a year, WSCO, the District Council that covers St. Paul’s diverse West Side, has been running a “housing justice” campaign to organize around issues like anti-displacement and tenant rights.

“We have a tenant organizing strategy and program here at WSCO to work with tenants across the West Side so they are living in dignified and affordable housing without fear of displacement,” said Bravo.

As Bravo describes it, WSCO sends out volunteers to apartment buildings and places like laundromats where renters often gather. The goal is to share literature and information in multiple languages, helping renters understand their rights. Bravo hopes that, if renters can organize and share problems with each other, they will be better able to prevent displacement, rent hikes, and poor living conditions.

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“What we’re hearing from the neighborhood is that displacement is happening, rents are rising, and folks are living in conditions that are really sub-par,” said Bravo. “We want to talk to people in those circumstances, facing potential evictions, bringing them together so they can organize for better living conditions long term on the West Side.”

The work has stopped for the time being, however, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and because of difficulty with an area landlord. In response, last month WSCO, in cooperation with the Housing Justice Center, filed a lawsuit against a group that owns apartment properties on the West Side. As the complaint spells out, they are trying to make sure that their volunteer organizers are able to speak to tenants about their rights as renters, but have been harassed and prevented from doing so.

166 George Street
Courtesy of WSCO
A 13-unit apartment building at 166 George Street. Recent photos of the exterior of 166 George Street show clear signs of disrepair and poor maintenance.
“We can’t let that be a successful strategy to intimidate tenants,” said Bravo, describing the interactions with the apartment company. “It’s really silenced the voice of residents, and they continue to live in conditions that are not conditions that would be safe and dignified, where they can enjoy their quality of life.”

Balancing the power relationship

Organizing renters is especially hard these days, and not simply because of the pandemic, economic depression, and the threat of evictions. St. Paul recently passed a new package of tenant rights that are some of the strongest in the country. These new rules don’t do much good if nobody knows about them, or if people feel too intimidated in a tight rental market to follow through. How to empower renters is a problem that St. Paul Council Member Mitra Jalali has made a focal point for her career.

“I ran a campaign that intentionally wanted to engage renters, because I believe that population overall is likely be newer to our city, and has different income levels than most people who participate in your average neighborhood meeting,” said Jalali. “They are more likely to be people of color, more likely to be diverse in age and in other ways, [and] that was a constituency that I found missing everywhere I went.”

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There’s an unspoken assumption in many public conversations that people who own houses should be best served by public policies, zoning codes, street design, and other urban rules. (Actually, go to enough meetings, and you will likely hear this assumption spoken out loud.) The assumption that city policy should do things like protect property values or preserve sightlines comes directly from the idea that homeowners are “invested” in their community while renters are “transient.”

While it’s literally true that owning a home is an investment, as social inequality begins to eclipse other urban problems, many people are suggesting that the privilege of homeownership should not drive local politics. Jalali, who flouted St. Paul political conventional wisdom during her campaign by constantly talking about renters, is one of those voices in City Hall.

“If you rent, you’re more likely to be working long hours and less able to participate in hundreds of hours of zoning and planning meetings that ultimately shape the land use and wealth building in our city,” explained Jalali. “That feeds right back into this issue [of] economic and political exclusion.”

Door knocking felt like a violation

To be sure, organizing renters is a particularly difficult challenge. Years ago, when I was a canvasser registering voters, I dreaded the moment when I came to an apartment building. Walking down a street of houses, pushing doorbells and talking to people on the doorstep felt relatively normal. Door knocking apartment buildings, on the other hand, always felt like a violation. Even entering the building presented a challenge, and having conversations through a door buzzer was awkward at best. If I got inside, knocking on doors in a narrow apartment hallway felt like an invasion of privacy, even if state law makes it technically legal for political candidates.

The physical barriers of apartment buildings were part of the difficulty mentioned in the WSCO lawsuit. Filed in District Court, the WSCO suit cites the Minnesota Human Rights Act as justification for legal action.

According to the act:

It is an unfair discriminatory practice for a person to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with a person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of that person having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of that person having aided or encouraged a third person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by this section.

Drawing on the Act, the WSCO suit claims that preventing organizers in aiding people amounts to a form of discrimination. The case is currently in Ramsey County District Court.

Another image from the June renters rights rally.
Martin Hernandez/WSCO
Another image from the June renters rights rally.
Despite the legal battle, WSCO is not planning to stop organizing renters. They recently celebrated the passage of the renters’ rights ordinance, and are planning another outreach campaign to organize more West Side renters.

“We will be doing some type of COVID door knock in the coming weeks, where we plan to wear masks, step back from the doors, use gloves or some type of prop to knock or ring,” said Bravo. “We’ll see if folks will open the door and have conversation with us making sure we have literature to drop.”

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No doubt that, for canvassers in Minnesota, summer is the season to meet people and have difficult conversations. That goes double for canvassing during a pandemic.

“We plan to try that,” said Bravo. “In Minnesota, we have a short season to be outside and be face to face with anyone, so we’ll see how that goes.”