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RENT STRIKE IN ACTION: Building a new tenant union in Chicago

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought on the most severe housing crisis in US history, renters across the country have started to take action to fight for themselves and their neighbors. New tenant unions have formed all over the country - and the hard work of building these unions from the ground up into fighting organizations is ongoing. In the historic circumstances we are in, we have no other choice but to organize!


Amanda, a renter in Chicago and founding member of BTO tenant union, talks about how renters started organizing under their landlord and how they are working to grow their union.



My partner and I moved into our new apartment in March of this year. Originally, it ticked all the boxes: in-unit laundry, central air, a deck. But shortly after moving, I received a note from our downstairs neighbor, Daniel. He had noticed a socialist flag I hung in my front window.


"Hey!" The note began. “I noticed your flag, I’m also a socialist. But in the couple years I've lived here I've been wanting to form a tenants union because our landlord really sucks. I've been too nervous to do it just myself but I'd love to try to unionize the building with y'all. Now is probably a better time than ever."


The note ended with his name and phone number.


I texted him that same day. Initially, we began our efforts with him distributing similar notes to everyone in our complex; the two other units in our building, and the remaining twelve units in the rest of the complex. We began with a WhatsApp group chat that garnered only a few tenants, and our first Zoom call that featured only myself, Daniel, and a fellow tenant a few buildings down. We knew that we had to keep building.


Thus began BTO, our tenants organization. Daniel is a graphic designer and I am a writer, so we worked together with fellow Rent Strike organizers to create material that we could drop off at the many buildings that our landlord owns in the northside of Chicago. Slowly we began to receive responses at our newly-created email, and built up a steady presence within our tenant Facebook group. These first tenants to connect with us took it upon themselves to continue spreading the message, so we either emailed them our various flyers to print, or sent them printed materials to deliver to other renters. This did help us gain a few more tenants, but we did not, and still have not, succeeded in getting a whole building to join us. However, we have tenants from over twenty buildings in the city, with over 50 total contacts.

Coronavirus in America has had far longer-lasting effects than anyone could have anticipated. While other countries like New Zealand are well into safely reopening, many American cities lie in a strange limbo. Chicago, still in stage four, threatens to veer back into stage three and leave many workers in the city unemployed once again. The COVID-19 positivity rate within the city currently stands at 5.1 percent.


The takeaway from this is key: Workers are damned if we go back to work, and damned if we do not. Why? Because as eviction moratoriums across the country expire, and as unemployment benefits dwindle, far too many renters will be losing their homes. Nearly 43% of Illinois renters will face eviction in the coming months, through zero fault of their own.


As evictions threaten to fall in the next few months, it was imperative that BTO determined next steps. We are still in the growing phase of our union. However, a recent tenants call on August 6th, consisting of about 8 tenants and 2 Rent Strike organizers, helped us decide where to go next.


We have elected to begin holding monthly Zoom calls, not only to keep tenants up to date with our efforts, but also continue building community in a more personal manner than via our Facebook group and weekly newsletters. Additionally, we have launched a new ‘area captain’ initiative, which will have interested tenants organizing consistent, biweekly tabling in their area, with BTO and various Rent Strike materials, and speaking with tenants about their needs and dilemmas during COVID-19. The goal will be encouraging these tenants to join our organization if they are tenants of our landlord, and encouraging them to join the Rent Strike 2020 Illinois Facebook group if they are not.


It is crucial that we test out these new efforts in order to bring new tenants in, because COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, nor is the impending economic depression. We have tenants in our organization who cannot pay their rent at all, and we have tenants working from home, able to pay their rent in full - and everyone in between. We have tenants who have moved out of this landlord’s buildings, but still work with us to bring more people into our organization because they believe in our efforts, and know that only a mass movement will get this greedy landlord to give in to our demands.


Despite making million-dollar purchases as recently as July and May of this year - during the pandemic and economic chaos that has ensued - our landlord has not given us relief. They did not give us relief when tenants tried to bargain individually. They did not give us relief when Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked them to be "compassionate." Tenants, banding together, must demand relief, and our numbers must be enough to show that they will pay a price if they do not.


Our Demands

  • Sliding scale rent payments! Many of our fellow tenants have had their hours slashed or lost their jobs entirely, yet our landlord still expects rent to be paid in full on the 1st, or through extended payment plans. We should all stand together to demand that tenants without jobs are only made to pay what they can afford.

  • Elimination of all backpay and late fees! For some, the pandemic’s effect began in late February. These tenants are dealing with thousands of dollars in backpay, and hundreds in late fees. This is unconscionable.

  • A commitment to reasonable accommodations! The FHA protects each of us from discrimination by our landlords if we become disabled while renting and if that disability renders our apartment uninhabitable to us. Our landlord must commit to accommodations in the case of catastrophic illness, including waiving the fee for breaking a lease.

  • Free laundry for the duration of this pandemic! Our landlord has updated many machines to be cash-free, but these updates have made laundry more expensive. In a time of worsening economic crisis, free laundry is literally the least they can do - not to mention it will help stem the spread of germs as tenants clean their clothes.

Rent Strike 2020 is working with renters and new tenant groups all over the US. We rely on grassroots donations to maintain basic infrastructure, such as our blog and email list, the tools that allow us to reach renters across the country, support their organizing, and share lessons of their struggles to inspire other renters to take up the fight. Pitch in $5, $10, or $15 to the campaign proud to be run by and for ordinary renters!





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