The following interview was conducted in June 2020 between a member of CounterPower, a Marxist Center affiliate, and an organizer with the Richmond Tenants Union (RTU). RTU is an affiliate of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN). Margaret is a member of the Richmond Tenants Union (RTU), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and Richmond Coalition for Peace, Justice, and Jobs (RCPJJ). Padráig is a member of the Richmond Tenants Union (RTU) and CounterPower.
Padráig: Could you tell a little about yourself and your connection to the Richmond Tenants Union (RTU)?
Margaret: I’m a freelancer currently living with my partner in a four-unit building in Richmond, Virginia. I got in touch with RTU at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, because I wanted to get to know my neighbors, I was feeling isolated and scared if something happened, and because I didn’t have anyone in my immediate area to rely on. The pandemic created a sense of urgency, so once I got to know my neighbors I started a group chat with them to start feeling things out.
Politically, I think landlords are terrible and will go the way of the dodo at some point. But I was hoping I could convince my fellow tenants that we could take collective action—like a rent strike—but I was also aware they didn’t know me, and I couldn’t put pressure on them to do that if they weren’t familiar with the struggle for housing justice and to build tenant power. So I reached out to them one-on-one outside at a safe distance, got their contact information, and started a group chat.
I’m a member of the Richmond branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which is how I found out about RTU. I started talking with RTU members about what actions I should take to get my neighbors on-board with forming a tenants’ council and taking action.
Padráig: How did you go about forming a tenants’ council?
Margaret: I caught-up with them outside one-by-one. I introduced myself and my partner. I’d say, “I know we don’t know each other, but things are getting real, and it’d be good to check in with one another in case there’s an emergency.” I didn’t bring up politics off the bat, because you gotta test the waters with people, and see where they stand. Not everyone necessarily makes the connection to see bosses and landlords as the oppressor. I was worried about my job, whether I could pay rent. I shared that insecurity with them, and that made my neighbors feel comfortable and willing to share their experiences with me about our landlord. Our landlord is a bad communicator, doesn’t take care of maintenance issues right away, and is generally not a fun person to know. This opened the door to discussing our collective rights and power as tenants, what actions we could take to defend ourselves, and what’s going down with the world economy. So much was changing so quickly, so we didn’t know how careful we needed to be with the money we were trying to save.
Padráig: Where did you learn how to organize with your fellow tenants?
Margaret: I learned a lot of organizing basics from the IWW Organizer Training 101, because it’s the same idea with tenant organizing. When you try to talk with your coworkers about forming a union in your workplace, you don’t usually lead with, “This boss sucks! We need to unionize and go on strike now!” You test the water, and find common ground with your fellow workers. You gotta learn about where they’re at. There’s a methodology to radicalizing people politically, but it takes time and it requires building strong relationships. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Those were great trainings, because they’re equally applicable to tenant organizing. The boss and the landlord are the problem, and it’s not your fault you can’t pay rent.
Padráig: After you reached out to your fellow tenants and started a group chat, what came next?
Margaret: We shared our anxieties, frustrations, and problems with our landlord. RTU hooked us up with information about our rights as tenants, what types of demands we could make to bargain collectively with our landlord, and what collective action we could take to achieve those demands.
There was a period when everyone in Richmond—and probably around the country—was talking about a rent strike. It’s a powerful action. But it’s not right or possible at all times. It’s like a general strike. Honestly, I don’t know what a general strike would look like today. We’re not at the point where we know how that would play out. I didn’t want to go into tenant organizing pushing hard for a rent strike, but first had to see how my fellow tenants felt about withholding rent to gain leverage with the landlord to obtain a reduced rent. If there were tenants in my building who could not pay anything, we could establish a mutual aid fund so the tenant council could support them in avoiding eviction. It was about testing things to see where my neighbors were at and building relationships before jumping into action.
Padráig: Once your tenant council was formed, what actions did you take?
Margaret: We met as a council, wrote up a demand letter over the course of a few days, signed it as a council, and sent it to our landlord via a protonmail account at the end of the month. We demanded from him outright for rent forgiveness for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only three units in my building wanted to do this with me, the fourth unit didn’t feel comfortable yet, but we kept them updated about what the council was doing. So three out of the four units in my building signed a letter demanding rent forgiveness for the remainder of the pandemic, and suggested the landlord go to the bank to demand mortgage forgiveness. Basically, we said: “These are our needs, and we’re standing together to win them.”
Padráig: What happened next?
Margaret: After the landlord received the letter, he immediately texted all of us angrily. He was saying we “weren’t allowed” to form a tenant council, and he threatened to turn the utilities off if we didn’t pay rent. We shot back and said, “Legally, you can’t shut the utilities off, and we have the right to form a tenant organization. However, would you be amenable to negotiating reduced rent in good faith?”
He then blocked our tenant council’s protonmail account, but agreed to reduce our rent. My rent went from $800 to $450 a month. It was the same for two other units. The fourth unit—which is a bigger apartment—got reduced to $500. However, we didn’t realize that at the time, because we were all sent separate rental agreements.
Padráig: What’s your landlord like?
Margaret: They’re a young landlord. [They] only [have] one property they rent out. They must be earlier in their landlording career. The landlord was pretty distracted with another project when all this was going down, and didn’t know how to deal with self-organized tenants. This landlord probably never gave us tenants a single thought, let alone thought about what legal rights and power we might have to push back.
Padráig: Could you tell me about the collective action your tenant council took?
Margaret: Building collective power and taking collective action is about recognizing what sort of situations you actually have leverage in, and building trust with the people you’re trying to organize with. If my neighbors didn’t trust me, they wouldn’t have felt safe making demands on our landlord. We were still scared of being evicted, despite the eviction moratorium in Richmond.
Padráig: What was the response of your landlord?
Margaret: They started by singling out my neighbor, assuming they were responsible for all the organizing. I just learned about this concept called “power mapping,” where you look at all the players in a situation, to see what power is behind the individual, what relationships different players have to each other, and then you decide where to apply pressure, and decide what strategies and tactics might work. If one of my fellow tenants had been close with our landlord or sympathetic to him, things probably would have turned out differently and power-mapping can help you visualize how to make those judgments.
After we won the rent reduction, we realized he didn’t do his due diligence because he gave the rent reduction to all units in the building, including the one unit that didn’t join our tenant council. But after that, this neighbor wanted to be in the know with what our tenant council was doing. This particular tenant signed the second letter we prepared to send to our landlord, for when we pay rent this month. Sometimes building trust is about waiting until certain people are ready to join, and making space for them to be afraid, to be nervous, and when you make wins, those people are gonna want to join your organization and fight with you.
Padráig: How’d it feel to win?
Margaret: It felt really good. What made it successful was we collectively withheld our rent until the landlord agreed to recognize our tenant council. He was scared and desperate. He gave in for fear of not getting that money coming in.
The best thing tenants can do with themselves when going up against the landlord is knowing as many of your neighbors as possible. If you don’t know everyone you work with, you gotta map your workplace. Same is true with your building: you gotta know what properties your landlord owns, and know the people who live there.
Tenancy in Virginia is opaque. Everything’s like a shell company in a shell company. They’ve done this intentionally to try to prevent the people from organizing. It’s like this for a reason, and it sucks. But on a microcosmic level, like in our building, you can see how tenants can organize to win under these circumstances.
Padráig: Why a tenants union? Why RTU?
Margaret: The first organization in Richmond I heard was coordinating housing justice work was RTU. The organizers I met from RTU were so willing to help and listen. They had tons of resources and connections throughout the city, and felt like a great group of people that wanna help tenants survive. Even if we took collective action and didn’t get the outcome we wanted, I felt like we’d have support from RTU. That’s really important for people who are new to organizing, who might not have a political analysis of things or they’re not familiar with left politics. They need to feel safe and secure, and they need to know that the union has their back if something goes wrong. RTU did that.
The way people are now living in this neoliberal bubble where your landlord might be shitty, but the system feels familiar. Stepping outside the system you might not feel safe. That’s scary. RTU made us feel safe. There were no conditions, no “you need to do it this way!” They were more like, “what do you need?,” “what resources can we provide?,” and “how can we support your organizing work to grow your collective power?”
Padráig: Any concluding thoughts?
Margaret: I feel equal parts hopeful and terrified all the time, and the only thing that gets me through it is that if shit really hits the fan, I know I got people in my corner to help me out. I’m a scared person, and I feel like the community of workers and tenants here in Richmond has a lot of power and potential to change people’s lives. RTU is a great example of that, because Virginia is such a terrible state for tenants. We have the second-highest eviction rate in the United States. The future can feel bleak, but it’s less bleak when I think about the work organizers are putting in here in Richmond to build people power.