Tenants Are Forcing Bay Area Landlords to the Bargaining Table – Jacobin magazine

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Tenants Are Forcing Bay Area Landlords to the Bargaining Table

San Francisco’s groundbreaking Union at Home legislation encourages tenants to organize in their buildings the way employees organize at work. Housing activists in Berkeley are hoping their city will follow suit — but landlords are pushing back.

Aerial view of Berkeley, California, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times via Getty Images)

On February 13, 2024, eight tenants met with three representatives from their new corporate landlord in a conference room at the office of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRC). The parties, who were joined by organizers from HRC, convened for a joint bargaining session over issues brought forward by tenants at two buildings belonging to an extensive portfolio that their landlord had recently acquired: 434 Leavenworth Street and 709 Geary Street.

Imagine a labor contract negotiation, but instead of bosses and workers, the two sides are tenants and landlords. In the private US housing market, such face-to-face negotiating sessions are rare. This one, however, which lasted for two hours, resulted in huge wins for the tenants.

Tenants left the negotiation having scored victories on issues ranging from improved language access, transparency of maintenance contracts, firing of a building manager, resolving of code and maintenance issues, lowering of monthly rents to their July 2022 and May 2023 levels (when the landlord was first notified of the buildings’ respective habitability issues), and a 90 percent rent refund for all tenants from those dates totaling more than $1 million across the two buildings.

Prior to the bargaining session, the Geary Street and Leavenworth Street tenants had spent over a year maximizing their leverage. They had formed tenants associations in their buildings, built strike-ready majorities, and launched majority rent strikes in October 2023 alongside other members of the citywide Veritas Tenants Association (VTA) against their then landlord, Veritas Investments, Inc. — which had just defaulted on a nearly $1 billion–dollar loan on two separate portfolios backed by more than 2,450 rent-stabilized units — demanding a say in the terms of sale of their homes.

The Geary Street and Leavenworth Street strikers utilized the protections granted by California Civil Code 1942.4, which prohibits landlords from collecting rents, raising rents, or issuing three-day “pay-or-quit” notices if buildings violate specific health or safety codes and those issues are not abated within thirty-five days of inspection and notification by a public officer. When Brookfield Properties and Ballast Investments won an auction for the majority of Veritas’s delinquent loan and subsequently assumed ownership of the larger portfolio, they inherited the outstanding habitability issues, the rent strike, and tenants prepared to leverage their power at the point of transfer to change the terms and conditions of their housing.

In doing so, the tenants also exercised the recently secured rights and protections granted by San Francisco’s “Union at Home Ordinance,” which was passed in 2022 and has the potential to make collective bargaining sessions like the one that took place in February at the HRC office more common. Union at Home, which was spearheaded by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and formulated with input from the VTA, HRC, and other tenant and labor groups, is the first of its kind in the private US housing market — similar legislation was passed for US Department of Housing and Urban Development–subsidized housing in 2000 — and guarantees tenants’ right to organize while obligating landlords to bargain with tenants associations.

Specifically, the ordinance grants the legal right to certify a tenants association in buildings with more than five units provided a majority of residents sign on (50 percent plus one unit). It also enshrines the right to hold tenant meetings, door-knock, distribute literature, and invite nonresident advocates or guests into the building for organizing purposes. Furthermore, it requires landlords to attend quarterly meetings if requested and to meet and confer with tenants associations “in good faith.”

All of these practices, designated “organizing activities,” are rendered an official “housing service” on par with electricity, water, or trash removal. If a landlord fails to comply or interferes with any organizing activities — for instance, refuses to negotiate in good faith — tenants can petition San Francisco’s Rent Board, which oversees and implements the Rent Ordinance, for rent reductions due to a decrease in housing services. While under the ordinance tenants associations are building-specific, tenants can continue to organize and build leverage with other tenants in the same landlord portfolio or citywide, and even pursue joint negotiations as the Geary Street and Leavenworth Street tenants did.

San Francisco is one of the nation’s least affordable cities, with state-imposed restrictions on municipal rent regulation due to California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act and proliferating corporate landlord ownership and “corporate landlord practices” among landlords both big and small. In this climate, novel pro-tenant legislation can help mediate the severe power imbalance between tenant and landlord, which has been further skewed by rental-housing financialization. It does so by establishing a right to organize enforced not by the state, which has repeatedly failed to pass adequate or enforce existing tenant rights and protections, but by tenants themselves, using rent as a point of leverage. The Union at Home legislation places agency with tenants as opposed to public officials or lawyers, while imposing demands on landlords and making the penalty for violating the ordinance financial, as opposed to legal.

Brad Hirn, who is a lead organizer with HRC and has assisted the VTA tenants in their negotiations, told Jacobin:

The ordinance doesn’t automatically bestow upon tenants a victory: it provides a framework for tenants to think about how to organize a majority of their neighbors, and it imposes the obligation on the landlord to bargain in good faith. So it doesn’t guarantee concessions, just as labor law doesn’t guarantee concessions or workplace bargaining. But it’s meant to help tenants think about how to build power, and this law gets us on more equal terms with the landlord. It doesn’t do the work for us, but it creates the footing for us to have a stronger position.

License to Organize

Naturally, issues around landlordism, rent regulation limitations, and insufficient tenant rights and protections aren’t limited to San Francisco. And other tenants have noticed the potential of this type of legislation. Across the bay in Berkeley, a coalition is currently collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would expand tenant protections, reduce rent increase allowances, and enshrine the right to organize, modeled on San Francisco’s Union at Home Ordinance.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, executive director of the California Center for Movement Legal Services and chair of the Berkeley Rent Board, spoke to Jacobin about the ballot initiative’s potential, saying:

In California, there’s a lot we can’t legislate because of Costa-Hawkins, and there’s a lot we can’t negotiate in the contracts, which creates this general insecurity for people because they don’t have any power over so many aspects of their tenancy. And it occurred to us that with right to organize, we can have fairer contracts and get things this way that we can’t get otherwise.

Indeed, according to a report developed by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, San Francisco tenants across fifty buildings formed tenants associations in the first year after Union at Home took effect — accounting for more than one thousand units — and brought forward a range of issues for negotiation. These included repairs and repair timelines, rent increases and “passthroughs,” language access for non-English speakers, habitability issues, eviction filings, utility charges, communication protocols, and issues surrounding large-scale construction projects.

At another formerly Veritas-owned building also lost during the default, tenants are taking part in the rent strike and recently held a second negotiating session with their new landlord, Prado Group. They have put forward a proposal for rent refunds, lowering monthly rents, and a written commitment to engage with the San Francisco Community Land Trust on selling the building when funding becomes available, positioning decommodification as a demand in the collective bargaining process.

By obligating landlords to negotiate, the ordinance formalizes and enshrines the right to bargain collectively and leverage the power built through organizing and/or withholding rent — with the potential for transformative victories. Where governments and policies have failed to limit unfettered landlord power, or in some cases directly restrict governments’ ability to do so, this type of legislation can help tenants redress the unequal power dynamics of the housing sector, provided they organize, and enable the negotiation of leases, rights, and rents not permissible under Costa-Hawkins. The threat this poses to landlords is clear, as the reaction of Berkeley’s real estate lobby to the new ballot initiative shows.

Union Support and Landlord Pushback

The Berkeley Tenant Protection and Right to Organize Act campaign began in the spring of 2023, just after the historic University of California (UC) academic workers strike. With the vast majority of the strikers rent-burdened — spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent — and many unable to live in the cities where they work and study, rent was a central issue and negotiating point during the strike. Iris Rosenblum-Sellers, student worker head steward of United Auto Workers (UAW) 4811 at UC Berkeley, told Jacobin:

Coming out of the strike we were at a point of higher member engagement, with a lot more members willing to take action. So it became credible that we could be a political force in the cities where the UC campuses are located. And we were inspired by San Francisco’s right-to-organize measure, and saw this as a way to build institutional power in our homes and buildings in the same way that we as workers have built institutional power at UC.

UAW 4811 members brought the idea for the ballot measure to the Berkeley Rent Board, and the parties began building a broad coalition around the initiative, which included Service Employees International (SEIU) 1021, East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Berkeley Tenants Union, Cal Young Democratic Socialists of America, the Cal Berkeley Democrats, the Berkeley People’s Alliance, the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, the East Bay Tenants Union, Tenants Together, and the California Center for Movement Legal Services.

The involvement of UAW 4811 and SEIU 1021 in the campaign reflects broader trends of rising rents and other housing issues becoming increasingly central among organized labor, along with collaboration between tenant and labor groups on specific campaigns and policy proposals. Other recent examples include union leaders backing a proposal for new public housing construction in Rhode Island, a coalition of union and faith groups supporting a rent control proposal in Minneapolis, and the Chicago Teachers Union demanding that the city partner with the board of education to build housing for the families of up to fifteen thousand unhoused students as part of their next contract, resembling a demand put forth by the Boston Teachers Union who won a similar measure in its 2021–2024 contract.

In Berkeley, the coalition members are currently collecting signatures for the measure. If it qualifies for the ballot and is passed in the November 2024 election, it would not only enshrine the right to organize, but would also update the rent stabilization ordinance by reducing allowed annual rent increases. Furthermore, it would expand eviction and tenant protections, and would eliminate rent-stabilization exemptions such as the one that exists for “golden duplexes” that were owner-occupied on December 31, 1979, and where an owner still resides in one of the units.

Meanwhile, the right to organize and the obligation imposed on landlords to negotiate would enjoy broader coverage than its San Francisco counterpart. In Berkeley, tenants of buildings with only two units would be covered by the right to organize, as would tenants of nonprofit housing. Moreover, tenants in “new construction” units (multifamily buildings built after 1980), which aren’t rent-controlled due to Costa-Hawkins, would have the right to sue if their landlord refuses to confer in good faith.

The backers of the proposal hope the act will promote a surge in tenant organizing and bargaining across the city, expanding and strengthening the city’s tenant movement. “Ultimately, this is only going to be as strong as the organizing,” Simon-Weisberg insists. “To get 50 percent of the tenants on board with anything — that’s some pretty awesome organizing. That in itself is going to change things. But if we had even just ten buildings in Berkeley, which had mostly students and had tenant associations, that could radically change things.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been pushback from landlords in both San Francisco and Berkeley. In San Francisco, some landlords have stalled, refused to negotiate in good faith or altogether, or agreed to implement small changes while refusing to discuss more substantive issues, forcing tenants to pursue mediation and arbitration through the Rent Board.

In response, the Board of Supervisors passed an amended version of Union at Home in October 2023, which strengthened the language around good faith negotiation and included accommodations for monolingual tenants. In Berkeley, meanwhile, the Berkeley Property Owners Association has begun collecting signatures for its own ballot measure — the “Renters Relief & Homeowners Protection Act” — aimed at weakening the Rent Board, reducing tenant and habitability protections, and further deregulating rent control. Seemingly in an attempt to confuse voters, the measure also includes a watered-down version of the right to organize, which requires a two-thirds majority to establish a tenants association, doesn’t make organizing a “housing service,” and limits the definition of “good faith,” while preventing the Rent Board from defining it further.

The countercampaign by the landlord lobby is well funded and craftily misleading, and underscores the need for legislation that recalibrates the power imbalance between tenant and landlord. But Rosenblum-Sellers is not discouraged, telling Jacobin:

It’s no surprise that wealthy interest groups representing landlords don’t want to see our power increased and their power diminished. But I’m confident we’re going to win. We have the organizing game, and just like there was a huge appetite for a contract campaign around eradicating the rent burden for UAW members at UC Berkeley and getting our wages to match the cost of living, I think there’s a lot of appetite in the City of Berkeley for transformational progressive policies like this one.

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