Rumors circulated that the landlord wanted everyone out. But Giuliana Perez could not contemplate leaving her two-bedroom apartment, where light pours into the living room, in the middle of a pandemic. What would she do with her elderly mother? How would she pay first and last month’s rent at a new place when her hours as a caregiver had been slashed?
So in June of last year, she decided to act. She went door to door in her Hyde Park building, knocking at each of the eight other units. The neighbors talked about the raging virus, the cluttered basement. Perez learned about a leaking ceiling in one apartment and a broken dishwasher in another. The residents wrote a letter to the landlord, asking to meet as a group to “figure out how we can stay in our homes.”
That was how the 15 Dana Ave. tenant association was born. The group joined a host of newly created tenants unions across the city, a local response to massive unemployment caused by COVID and widespread fear of eviction.
“I hadn’t done anything like that in my life,” Perez, 43, said. “I was never in a position to fight back.”
For months, tenants and housing advocates have feared a “tsunami” of evictions coming to Boston. To prevent that, lawmakers enacted sweeping solutions, including a state moratorium on evictions, which expired in October, and a weaker federal moratorium, which still stands.
Governor Charlie Baker earmarked money for housing attorneys and mediators to help keep renters in their homes, and now $857 million in new federal funds will dramatically expand rental assistance in the state.
But as residents waited for those large-scale solutions, some tenants, like Perez, turned to a more homegrown approach: They formed tenants unions to negotiate collectively with their landlords. City Life/Vida Urbana, which has long organized tenants associations in the region, said its organizers are now working with 24 unions, 13 of which were founded in the last year. A separate umbrella group called the Greater Boston Tenants Union was formed in the fall and is working with 10 other mostly new tenants unions.
Some of these unions are distinct from those in the past, housing advocates say, because some higher income people who have not historically had difficulty paying rent are joining them. And they are also gaining strength in new parts of the region, including Allston/Brighton, where the Greater Boston Tenants Union is organizing, and Malden, where City Life is now working.
“We’re having a collective experience that has caused people to turn to mutual aid,” said Esme Caramello, faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. COVID “brought people together to talk about their housing problems in a way that would have been stigmatized or de-prioritized, or both, in the past.”
Joseph Taylor, the landlord at 15 Dana Ave., said he never intended to sell the building but had suggested that he wanted to “clear the building out and start fresh” because the tenants were not respecting the property. Though Perez said she and other tenants received phone calls and text messages telling them to leave by the end of September, Taylor did not file any evictions. He said he had received a number of letters from the tenants association but has not responded.
“Once we get this COVID in the rearview mirror, we’ll sit down and we’ll talk,” he said.
The increased tenant activity in Boston reflects a national trend.
“Definitely since the pandemic there’s been a major upsurge, just because people can’t pay their rent. Organizing seems like one obvious thing that can be done,” said Amanda Huron, a professor at the University of D.C. and the author of “Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C,” on the rise of tenants unions in her city. Other cities, including Oakland and New York City, have seen expanded tenant organizing, too.
A popular Depression-era tactic, tenants unions work similarly to labor unions, based on the idea that collective bargaining over rent or housing conditions is more effective than individual negotiations. Tenants are protected from retaliation for joining such a union under Massachusetts law, Caramello said.
Even some landlords see the value of the unions.
“I’m totally empathetic with people who are living with bad conditions,” said MassLandlords executive director Doug Quattrochi. “We really believe if a landlord is doing their job, it shouldn’t come to the point where you have tenants organizing or people [protesting] outside your house.”
The goal of each tenants union varies. Some aim to introduce long-term contracts, like the one secured by a tenants union at the Morton Village Apartments in Mattapan last fall. Others seek better maintenance or more responsive communications. “No-fault evictions” are often the impetus, said Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at City Life. Not all such evictions are covered under the current CDC moratorium.
The Fineberg Tenants Union, another new union that says it has organized 140 tenants across Fineberg Management’s thousand-plus units across the region, recently sent a letter requesting a 17 percent reduction in rent, a moratorium on certain evictions during COVID-19 and for six months after, and forgiveness of back rent for tenants affected by the pandemic. The union held a protest this month outside of the Institute of Contemporary Art, a site they chose because Gerald Fineberg is a donor and board member at the ICA.
“This is what we’re expected to put up with: So your walls are falling apart? Well, that doesn’t dignify a response. Roaches? It’s your responsibility to keep your unit tidy. Freezing cold? Sorry, our sensor by the furnace actually says it’s not cold,” said Dan Albright, a tenant organizer who lives in a Fineberg building in Brighton. “[We] organized a tenants union to make our voices heard.”