Finding our Vision for a Tenants Union in Houston
Updated: Feb 14, 2020
This evening, a group of tenant unionists in Houston, Texas staked out our vision for Houston Tenants Union. Some of us come from previous housing organizing in Houston, such as Southwest Defense Network, Third Ward Defense Network, and the Houston IWW-General Defense Committee. Others are completely new. Some are already organizing their neighborhoods and apartments. We are all extremely eager to build Houston Tenants Union together.
What do we want?
We want to build a militant fighting organization. One that is able to mobilize and respond quickly, one that promotes class consciousness, and consists of unorganized working class people, not just those affiliated with"the left". We want to be able to take on a number of struggles that working class tenants face. We want to find an alternative to service work and activist based networking. We want to pursue work that achieves something, that fights and wins, by means of direct action.
We are coming together because we are inspired by the success of LA Tenants Union, and Philly Tenants Union. For long term organization, we need to have resources for people and communities in addition to the above, we need accessible education and information, and we also need to help with access to advocacy and legal services which most tenants do not have.
What is a tenants union?
We raised the question of what a "tenants union" actually is for us, and what our vision for what we are talking about is structurally. If 2 or more tenants are coming together in any capacity to fight back against their landlords, some of us can see that as a "tenants union". This can look a great deal of ways however, with the best possible outcome being long term organization in the form of complex and neighborhood based formations, as a part of a greater city-wide network which mobilizes and supports itself across these.
In contrast to other efforts in which may try to organize tenants in more focused capacity, we aim to organize as many tenants as possible generally across the city, making big numbers as our strength. We also know that this will come about if we are fight centered, and also have access to the variety of resources, especially legal, that struggling tenants need.
What are our inspirations and goals?
In addition to the inspiration of LA Tenants Union and Philly Tenants Union, we are also inspired by efforts past and current, including the East Bay's Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) and the Eviction Mapping Project, Angry Workers of the World in England, Occupy Homes, Seattle Solidarity Network, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), and many other struggles around housing all over the world.
In a year, our hopes are to have gotten some form of campaigns off the group, and win our first conflict with a landlord. If we take up multiple campaigns, our goal is to win a majority of them. We also want to build and maintain permanent relationships with the people that we fight with, retaining membership from the previous fight, as we move on to the next. We want independent committees that will make up the life of our organization. We want a physical space for ourselves and others to organize in as well. Eventually, we see ourselves behind things like Philadelphia Tenants Union's "Just Cause" campaign, which will make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants without just cause, therefore making it easier for tenants to win. We want to promote the cultural life of the neighborhoods that we organize in, having a presence at block parties, picnics, etc. We also want a tenants solidarity fund of some kind, something beyond our dues, where we can make monetary payouts to help tenants in crisis.
What are our potential obstacles and barriers?
We also know we potentially face a great deal of obstacles and difficulties ahead of us. These include the fact that some organizers may be inexperienced, which we means we will need some sort of training regimen as we go along. Geography is also a major problem, Houston is a sprawling city with a huge area size, traversing across this city is difficult. We will need to keep ourselves mapped and think carefully about moving into new areas and making sure we are able to support our campaigns. Houston is very segregated, however in one complex there may also be racial antagonisms between tenants. There also may be language difficulties, even with Spanish speaking members, we may have difficulty organizing in places that predominantly speak Spanish. There are also large sections of Houston's worst housing where people are also undocumented and under major threat of detention or deportation. Organizing in these circumstances be hard to overcome, and we need to be clear to all tenants generally of the dangers and risks they may take. Tenants in the most precarious housing situations often have a high-turnover rate and landlords hold a great deal of eviction-power.
We need a plan for disaster, we are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey almost 2 years ago, and housing is how a lot of people are still struggling. We may lose fights and have to reinvigorate our morale. However, tenants are still facing evictions, mold, pests, lack of repairs, predatory towing practices, and rent hikes all across the city. Fighting back is a necessity for many of us, right now.
If we are successful in winning fights, we hope to have a robust organization that fufills a great deal of our needs, that can arrange childcare and transportation to maximize people's ability to participate. We want live translation into Spanish, ASL and even other languages, for all of our meetings and writings. A paper or newsletter that documents and brings our struggles together is something we want to work towards. We want to build a structured training program, where new members are given skills to wage new fights wherever they are. We would love to be able to feed and clothe tenants across Houston, have large public events which enrich our lives. We are impressed especially by the digital media of LA Tenants Union and would like to have this ourselves. If we are big enough and have grown into a physical space to organize, even dedicated staff is worth debating. We have a lot to go until we can implement all of these goals, and they will not come if we do not fight and win.
We don't have a crystal ball and there are no blueprints. The future is unknown, but presently what we have is better for tenants across Houston than what we had before, and that's a start. If from tonight, we can get one tenant in Houston to find a solution in class struggle and collective direct action, then this was worth it. This is likely the beginning of something much greater. We encourage all tenants, especially those in conflict with their landlords, to join us in building Houston Tenants Union.